Apologies for an extremely late entry.
“The Wild Bunch is my March selection and this marks the first and only entry from the western genre, a group I have little experience with watching. I can only think of four westerns I have seen which include: “High Noon”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, “Unforgiven” and “True Grit” (2010). Any comparisons I make will be to a very limited set of reference points. I’m going to exclude “Unforgiven” and “True Grit” from the group due to their production after The Wild Bunch. Compared to “High Noon” and “Liberty Valance”, “The Wild Bunch” is a completely different animal. I would argue it does not even seem like a western, when compared to the standards of previous westerns. The biggest surprise was the 20th century setting, in a world quickly approaching World War I, not the usual time period of the mid 19th century. Maybe, “The Wild Bunch” broke the barrier of setting westerns in the 19th century. It is not only the time period that has changed, in fact the story-line is darker and more complex. There is no simple plot involving good guys fighting the bad guys. It’s a story only involving the bad guys. The men portrayed in this film are greedy, reckless, violent and have no regard for human life, these men are only out for themselves. Throughout the film death lingers, it weighs heavily from the opening title card to the start of the end credits. However, the fear of death is not from a gun, instead its extinction. Specifically the wild bunch are coming to terms about their way of living, it’s coming to an end and not on their own accords. These men have survived for years on their set of skills, but they are becoming ineffective, as the world is changing, they are at a standstill.
Simply put The Wild Bunch is a heist film. It begins with a bank robbery, the last big heist, the retirement plan, which turns into a complete failure. Starting from scratch the group needs to come up with a plan, along the way an opportunity arises but requires working with some unsavory partners. The last heist requires stealing weapons from the U.S. Army and is pulled off successfully but with ramifications. A decision has to be made by the group on whether or not to go back and get one of their partners.
This film is almost perfect, so many aspects of it work so well, from the acting, to a spectacular script and great direction by Sam Peckinpah. The entire cast is terrific but there are three standouts: William Holden as Pike Bishop, Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom and Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton. Deke has the least screen time of the three but is a good counter weight for the wild bunch and really fills out Pike’s back story even though they barely share any screen time together. Deke is Pike’s former partner, who struggles with his current situation trying to stay out of prison by hunting down Pike and his gang. Even though he is trying to bring these men down, he wishes he was riding with Pike. The script creates an interesting conflict for Deke and Pike, two former partners working against one another. Dutch is the moral compass of the film, he is Pike’s right hand and has a great amount of respect for him. Borgnine creates a memorable character, a tough but likable guy, something he pulls off successfully in his other films such as Marty and The Poseidon Adventure. Holden as Pike, is spectacular, at first he comes off as a miscast, he didn’t look like a good fit for the role, but as the film progressed I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing this performance. Pike is a man who has seen and experienced a lot of suffering. It’s hard to tell if he is a man who has lost his way or a man who never had much of a moral concise. Maybe that’s the reason he surrounds himself with men like Dutch and Deke, men who will be his moral guide. Pike is troubled by his past and his future. He is haunted by his mistakes in the past and the future isn’t bright. His ideas and plans are not cutting it anymore and the ability to work for himself is no longer an option, instead he is working for a military general of Mexico. Deke is suffering from the same issue, instead of working for himself, he is working for the railroad. The west is coming to an end, the days of being an outlaw are disappearing, working for yourself isn’t an option, you have a side to choose.
The story of the Wild Bunch really shows how much depth western films carry. On the surface they seem simple but they really carry some heavy thematic elements. The Wild Bunch shows a darker side of the West, in which there are no good guys. It also breaks down some of those legends, myths or truths people hold about the West such as men living by this unwavering code of honor. It’s a story about men fighting to survive the only way they know how and seeing that their way of living is coming to an end. The editing is really a game changer for a film from this era, maybe the biggest change in editing style since Peter Hunt’s work on the Bond films. The action scenes are intense with various cuts and slow motion scenes spliced together. It’s a quick pace but one you can actually see the action unfold unlike today’s editing in action sequences. I’ve gone back and forth on what the most valuable aspect of the film was going to be, it was between the script, the cast and the director. The more I thought about it, the clearer the choice was, it had to go Sam Peckinpah. His direction and style changed westerns. Providing a more realistic and gritty western but also improving the visual aspects of westerns, specifically with location shooting and set design. My biggest issues with “High Noon” and “Liberty Valance” was the set design. They had the look of a studio backlot. While I’m sure “The Wild Bunch” had some shots on sets, they have a more realistic and natural look. While the action scenes are a huge standout, the arguments between the men are quite memorable creating a high amount of tension without the use of guns. Peckinpah’s ability to create such tension within the camera is remarkable when the film opens and ends with such intense action scenes. While the direction is superb there are two issues with the film, and they are really nit-picky items. The first issue is a flashback scene with Pike remembering how Deke got busted. It uses a visual effect to represent a flashback. The entire set and costume design of the flashback it so out of place with the film. The next item is the after the successful heist, the men share a drink and just have a big laugh. These scenes took me out of the film’s heavier tone, because they didn’t match the look and feel of the overall movie. Maybe Peckinpah was trying to show us a glimpse of the good old days for the men of the wild bunch. I highly recommend The Wild Bunch, my rating is a 9 out of 10. It truly is a classic, changing the way Westerns are made.
Rating: 9 out of 10