Wild Bunch, The (1969)
Release Date: June 18th, 1969 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Peckinpah Actors: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins
he Wild Bunch” starts with children throwing a couple of scorpions into an anthill – cruel symbolism of the futile struggle of warriors refusing to give in, despite being outnumbered and in the face of insurmountable odds, merciless conditions, and no hope of retribution or rescue. The gang of kids eventually sets fire to the lot of creatures. This inhumanity – a complementary perspective from imitative youths – is coupled with a band of hardened, weathered soldiers that stroll into a south Texas town in 1913, symbolically stopping to escort an elderly woman across the dusty street. It’s a stark contrast, considering they proceed to march into a bank, throw the teller to the floor, take hostages, draw their weapons, and steal bags of silver coins.
The bandits are the Pike Bishop Gang, and they’ve walked into a trap. The ensuing massacre is captained by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a man released from prison and now on the side of the law, forced to track down the notorious thieves in exchange for his freedom. He was also once a member of Pike’s outlaws. A strong irony exists, considering Deke’s own men are hired mercenaries, bounty hunters, and predominantly dirty cutthroats provided by Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker), a corrupt lawman paying his way for justice and unafraid to use an unsuspecting town as a location for an ambush. And sure enough, the inept band of gunslingers slaughters innocent townsfolk in their panicky attempt to bring down Pike (William Holden) and his crew. Later, when Deke is given a squadron of American soldiers as aid, they’re shown to be mere teenagers and are even more incompetent than his hired posse (the two most significant party members are character actors Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones).
When the majority of criminals escape to a nearby desert residence, they discover that the loot they’ve lifted is nothing more than metal washers. Pike must then contend with bouts of painful memories, the infirmities of age, and constant thoughts of mutiny from his cohorts – save for Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), a diehard loyal and the only man desperately grasping onto the notion that he’s decent. While Deke gives chase, the gang plans a heist of a garrison payroll, but is permanently sidetracked by a raided village where the crooked General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) abuses the people and steals their resources. A German commander in league with Mapache recruits Pike and his men to help steal guns from American soldiers. The gang is in it for promised money, except Angel (Jaime Sanchez), who only wants a case of guns for his village to fight back against the general’s tyranny. When Angel is caught, the “wild bunch” must decide whether or not to leave their man behind in the clutches of the ruthless despot.
There are no heroes and no clear-cut good guys. Everyone is clouded with dark auras of revenge, greed, paranoia, and murder. Allegiances are bought and sold on a whim, or pressured through torture. Failing loyalty is a major theme, along with aging men unable to adapt to changing times, plaguing Pike in his choices. His many betrayals (shown in flashback) and his outdated code of honor insist he make a move against the reasoning of self preservation, leading to the starkly powerful conclusion – a bloody assault of colossal, unforgettable proportions with, quite possibly, the greatest amount of dispensed ammunition in movie history.
The editing of every action sequence is technically and aesthetically superb, with skilled stuntmen dramatically falling from buildings or crashing through glass windows, intercut with concurrent shootings, scattering citizens, and frenzied fleers. Quick zooms narrow in on mouths uttering verbal threats, multiple angles detail all the bloodshed, and speedy close-ups reveal angst-ridden, sweaty visages. Lengthier stunts are interrupted by continuous action, but never forgotten, cutting back to finish the slow-motion demises. Perhaps the most astounding image is a shot of horseback riders falling into a river as the bridge they’re crossing explodes around them. The opening scene is comparably stunning, foreshadowing the shocking violence and thrilling adventure to come. It’s also so intense it could easily have been the climax.
The violence is also particularly noteworthy. “The Wild Bunch” is famous for its excessive visuals, intended to disgust and numb audiences instead of enthralling them – and it does so through the use of spurting blood, gunshots to the face, the revealing of exit wounds, bodies being thrown backwards with the force of gunfire, horses toppling, a half-dozen extra bullets pummeling the dead for good measure, and all sorts of tumbling casualties reeling in gloriously decelerated movements. And accompanying all of the insanity is a riveting Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Fielding. This controversial epic was as highly praised as it was condemned upon its release, boomingly announcing the arrival of daring new director Sam Peckinpah and reinforcing the idea that the genre had yet to succumb entirely to revisionist Spaghetti Western filmmakers.
– Mike Massie