The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah loved the western genre. He made lots of them, but maybe none of his memorable efforts embraced the possibilities of the genre and its themes as unabashedly as his most memorable one, The Wild Bunch. A quality many associate with the film is ‘violent.’ While that much is true, very much so in fact, The Wild Bunch has far, far more going for and it is the opinion of the author that the films many outstanding qualities lie in Peckinpah’s love for the genre, the popularity of which was dwindling by the late 1960s. There are plenty of elements that make the film stand apart from the traditional westerns despite that by the end it nonetheless felt as though it had adhered to many of its tropes.
The Wild Bunch follows the final exploits of a rugged, experienced band of outlaws who travel the plains and visit the many towns along the United States-Mexico border, oftentimes criss-crossing the border itself in order to accomplish jobs. Led by Pike (William Holden), Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) Lyle (Warren Oates), Tector (Ben Johnson), Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) are on the run from a group of mercenaries hired to track them down for arrest. Deke (Robert Ryan) leads the bounty hunters on the trail for Pike’s gang, which is quite ironic given how the two used to be close partners until Deke was caught and landed some time in jail. Law officials have given him 30 days to track down his former friend, otherwise more time in the slammer awaits him. All the while fleeing Deke, Pike and his men’s lasted contract job has them steal a garrison of heavy weaponry for a Mexican general, Mapache (Emilio Fernández) who desires to crush a rebellion.
Before discussing the issue of the film’s violence, it seems important to tackle what else the movie does very well. For starters, it has often been written as well as said that the film is very much a different type of western. It is likely that my initial reaction to the film stems from my watching many recent westerns, which themselves made deliberate attempts to go against the grain, but The Wild Bunch felt like a great western. Camaraderie, loyalty towards one’s partners and friends, horse riding, train robberies, etc. Much of what I expect from a western film came to pass in the movie. There have been so many westerns, both recent and from previous decades, that either leaned more on the side of tradition or intentionally thought ‘outside the box’ that the very definition of what constitutes a ‘western’ has been significantly stretched. In 1969 The Wild Bunch might have been seen as an anti-western, but I have seen so many anti-westerns and westerns that they all fall into the same overarching category to me. Because the film’s story puts a lot of emphasis on loyalty to one’s allies and showcases some great old time camaraderie between the protagonists, in addition to some very traditional set pieces, Peckinpah’s film, while indeed unique in some respects, still fits the mould nicely. Even the notion of a story which follows bandits and bounty hunters did not across as especially different. Leone pretty did the same thing earlier that decade.
That being said, much praise should be heaped onto the movie for how well it handles said elements. The cast is oodles of fun be around. William Holden and Ernest Borgnine serve very well as the two pseudo leaders of the group. Holden’s Pike boasts a lot of experience, but still has a lot of terrific energy about him despite his age. With age comes experience after all. He might not be the most typical leader (he is a crook after all), but he demonstrates qualities found in the most honest and good natured of men. Following this man throughout the tale is rather fascinating, in that his lifestyle has him continuously break the law and behave like a villain much of the time, and yet he makes himself follow some sort of code which binds him to his allies. This degree of complexity makes him all the more compelling, and Holden exudes these opposing qualities very well. The frequently stops to have character-centric moments, almost all of which are well worth the viewer’s time. It is interesting to see these men interact amongst each other due to their nature. After all, they have gotten as far as they are by circumventing the law, oftentimes in violent, repulsive ways (one need only watch the film’s opening scene for a glaring example), and it has hardened them. Despite it all, they can share laughs just as old friends do, which makes for some great moments. Their nemesis is terrifically played by Robert Ryan, whom we saw twice recently in the Forgotten Noire marathon (On Dangerous Ground and The Racket). Ryan is so good at playing angry, which probably explains why he was asked to do so frequently. His character, Deke, is bold and insolent towards his posse, who let him down on almost every occasion. Just having the intimidating Ryan is good enough, but one cannot help but feel a few opportunities were missed. The fact remains that Ryan does not get too much screen time. In fact, he feels much more like a supporting player than a leading man, which means the film essentially ignores whatever dilemma he might be fighting within himself regarding the fact that he is tracking down an old ally. Then again, with such a large, iconic cast, somebody big was bound to receive the proverbial shaft.
The version I watched for the purpose of the marathon is the original director’s cut, which runs 145 minutes. This plethora of minutes allows Peckinpah to not only let his characters breath, but also the world they inhabit. On a few occasions the movie ceases to develop its plot and simply invites the audience to savour the sights and sounds of southern Texas and northern Mexican towns. Pike and the boys rest in a tightly knit Mexican community where they have some allies. The people are engaging in a celebration of sorts, with lovely music playing, dancing and plenty of food and alcohol. Although some dialogue hints at what awaits our protagonists, the sequence feels like some much deserved downtime after the frenetic opening minutes. Later, just before Pike and the others encounter General Mapache, the film allows the viewer to take in yet another fiesta, this one hosted by the Mexican army, the enemy of the community we rested with earlier. These moments, in addition to the banter and character relations developed as the story evolves, really added a sense of scope to the picture. The Wild Bunch does not merely accomplish storytelling, but equally world building, which itself includes setting, lifestyles and character.
Last but not least, is the matter of the action and violence. Interestingly enough, action sequences are not abundant in The Wild Bunch. This harkens back to what was discussed earlier, that is, the film’s desire to explore the characters and their world. Despite their careful tactics, Pike’s gang cannot hide from their pursuers or new found enemies forever. A few sporadic outbursts of action occur during the meaty section of the story, yet the two most jaw dropping and unabashedly violent sequences are the ones that open and close the picture. The initial scene has Pike’s gang rob a bank, with Deke’s bounty hunter team positioned on a roof top across the street. As a protest begins its march through the street separating the opposing forces, the thieves try to make their escape, using the march as cover. What transpires is an unforgiving bloodbath, with bounty hunters, thieves, innocent men and women all tasting led. The brutality of the deaths is stunning despite the film’s age. The shock value and effectiveness of the action is brought to greater heights by the now famous editing technique. As multiple people fall to their deaths, be it off their horse, off a room, or just crashing onto the dusty street, the picture will intercut between two or three people falling simultaneously with the roar of gunfire filling the soundtrack. It is rather powerful stuff, putting on displaying the full intensity of the violence that unfolds. By the end of the opening sequence, this reviewer was out of breath. Well, lo and behold, the climax is basically the same thing multiplied by ten. On a humanistic level, what transpires is absolutely senseless, ridiculous its is disregard for the people being gunned down. But these were no ordinary men and they certainly lived no ordinary lives. When the going got tough and one’s friends were in trouble, well, you placed that Gatling gun on its stand and you told the enemy just how you felt.
Sam Peckinpah constructs an entertaining, memorable at times shocking film. It was arguably one of the best movies I had the privilege of seeing if only for the craft and care that went into developing the universe in which the story unfolds. If were not for the lack of screen time awarded to Robert Ryan, I would like this film even more. Nonetheless, it serves as an excellent start to the marathon.
Now find out if Bill withstood the Gatling gun barrage at his Movie Emporium.
Now find out if Bill withstood the Gatling gun barrage at his Movie Emporium.