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The Wild Bunch

#585 - The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, 1969

After their attempt to pull one last heist goes horribly wrong, a gang of aging outlaws offer their services to a Mexican general looking to consolidate his power.

With this latest viewing being the back half of a double bill with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is easy to pick apart how many similarities The Wild Bunch shares with that particular film beyond simply being a revisionist Western from 1969, if only to point out how much they compliment and contrast against one another. Both films centre around outlaw gangs who are targeted by squads of mercenaries working on behalf of railroad tycoons; consequently, both gangs abandon the United States and attempt to forge new lives for themselves in foreign countries by plying their criminal trades. While Butch... had a romantic streak that made any deconstruction fundamentally lightweight, Bunch throws any such sentiment to the wind and then shoots it for good measure. It is a decidedly unsentimental Western, with the only concession to any sort of positivity being towards codes of honour and loyalty, and even then the film goes out of its way time and time again to expose the folly in these particular themes. The "bunch" of the title are a motley collection of outlaws that are mostly past their prime and looking to pull one last job, which unfortunately for them takes place at the very beginning of the film. When that goes sour thanks to the whole thing being a set-up by the aforementioned railroad hit squad, they head into Mexico to regroup and circumstances lead to them working for a corrupt Mexican general. While most of the group are more or less fine with supporting his despotic regime for the sake of some cash, the sole Mexican member of their ranks naturally takes issue and intends to fight back...

The Wild Bunch wouldn't be what it is without a strong ensemble around which to build, and it most definitely gets that. William Holden is perfect as Pike Bishop, the grouchy yet affable ringleader who can convey a wide range of emotions, especially as he gets to dwelling on the more miserable aspects of his incredibly troubled past. Ernest Borgnine plays Dutch Engstrom, Pike's fiercely loyal partner-in-crime who gets some impressive chemistry with Holden. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson make for a good double-act as the slightly younger yet incredibly immature Gorch brothers, while Jaime Sánchez gets a surprisingly solid character as Angel, the "kid" of the group who arguably undergoes the most difficult character journey in the film (especially since his conflicting loyalties drive much of the plot). Edmond O'Brien rounds out the numbers as oldest member Freddy Sykes, with his performance reminding one of every "old prospector" stereotype yet he manages to make it work. Of special note is Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, a former associate of Pike's who has been forced to head up the squad tasked with tracking down and killing the Bunch or else be made to go back to prison. While he's essentially the same as Pike, his squad is completely different as they are a group of vile scavengers kept together less by mutual camararderie than by the promise of their being killed if they bail on the mission. That's without mentioning Emilio Fernández as the appropriately loathsome General Mapache, playing the villainous role with toothy grins galore.

In addition to having a strong enough cast of characters to build the movie around, The Wild Bunch does well at creating enough of a movie for them to build around. The dialogue is frequently blunt and harsh in ways that lack the obvious lyricism and wit of William Goldman but still make up for it in being memorably to-the-point. Even so, there's still enough complexity to things that needs to be inferred, especially in how the film treats its incredibly skewed sense of morality. The Bunch are the type of protagonists that only seem heroic by default due to how horrible everyone else is (with the possible exception of Deke); Angel is the closest the film gets to having a wholly sympathetic character due to his wishing to save the people of his village from Mapache but that doesn't stop him from doing something like murdering the woman he loves because she's gone over to Mapache (though exactly how willingly she made that choice is up to interpretation, and the incident is framed as a crime of passion on Angel's part - yeah, you're not exactly going to get a kind treatment of female characters in this film). Given the age of many characters, there's an obvious "death of the West" theme running through the whole thing as the older characters basically have to admit that there isn't really a place for outlaws like them anymore (which is driven home by the presence of various technological advances such as automobiles and machine-guns). The Bunch may be capable crooks when it comes down to it, but many of the quieter non-action scenes establish just how worn-out and done a lot of them actually are. As a result, their motivations for selling out to a despotic general and his German supporters are much more complex that mere greed; though they ostensibly work towards not having to work again, it's pretty obvious that work is all they know. This feeds into the group's sense of loyalty to one another, which is paradoxically vital yet self-destructive as they stick by one another even when it's impractical and dangerous (especially when it comes to Angel, who is a major spanner in the works).

Of course, what really makes The Wild Bunch and its grim deconstruction really work is the gritty, explosive violence that is wrought throughout the film. Being shot in this film makes a bloody spurt and leaves a ragged wound, and it happens a lot. It is a nasty business as the guilty and innocent alike are subjected to excessive brutality. That doesn't mean that the film is a thoroughly dour affair full of suffering and misery; its tragedy is supplanted by a number of stylishly depicted action sequences that involve the Bunch fighting it out with their adversaries. Peckinpah does use a number of techniques to amplify the violence, but only when it is deliberately trying to evoke tension and excitement during one of the film's many shoot-outs. The cinematography is crisp, the editing is tight without being disorienting, slow-motion is applied effectively, and the scenes are generally free of music (though the music is appropriately sinister; one piece even sounds like a deliberate subversion of the triumphant theme music from The Magnificent Seven). The opening heist sequence sets quite the standard for what's to come, while the train heist is a masterful sequence in suspense and the finale has quite rightly become the stuff of legend. I recognise that The Wild Bunch has its problems, but it certainly doesn't lack for substance. It is anchored by excellent actors bringing serious depth to extremely flawed characters and is still buoyed by the action sequences being some of the most well-executed ones in the entire genre. It's not exactly as accessible as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it doesn't need to be.