← Back to Reviews

The Wild Bunch

Next up, I'll go with the film that gave me my internet nom de plume...

The Wild Bunch
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay by Walon Green & Peckinpah
Story by Walon Green & Roy Sickner
Score by Jerry Fielding
Cinematography by Lucien Ballard
CAST: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan,
Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Edmond O'Brien, Jaime
Sánchez, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins,
Emilio Fernández, Alfonso Arau, and Dub Taylor
1969, approximately 145 minutes

So much blood. So much shooting. So much death.

That is the reputation of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. It was much of its initial reaction in 1969, and it's a reputation that endures, even today. Peckinpah's name itself conjures up slow-motion ballets of squibs and gunfire. And there is no denying that is a major part of The Wild Bunch's legacy. But if the movie were just five or six reels of pulpy cinematic violence it would be a footnote and nothing more. In an age where most cable series have two times as much profanity and much more graphic violence in any single episode than The Wild Bunch does in its full running time, Peckinpah's screen violence may lose much of its potency, out of the context of its day.

Why The Wild Bunch is immortal to me is not because of the celebrated/condemned violence, but due to its poetic odes to friendship, honor, and the futility of outrunning progress, all wrapped in an adventure story about laughing outlaws, daring robberies, and messy gunfights that helps to shatter many of the genre myths and attitudes that had been established in previous decades of film and television Westerns. And, yes, it surely is bloody, too.

1913, a dusty Texas town near the Mexican border. A handful of uniformed U.S. Cavalry men ride in on horseback and enter the post office and railroad office. But they are not there to protect anything. As they draw their weapons and subdue the customers and staff, their leader, Pike Bishop (William Holden), barks out a simple, "If they move, kill 'em!" These disguised outlaws are looking to make off with a haul of silver coins, hopefully a big enough payoff to be their last score. They're getting old and tired, and the new century is about to change the world to one full of automobiles and airplanes and there will be no need for rough bandits anymore. But their heist is no secret, and a band of mercenaries lay in wait for them outside. What follows is a bloody shoot out, indiscriminately taking out more townspeople than it does the would-be robbers or the bounty hunters hired by the rail road to stop them.

In addition to Pike, the surviving outlaws who escape the town are Ernest Borgnine's (Marty, From Here To Eternity) Dutch, Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show) and Warren Oates' (Stripes, In the Heat of the Night) Gorch brothers, Edmond O'Brien's (D.O.A., White Heat) Sykes, and Jaime Sánchez (The Pawnbroker) as Angel. They escape with their lives, but not the silver: they shot their way out of town for a bunch of metal washers. The men pursuing them are led by Robert Ryan's (The Set-Up, Crossfire) Deke Thorton, a former riding partner-in-crime who went to prison and is now working, reluctantly, for the railroad. He wishes he could be on the other side with them, but he has made a deal, and being an honorable old sumbitch, he aims to keep it. Even though the two-bit mercenaries he has riding with him, including T.C. (L.Q. Jones) and Coffer (Strother Martin), are a mangy gang of scumbags who wouldn't know honor if it took a dump on them, and even though he's riding against his friends, especially Pike.

Pike and the bunch cross into Mexico and hide out at Angel's small hometown, which they find being run by a dishonorable General Mapache (Emilio Fernández). After Angel insults the General, Pike tries to keep peace by hiring them all out to rob a train full of guns for the unscrupulous General. They know it is a deal with the Devil, but are massively outgunned and see no other way out. Plus, the General has promised them a decent amount of gold for their trouble, and they still need that score they didn't get.

What follows are tests of loyalty and some spectacular action, including a train robbery and the blowing of a bridge, all leading up to one last outrageous act of defiance that is not desperate, rather simply the right damn thing to do.

Unlike the classic Western archetypes, there are no clear "good guys" and "bad guys". Even our anti-heroes, though we root for them and they are played by familiar actors, are murderous thieves. They have a greater sense of honor than the scum around them, perhaps, but are certainly not simple white knights. They did not shoot only when shot at, they have little regard for anybody who gets in the way of their goals, and not only are they in this for the money, but they actually ENJOY robbing and living outside of the law and civilization. John Wayne was reported to have said that The Wild Bunch "destroyed the myth of the Old West". As the Vietnam War raged in Southeast Asia, Peckinpah thought some demythologizing was long overdue. Plus, so much of the popular Western, especially as it dominated the airwaves of the 1950s and '60s, was formulaic and decidedly unrealistic. With the '60s works of Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad & the Ugly, Once Upon A Time in the West) coupled with Peckinpah's, they turned most of those conventions on their heads...and then shot them in the face.

The Wild Bunch, in all of its revisionist, gory glory, is one of the towering achievements of the Western genre, and with its themes, performances and artistry, including Lucien Ballard's elegant cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's perfect score, it transcends the genre and is a great film, period.