Pike Bishop: We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with ’em, and if you cant do that, you’re like some animal; you’re finished, we’re finished! All of us!
The Wild Bunch (1969) begins with a shot of uniformed men on horses (the wild bunch) riding towards the audience with heat seemingly emanating from their presence. The film introduces its cast in a most dramatic way (and with good reason). As the camera focuses in on each of the riders, the image stops, turns black and white, and the actor’s name flashes on the screen. The film has a dynamite cast, headlined by William Holden, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine. William Holden plays the rough and tumble leatherneck leader of the bunch, Pike Bishop. It’s an unusual role for Holden: the tough gang guy, but he plays it with remarkable perfection.
If anything, The Wild Bunch is certainly deserving of its name. The boys waste no time before they hold-up a bank and continue to kill everyone within a mile radius in a fantastically brutal, vivid fashion. The effort was supposed to be the bunch’s last hoorah, and may have been if not for an unfortunate monetary mix-up (“Silver rings your butt! Them’s washers!”). It is revealed early on that Deke Thornton (Rob Ryan) used to “ride with Pike,” before being arrested. Thornton leads the charge to track down Pike and his men as a part of some outward sign of his inner conversion resulting from his time in prison. But there is an indelible connection between Pike and Thornton, which lies ever so subtly beneath the surface of the film.
The Wild Bunch has many sweeping shots of the two men’s packs riding from here to there, thanks in part to the wonderful Panavision* process. Much credit should also be shown to director, Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah managed to create a film that stands amongst only two other westerns that I have seen and liked: The Big Country and How the West Was Won. When it comes to westerns, I’m a tough sell.
An automobile does make an appearance in the film; greeted with a “what the he’ll is that?!” The car belongs to the generalissimo, Mapache; a man whose line of work mimics that of the wild bunch in all ways except that Mapache apparently hangs people… Mapache is himself a somewhat enigmatic character. His girlfriend is killed right in front of him, which he finds eerily humorous (he thought the bullet was supposed to be for him, but it was in fact meant for the girl). When he is given a machine gun (which he simply holds in his hands; no tripod), he lets loose a full clip in the middle of his gathering which somehow misses every single one of the people standing around him. Once again, Mapache finds the situation funny.
One of the members of the wild bunch is a native Mexican (Angel) whose accent is very, very close to the one belonging to a certain Cuban, Ricardo Montalban (poor casting decision?). Angel brings with him a vengeance and emotional edge that plays to the bunch’s advantage.
Mapache enlists Pike and the bunch to intercept a US Army weapon’s shipment. Pike accepts the terms which will pay the bunch a hefty sum and finally provide that lucrative last job they’ve been seeking. The bunch steals the shipment from the train so swift and quietly you’d think you were watching a silent film. The goods are stolen (almost literally) from under the nose of Thornton who then proceeds to chase the bunch and their newly acquired train on horseback! Got to love the effort.
For some reason, horses seem to spend an unusual amount of time in the water. From fording deep rivers on purpose to having bridges blown out from under them and forcing them to ford rivers by accident, they manage to become aquatic creatures. The wild bunch themselves are somewhat aquatic (they practically drown themselves in alcohol (and once, quite literally)).
All of the conflicts in The Wild Bunch come to a head in the dramatic final scene. In characteristic Peckinpah fashion, the movie begins with violence and ends with even more of it. Despite the graphic nature of many of the scenes, the film still keeps its focus on the storyline; the violence all plays an important role in the plot development. The acting is very good; even Ernest Borgnine got me to believe he was part of a gang by the end (the whole time I couldn’t help but visualize him as the lovable Lt. Commander Quinton McHale from the ’60s TV show, McHale’s Navy). From the perspective of a harsh critic of westerns, I had a surprisingly positive opinion about The Wild Bunch. If you still aren’t convinced, watch the movie for the awesome cast (after all, that’s what made me buy the film in the first place!).
The Reel Rating: 6.8
He Gave His Word:
*An anamorphic, widescreen process similar to CinemaScope. Panavision re-placed CinemaScope as an industry standard for anamorphic filmmaking during the early 1960s.