IMDB #184 The Wild Bunch

It's been a long time since we've done a Western, hasn't it? Today we finally graduate from John Ford's more traditional The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and slightly subversive The Searchers to the revisionist, wandering, lyrical, and all-around bloodbath The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah's 1969 squib-packet opus.

The Key Players:

While Peckinpah's legacy as a blood and bullets pioneer is justly deserved, he rose to fame making more conventional tv westerns, and his most successful film was the straightforward Steve McQueen thriller The Getaway. But it's the gritty violence of The Wild Bunch the controversial misogynism of Straw Dogs, and the macabre black comedy of Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia that live on.

William Holden is starting to become a pretty familiar face around here. He and Ernest Borgnine (an Oscar winner for Marty) lead a large ensemble that includes Robert Ryan (The Dirty Dozen) and Edmond O'Brien (The Barefoot Contessa).

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The Story:

The Wild Bunch was at one point rushed to beat Butch Cassidy into production because of certain superficial similarities in plot. And while they do both loosely follow outlaws to a grisly finish in Mexico, Peckinpah's influence assured that the two stories couldn't be more different.

This story opens with a quiet town in the WWI-era remnants of the wild west, where the banks need to hire inept posses of gunhands for protection and the children amuse themselves by feeding scorpions to ants.

Pike (Holden) and his gang of outlaws (Borgnine's his number two, Dutch) are disguised as soldiers and hit up a railroad office for a huge silver payload. A former associate of Holden's turned straight named Thorton (Ryan) knows about the raid, however, and sets up a rooftop ambush.

This leads to a very lengthy, bloody shootout, wherein several outlaws, viglantes, and innocent townspeople are shot to death. Ultimately five members of the gang survive: Pike, Dutch, the brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch, and Angel (the lone Mexican member). They rendevous with Sykes (O'Brien), Pike's old mentor of sorts, only to discover that they stole several bags of common washers, not silver. A set up!

The railroad empresarios, who employ Thorton under threat of jail, give him a thirty day ultimatum to bring Pike in, and so the chase through Mexico is on.

What follows are many long, slow scenes taking in the Mexican sites, enjoying Mexican brothels, and planning the gang's next move. Eventually they make a deal with a ruthless general named Mapache to steal arms from a US Army train for him (after a slight hiccup in which Angel shoots the general's mistress, a former girlfriend of his).

They successfully rob the train (and send Thorton and his inept posse down the river via booby-trap in the process), but Angel is captured by Mapache after stealing some of the guns to help his opressed village fight the general's corrupt local influence.

Will the gang come to his rescue, or look out for themselves? I bet you can guess.

The Artistry:

There are plenty of things to enjoy in The Wild Bunch, but man it was loooong. It sort of makes The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford seem like a nikelodeon short by comparison.

After the opening thrill of the railroad station heist, and it is thrilling in its chaotic violence, I was amazed how bogged down the film got in specific moments in Mexico- there's a scene following the outlaws out of town on horseback that must take five minutes alone, just for the townsfolk to wave goodbye.

Maybe it wouldn't be as jarring after the innovative, influential action sequence, though. Peckinpah's rapid editing, occasional slow-motion for emphasis, and fondness for blood-filled squib packets are all things that revolutionized action films- following the briefer taste of what audiences were willing to sit through in 67's Bonnie and Clyde, of course. Both films are often mentioned as a dual turning point in the overall screen violence pervasiveness many percieve in cinema as a whole.

Anyway, the performances are all fine, if a bit lost in the ensemble nature of The Wild Bunch and the wandering focus. Holden has some awkwardly introduced flashbacks that attempt to lend depth to his past with Ryan, and the woman he onced loved. But neither angle really comes up again, and the simmering resentment between the gang and Mapache is the only very comelling character drama.

The Wild Bunch's other major influence is its revisionist, realist take on the wild west, with the influence specifically on the "wild." Being a thug and a robber back then didn't mean you were some sort of dust-strewn Robin Hood, and no one in The Wild Bunch acts noble whatsoever- they frequent prostitutes and show no remorse about killing. Sure they have moments, but only that: Angel wants to help his village, but he'll gun down his old flame in a rage. Holden seems to live by a code of some kind, but it's a code that includes using bystanders as human shields during a shootout.

Hell, before the march for a the big final showdown, two of the gang remind us of their natures by stiffing a prositute by ten pesos (she said "doce," not "dos").


After Mapache has some fun dragging Angel around tied to the back of a car, the gang slow-marches over to his courtyard and asks for their friend back. He says sure, and promptly cuts Angel's throat. Enraged, Holden draws down, and the next ten minutes are likely the bloodiest in Western movie history- Mapache and all his highest generals get it, along with several dozen of the Mexican Army in tow (there's an automatic machine-gun thing involved). Of course, the four remaining outlaws (Thorton's gang wounded Sykes, the old man, some time before, so he was left behind) get theirs too, but not before taking out many times their number.

Later, Thorton looks on at his rival's corpse somewhat bittersweetly, and declines to go with the posse as they start to haul them back to the railroad for the bounty. Of course, Sykes and a new gang of local "puro Indio" indigenous take them out, and Thorton joins them to make the most of his remaining time in the dissappearing West.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Points for ground-breaking, but maybe slighly lower. There's a specific vision to it, sure, but that's no reason it couldn't have been more linear, less indulgent, and maybe forty minutes shorter.

The Legacy:

The Wild Bunch was nominated for two Oscars, Screenplay and Score, but lost both to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's also in the NFR, and ranked as the sixth best Western of all time by the AFI.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Opening shootout! Count the bullets at home!

Leftover Thoughts:

-There's a lot of characters laughing hysterically for long periods of time in The Wild Bunch, which also seemed off-tone to me. Nothing they're laughing about is all that funny, even in context.

-Sometimes I wish I could grow a mustache. Sigh...

Coming Up...

183. The Killing

182. Judgment at Nuremberg

181. The Incredibles

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