ust watched The Wild Bunch at the insistence of my friend Greg. Great flick, and the more I thought about it today, the more I liked it.
So why am I talking about movies in a writing blog? Well, for story, in this case. The story has a number of interesting points, one of which I’m very interested by.
So, this band of aging outlaws in a changing early twentieth-century West are trying to pull off a last heist, something to set them up for life. They end up stealing rifles from a US Government shipment, getting clean away with sixteen crates of them, promised to a around-the-clock drunken-partyboy Mexican General, who does nothing but lose against Poncho Villa. However, at the insistence of Angel, a gangmember and Mexican revolutionary hothead, they agree to short the general one crate, sending it to the deserving villagers instead.
See, Angel already has a history with the general, having literally shot his cheating bitch lover right off the General’s lap (a neat trick, as he had his other hand in the dinner roll basket at the time). So there was that misunderstanding.
The gang decides on the wise choice of getting paid in installments, a crate or two for a bag of gold. The final trade involves Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) and Angel. Why Angel is along for this, I’ve no idea – didn’t they think someone in the entire Mexican army could count past ten? So the trade is done and Dutch and Angel are turning to go and that’s when the General pulls the “Oh no, not him. The man is a thief” bit.
And this is where we see real storytelling. In the juvenile fiction of today (must everything be filmed and written for teens?), a “hero” would never allow that to happen. Dutch should fake, or threatened, or show a vestful of dynamite, anything – but he wouldn’t leave a man behind. That’s the trope we know and expect.
But what can Dutch do? He’s deep in the nest of the hardcase Mexican Federales, every one of them grinning evilly beneath their drooping mustachios. They even had a machine gun standing at the ready. He’s right on the edge of death. And, hey, Angel had the bright idea of diverting a crate. Dutch can only shrug, his face a mixture of emotion, and turn and ride off, outplayed by the heavy hand of the Mexicans.
And that’s realism. No bold statements. No daring plans. He does what anyone would do – turns and walks out, his back stiff, thankful that he won’t be sharing Angel’s fate. It’s a truthful human response, not the action hero response. So keep this in mind when you write. Unless you are scripting a comic book, be honest with your characters. Not many people will toss their life away on principle. Your characters shouldn’t either.
It’s the real way of the West.