The Wild Bunch (1969)
Peckinpah's Bunch pack a Punch
If they move, kill 'em! - Pike
The western genre often comes under a lot of stick for being cheesy and mass produced especially westerns from the 50s and 60s and to be honest there was a lot of b-movie westerns. But in amongst the masses of westerns there are some which not only stand out as being different but also have stood the test of time and one of those is Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch". This was a movie which shocked with it's level of violence when originally released, death in this movie was by no means pretty, and whilst the storyline has plenty of what can only be called western cliches it also has layer upon layer of depth. It's because of this that "The Wild Bunch" especially the Director's Cut still stands up as a great western even if the level of brutality isn't quite as powerful as it was over 40 years ago.
As the west changes with towns becoming civilized and automobiles showing up a gang of aging outlaws lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden - The Horse Soldiers) pull off one final bank job with the plan to retire after its completion. But things go wrong when they discover they have been set up and not only have to make their escape in a melee of gun fire but finds the money bags they took from the safe are worthless. With nothing to show for their endeavours Pike along with Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine - Ice Station Zebra), Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), Angel (Jaime Sánchez) and the Gorch brothers agree to rob a train of a shipment of guns for General "Mapache" Juerta (Emilio Fernández). But they not only find working for a Mexican General playing on their minds they also have to deal with the threat of a gang of bounty hunters lead by former outlaw Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan - The Dirty Dozen) hot on their trail.
Before even getting into the storyline one of the things that make "The Wild Bunch" more than just another western is right from the start we are routing for bad guys. We watch as this bunch of robbers dressed as army men hold up a bank and without knowing anything about them we are championing them as it becomes clear that they have been set up and there are men laying in wait for them to exit the building. "The Wild Bunch" is not the first movie to do this, getting us routing for criminals, but it does it so quickly and so easily, making us dislike those trying to catch them because many are low life's willing to strip dead bodies of possessions.
Now as for the actual storyline, well on one level it's not that special as we have this group of robbers who are being hunted down by bounty hunters working for the train line. That in itself isn't that unique but makes it unique by having these robbers coming to realise that times have changed, robbing is no longer easy and not something for old men. It builds on this as they end up agreeing to one final job for a Mexican General, stealing Army guns from a train and this unsurprisingly leads to an element of double crossing. None of which would feel out of place in a number of other westerns.
But the thing about "The Wild Bunch" is that it has a lot more depth than you get from your average western and that first layer of depth comes from the aspect of loyalty. We watch as thing gang of robbers discover that they have been tricked, they argue, disagree with what they should do but despite all of this they are always there for each other be it fighting for one another or keeping quiet when things go wrong. It's an impressive layer and is the catalyst for the stunning action packed ending. On top of this there are layers which examine the innocence of youth and Peckinpah often uses a young child observing the violence of a battle to represent this. I could go on because there are a lot more layers of depth wrapped up in this story and all of these layers combine to make "The Wild Bunch" something very special.
What also makes it very special is the action and Peckinpah's approach to the brutality of violence. The opening scenes feature a shoot out which in many a western would have been the big climax it is that powerful, innocent people get gunned down and when someone dies they don't stagger and die theatrically, they fall crumpled in a bloody mess. It is visually impressive made all the more so by the innocent children who observe the blood shed yet that is nothing compared to the heroic final battle which is the stuff of legend. And even in between, action on a train or horses falling is all stunning, not just visually but because it makes you feel something.
And continuing on the positives every single performance is simply perfect be it William Holden as leader of the gang Pike Bishop through to Alfonso Arau who plays the almost comical Lt. Herrera. But each character brings something different to the story, Pike is a man haunted by his past and his association with Deke Thornton who whilst once one of the gang is now leading the hunt. Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom is more the man of reason, best friend to Pike and loyal to the end even when they disagree whilst Angel is as loyal to the gang as he is to his people. All this means is that every character is interesting yet whilst bad guys are also instantly likeable.
It's such a shame then when I say that "The Wild Bunch" isn't 100% perfect and issues arise from subplots which don't really have any real meaning in the overall storyline but end up leading to "The Wild Bunch" running for 139 minutes. Scenes such as a wine shower which the Gorch brothers share with 3 buxom senoritas may entertain but it goes on to long and doesn't seem to serve a purpose.
What this all boils down to is that "The Wild Bunch" is not only a brilliant movie but still one of the greatest westerns ever made. It is credit to Sam Peckinpah that not only has he turned some western cliches into something a lot more entertaining but also that he created a movie which over 40 years later has stood the test of time. From the action through to the characters and taking in the layers of depth it all works and the only annoyance is the occasional scene which whilst entertaining adds little other than padding to the story.
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