Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

The Wild Bunch is an established classic of the Western genre, directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1969. The central theme of this film, aging men trying to exist in and ultimately escape the changing “modern” world reminded me of No Country for Old Men, with a generation of Vietnam veterans endowed with natural affinities to violence that proves alien to older generations. Instead, The Wild Bunch is set in 1913 and focuses on an aging outlaw gang finding trouble on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Hunted by a posse of bounty hunters, the group find themselves in Mexico, but find themselves at the mercy of a ruthless warlord. Peckinpah, no stranger to causing controversy with his films (Straw Dogs), doesn't hold back here either. 

In Texas, 1913, Pike Bishop (William Holden), the leader of a gang of aging outlaws, is hoping to retire after one final score – the robbery of a railway office containing a cache of silver. Disguised as U.S Army soldiers, they enter the peaceful town uptight with unease. Working as a metaphor for what is to come, they pass a group of children who watch sadistically as a swarm of fire ants kill a hapless scorpion. As the heist is transpiring, one of Bishop’s men notices a number of guns visible on the rooftop of an adjacent building, and draws his gun. Soon enough, the gang is ambushed by Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), and a posse of nitwit bounty hunters hired by the railroad. Thornton has been released from Yuma prison to help track down his former comrades in return for a full pardon.

A bloody, and extremely intense shootout ensues, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. At the same time a religious procession is making its way through the town, and as the citizens were not warned about the potential strike, many are killed in the crossfire. While the concluding battle is even more horrific, a lot of the events here border on being in bad taste. There is incessant blood flow; civilians have holes blown through them and horses are killed. One of Bishop’s team even threatens to rape one of the office staff. It’s horrifying, but undeniably exciting, and a feat of action cinema.

Pike rides off with Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the only survivors. They discover that the loot turns out to be a decoy, containing metal washers and having rendezvoused with an elderly gang member, Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), they head for Mexico. They make contact with Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a rouge bandito warlord, in Agua Verde, a den of debauchery and corruption, where they indulge themselves with a bath and some women. 

When Angel spots one of his former lovers working for the maniac, he shoots her dead, with Bishop settling the unrest by agreeing to complete a job for Mapache – the theft of a weapons shipment from a U.S Army train. The aim is for Mapache to resupply his troops, while Mohr (Fernando Wagner), his German military advisor, wants a sample of America’s armament. Deke’s posse, still in pursuit, encounters Bishop’s men during the robbery but they arrive too late to the final showdown - an insanely violent suicide standoff between the four remaining gunslingers and the heavily armed Mexican rebels.

The Wild Bunch is significant for multi-angle and rapid-fire editing. On several occasions the faces of each of the characters are meshed together in a series of quick cuts, and often, separate deaths are captured in synch through the editing. The film is also notable for utilizing slow motion images. There are countless times when men are shot from horseback, or are thrown off a rock from a great height, and captured in the act of falling (and frequently through glass) in slow-motion. One particularly outstanding sequence is the destruction of a bridge, which sends the mounted horsemen trapped on the bridge plummeting into the water. The slow motion is an extraordinary and revolutionary achievement, but I thought it was largely unnecessary and used a little indulgently. Some of the editing was so sporadic and quick that I felt the impact was lost, while there are several instances of poor continuity.

While I enjoyed this film overall – the Western genre is one that I am embarrassingly behind on – I did find it too long, and threw in a lot more characters than was necessary. I also have to admit, that I’m not really a fan of Sam Peckinpah’s style – the aggressive zooms into the faces of the characters, the unsubtle commentary about violence, depicted, at times, in a compulsive and mindless way. 

Children seem to be of principal interest to him. In addition to the opening scene with the scorpion, there are two sequences later in the film, which are sickening. When Angel is being dragged around by an automobile by the Mexican rebels, children run along behind and laugh, while Bishop is actually shot down by a child at the conclusion, who takes over the control of the machine gun. In a world where the aged and weary can’t keep up with modernization and advanced armament; the introductions of the automobile and the unveiling of the machine-gun, the youth seem immune to violence and are willing participants. That final sequence is so intense, and the death count so extreme, it is preposterous. But as a revolutionary cinematic achievement, one can’t deny its influence, and lasting impact.

The performances are strong. William Holden was the human centre of this film. Old, jaded but still ruthless and instinctually violent. He shows moments of compassion (handing over a gold coin to a prostitute to care for her baby), is always looking out for his men and despite plagued by memories from the past (a couple of awkwardly out-of-place flashbacks explaining what transpired between Bishop and Thornton) he is always thinking of his future. Ernest Borgnine, whose cackling laugh is unmistakable, was serviceable, as were the rest of the gang, but Robert Ryan, as the jaded gunslinger with a moral crisis, was the standout for me. It wasn’t hard to find something to be repulsed by in these characters, but he was admirable. While I respect the achievement here, I'm not sold on the renegade Peckinpah yet, and I have now seen his most famous work. While parts of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs floored me, I can't help but feel repulsed by some of his objectives. As a result, I doubt I'll revisit this too soon.


  1. For me, this film is among one of the key "fuck you" films ever made. It's a film that is unashamed in its take on violence. It's still my favorite Sam Peckinpah film for its style and the story of old men trying to find some usefulness in a different world. I love the humor of it and the cast. The climatic battle scene is my favorite where the moment you see William Holden taking that pistol and shooting someone. It was the definition of him saying "fuck you!". They don't make 'em like they used to.

  2. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

    Do you understand who Peckinpah is as a person, though?

    There's just cause to everything he does. I need to get you my bible of directors book - everything you want to know about some of these guys.

  3. @ Steven - I see what you mean, and there was plenty I enjoyed. I did like it more than Straw Dogs. The final sequence is insane. These tired and bitter old men continue to stand up for their own and take it to the better-armed Mexicans.

    @ Sam - I don't know anything about the guy, but I'm sure there is a reason for how he makes his films. No doubt it is culturally significant and there are plenty of "I can't believe what I'm seeing" moments, but it's not amongst my all-time favourite westerns.

  4. Ah, I'm glad you said that. I thought I was alone in thinking that, although good, The Wild Bunch wasn't anywhere near to being one of the top Westerns.

  5. Yeah, there was something off about it. The bunch get caught up in a firefight that kills civilians and then discover that their loot was a decoy, meaning the deaths were 'meaningless'...then they laugh and joke, and go screw women. I found the slow-mo and some of the editing off-putting, and those flashbacks were awful - seemed like a different film.

    As I said, I was repulsed by some of the violence, which I thought was in bad taste - and it was way too long. I still respect the film for being an unashamed feat of violent filmmaking, but I didn't think it was GREAT.