The Wild Bunch (1969)
“Nine men who came too late and stayed too long…”
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
Synopsis: An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the “traditional” American West is disappearing around them.
It’s a credit to Sam Peckinpah’s iconic Western The Wild Bunch that it still looks so fresh today. The editing — lightning fast during the explosive shootouts, and common-place today — was more than a decade ahead of its time, the scale of bloody violence controversial. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that The Wild Bunch effectively re-invented the Western, transplanting it from a fictional, highly romanticised myth into a largely bleak and uncompromising study of the American psyche. Ironically, it also marked the beginning of the end for the genre, into which filmmakers rarely venture today: the new intensity and realism meant that there was no way it would survive the passing of the 1970s and the commercially inspired softening of Hollywood’s output.
The film takes place in the second decade of the twentieth century, although the era only gradually becomes apparent. It opens with Pike Bishop (William Holden — The Revengers, Damien: Omen II) and his gang riding into the town of San Rafael to hold up the bank. On their way, they pass a group of children torturing a scorpion they have imprisoned atop a nest of red ants, a heavily symbolic image which encapsulates the movie’s theme. This young generation spells the end of the Old West and a way of life Bishop and his men have taken for granted. The scorpion is a dangerous creature, but it’s overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the ants, an insect which belongs to a well-ordered society which tolerates no subversion. Waiting for the gang is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of the gang who has been promised a permanent release from prison if he brings in his former cohorts, dead or alive. The ensuing gun battle is a bloodbath which sees more innocent townspeople than bandits mown down, but only Bishop and five of his men get away.
While Thornton is given 30 days to track down the gang or face a return to prison, Bishop negotiates a deal with Mapache (Emilio Fernandez — Flying Down to Rio), a Mexican General under which, in return for hijacking a rail shipment of government arms, the gang will receive $10,000, a sum which Bishop and his friend, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine — The Bounty Hunter, The Revengers) hope will enable them to retire from their lives of crime. However, Mapache is a drunken whoremongerer whose word is less than reliable…
The Wild Bunch begins and ends with violent, pulsating set pieces in which Lucien Ballard’s unflinching camera relishes the opportunity to show each bullet penetrating a body in balletic slow motion. Between these two visceral episodes Peckinpah fills the screen with an elegiac imagery that lends the film a melancholic tone and a keen sense of the passing of an era. Each scene — with the exception of some clunky flashbacks which were deleted from the original release — is a carefully staged and measured contribution to the movie’s theme, with not one superfluous or wasted moment. The Wild Bunch’s lengthy running time — 145 minutes — flies by, and it’s impossible to over-estimate the importance and influence of Peckinpah’s classic.
(Reviewed 15th June 2014)