Thursday, June 18, 2009


Your word isn't what counts, it's who you give it to

NOTE: Ranked No. 29 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
You know a film is powerful when it's controversial when it opens and when a restored version is planned for re-release 25 years later, an MPAA ratings dispute over its violent images delays the re-release until it was 26 years old. Now 40 years old, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch not only retains its power, the film grows in magnificence. If re-watching it evokes anything negative, it's the sadness that great films such as this hardly ever get re-releases anymore, affording movie fans the chance to see movies made before their time in a theater. As theaters move toward digital, it's probably sadly passed. Still, DVD and a good home setup keep The Wild Bunch vibrantly alive, if not ideally viewed.

Where the Conversation Starts

You can't begin any conversation about The Wild Bunch (or Sam Peckinpah) without inevitably hitting the topic of violence and whether or not the film glorifies it or not but watching it again, it's beyond me how anyone can see it that way. In fact, this time it seemed to me that Peckinpah builds the violence in the film to the crescendo of its finale. There is some use of slow-motion in the film's earlier gunbattles, the killings are quicker, more typical of what audiences are used to seeing in normal Westerns, without lingering on the wounds or carnage. Each subsequent encounter ups the ante leading to the famous finale, where the bloodshed contains the most meaning because the fight has the most meaning. When the bunch goes out in their blaze of glory, they aren't involved in a theft or running from a heist or a quick act of revenge, they are doing it because morally it's the correct thing for them to do, no matter that it is a suicide mission. That final melee is where you see the agony, the anguish and the pain. It's the way Peckinpah has set it up and the way it had to go because it needs to unfold this way for the characters to become flesh-and-blood people the audience cares about instead of just outlaws of a dying breed trying to hang on to a dying lifestyle in a fast-changing era.

In the Beginning

As The Wild Bunch opens, the viewer can't really be certain what time period they are in. The military uniforms that the bunch are wearing seem to be early 20th century Army issue, but everything else seems to be from any Old West time period. It isn't until nearly an hour into the film when the would-be Mexican despot arrives in a fancy automobile and the bunch reacts with amazement and speak of reports of vehicles like birds that might be used in the next war that you realize we are several years into the 20th century and the Western lifestyle the bunch has enjoyed is passing the aging men by. Pike Bishop (William Holden), the group's leader admits that they aren't getting any younger and it's time they start "thinking beyond their guns." The impetus for this reappraisal of their lifework comes after the gang's latest assault on their favorite archenemy, the railroad. Peckinpah's opening setpiece really gets the movie galloping as we are introduced to the ruthlessness of the gang, taking the railroad's office as well as the equal ruthlessness of the railroad, who have staged a setup involving a team of bounty hunters in place to take out the bunch once and for all. There is no easy route taken of making the violent gang likable protagonists from the beginning. They are willing to leave an accomplice behind to almost certain death and kill another one with emotionless efficiency. This is their job and fun times come later. The fly in the ointment turns out to be the unexpected temperance union parade by a local church. When the siege is over, there are far more dead civilians than there are crooks or bounty hunters and the clergyman (Dub Taylor) lets the railroadman know it, but he's indifferent as big businessmen continue to be to this day as his interests and bottom line supersede the public's. This "do it on the cheap" mentality extends to the bounty hunters that the railroad hires. The leaders is a former member of the bunch, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who has been promised an end to his prison sentence if he brings them back dead. Unfortunately, as help he's been given a motley group of misfits led by Strother Martin, who aren't above pillaging the corpses of the accidentally slain. Martin proves to be comic relief extraordinaire, especially with his large crucifix hanging around his neck. Ryan's performance as Thornton, the bounty hunter whose heart lies with his prey, grows deeper and better with each viewing.

Meet the Bunch

The actors who comprise the bunch are a strong ensemble. Three had won Oscars by the time The Wild Bunch was made and a fourth would win one two years later. In nearly every case, it's one of the actors' strongest performances and, in one case, I consider it his best. Holden is great as Pike and of course the list of great roles he played are legendary spanning from Sunset Blvd. to Network and many in between. Pike Bishop belongs in that hallowed company as Holden gives him a taciturn strength but isn't afraid to show his vulnerabilities and the toll time has taken on the robber. Often forgotten, since he's not as active in the gang's criminal exploits, is the great Edmond O'Brien as Sykes, who used to ride and kill with the best of them but now basically holds down the fort while the bunch is away. O'Brien is a riot, even if at times he borders on cliche and seems to be channelling Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. More comedy is provided by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the drinkin', whorin' Gorch brothers. (In the DVD commentary, one of the Peckinpah experts mentions that Johnson's wife never let him return to the sites of their Mexican scenes because of the scenes of his character's lechery depicted there. TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer even saluted Oates' character with a vampire bounty hunter with cowboy sensibility named Lyle Gorch on a couple of episodes. The youngest and newest member of the gang, the one who gets them in trouble and helps them find their moral compass, is Angel (Jaime Sanchez), a Mexican who wants to help his people get out from under the thumb of the minidictators who ruled Mexico at the time. Politics is anathema to the others but when they witness the mistreatment that goes on of the poor, eventually even the aging crooks discover there are some fights worth joining. Of course, the second most important member of the bunch is Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). Though Borgnine has given many good performances, including his Oscar-winning one in Marty, it's clear to me after watching The Wild Bunch again that this is easily his greatest performance. He's always the one who seems to have the smartest take, the most regrets, and Dutch gets the others to realize their obligations when the final battle comes about. The grin that Borgnine lets loose before the gunfire is a sight to behold as are his quieter moments, turning his back when he's afraid to admit something tender to Pike or he's just sitting on a stoop whittling waiting for the others to finish their debauchery.

Back Where We Started

As all conversations about The Wild Bunch inevitably focus on the violence, I think we should end this anniversary discussing those aspects that are too often overlooked. In addition to the performances, not enough is made of the comic relief (the last images of the bunch are of them laughing at better times) as when the Mexican generale lets a machine gun go wild despite his German visitor's plea that he must place it upon a tripod. There's also the imagery. The kids torturing the scorpions gets cited often, but there also are nice touches such as a shot of a mother breastfeeding her baby while a belt of ammunition hangs across her torso. Finally, there is the suspense. Like all great suspense scenes, no matter how many times you see them, you still wonder what will happen, as when that wagon gets stuck on the bridge that's already set to detonate. I'd also be remiss if I didn't shower some praise on some of the film's other collaborators such as Peckinpah's co-writer Walon Green, the vivid photography of Lucien Ballard, the fine score by Jerry Fielding and the absolutely irreplaceable editing of Lou Lombardo.

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Terrific review. I like that you address the violence issue, but specifically call attention to all the aspects of the film that get lost in the constant violence debate. I'm not a huge fan of this film, but I always enjoy reading about it.
It is Old Man Sykes who says they aren't getting any younger.
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