March 20, 2008
The Wild Bunch (1969)
After the bitter experience that was to make "Major Dundee" in 1965, director Sam Peckinpah spent years without working on any theatrical film (although he did made a small TV movie in 1966), disenchanted with the studio actions over the film he thought was going to be his masterpiece. Fortunately, the years in silence payed off when in 1969, Peckinpah returned to film-making with a vengeance in the form of a film that would change the face of the Western genre for ever: "The Wild Bunch". Peckinpah was not a stranger to the genre, as he had directed several Western TV series and also already had a classic in his resumé ("Ride the High Country", which in many ways predates the themes of "The Wild Bunch"); but it was with "The Wild Bunch" when he finally started a new stage for American Western movies, after the revolution that the Spaghetti Westerns meant in the mid part of the 60s.
Set in 1917, "The Wild Bunch" is the story of an aging gang of outlaws and their attempts to make a final big score before retiring. Led by Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), the Bunch attempts to rob a bank in Texas where a vast amount of money is supposed to be kept. After the robbery becomes a savage massacre, only five members of the group manage to escape to Mexico: Pike, Dutch, the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) and the Mexican Ángel (Jaime Sánchez). With their hopes broken after the failed robbery, Pike's gang decides to work for General Mapache (Emilio Fernández), a Mexican general who hires them to steal a shipment of U.S. military equipment in order to have the upper hand in the Mexican Revolution. Without nothing to lose, and knowing that they are being followed after the shootout in Texas, the Bunch prepares for a last ride.
Based on a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, the movie follows the themes that Peckinpah had already explored in his previous two films: aging outlaws facing change, the end of the Wild West, and most importantly, honor between friends. With a script written by Peckinpah and Green, the film is an epic story that, like Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West", deals with the arrival of civilization, the final taming of the West and the effects this had in the persons that made it what it was. However, unlike Leone's epic, "The Wild Bunch" gives special importance to the characters and the relationships between them. Not only every member of the Bunch is explored, but also the men pursuing them, and a lot of accurate background is given to the Mexican Revolution and their fighters. It's remarkable the way that the characters are written, in the sense that more than protagonists they become almost like living persons that one can easily sympathize with.
Peckinpah once again proves that this was his favorite genre by making one of the most beautiful Westerns ever made. With an excellent use of slow-motion and a cinematography that shows the influence of Italian films, Peckinpah creates an opera of violence that fits perfectly the epic tone of the story. His care for realism and obvious respect for the many cultures present in his film sets the tone for what in the future would be called "revisionist Westerns". As he did previously in "Ride the High Country", Peckinpah focuses on the themes of redemption and adaptation to change, and his use of the 20th Century's modern machinery to imply change is considered one of "The Wild Bunch"'s main icons. The influence of this film in modern action films has probably been covered many times in other reviews, so I'll only state the obvious: it's enormous.
The cast of the film is simply perfect, all giving a terrific performance and making the most of their characters. Story says that many big names were considered before William Holden, but honestly I can't see anyone delivering a better performance than him as Pike Bishop, the Bunch's leader. Ernest Borgnine as the complex Dutch Engstrom probably gave his best performance in this movie too, and makes an excellent counterpart to Holden's troubled character. Personally, I find Robert Ryan to be the highlight of the film, even when his character has very few screen time, he probably symbolizes the best what Peckinpah had in mind in this film. Finally, the performances by Oates, O'Brien, Johnson and Sánchez as the rest of the bunch are definitely excellent. Legendary directors Emilio Fernández and Chano Urueta appear in small roles, but both deliver unforgettable performances.
Many words have been written about the visual violence of this movie, some questioning Peckinpah's preference for graphic detail while others reinforce its influence in future films; but in my opinion, what makes "The Wild Bunch" a truly unique film (beyond its genre), is the high quality of the script it has. Many films have quotable phrases or unforgettable one-liners, but the brilliantly written dialogs of this movie have a power akin to the best works of literature, as often there is a deep meaning in every line and every scene. Like a poetic elegy to the Western. Peckinpah is very honest in his portrayal of the dying American West, and is not afraid of showing both the good and bad sides of the human soul. Like in spaghetti Westerns, there is not a defined "good" or "evil", but Peckinpah goes beyond the Italian films and completely demythologizes the concept of "heroes" and "villians", keeping his characters simply as "humans".
"The Wild Bunch" is certainly a movie that carries a grim, almost nihilistic mood at first sight, but deep inside it is more about melancholy, as few films capture the concepts of true friendship and loyalty like this movie does (Peckinpah would return to this themes in 1973's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid", but without the same magnificence, in my opinion). The Western genre is often misunderstood a simple stories of cowboys and Indians; but "The Wild Bunch" proves that there is more than that in the genre. With the possible exception of "Straw Dogs", Peckinpah never got the chance to make a movie the way he wanted after this classic, so "The Wild Bunch" proudly stands as the masterpiece of the rebel director.
Buy "The Wild Bunch" (1969)