Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Wild Bunch - Looking Back on Peckinpah's Classic After 50 Years

William Holden in The Wild Bunch.
Fifty years ago, two of American cinema's most influential Westerns were released: the revisionist Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Neither film staved off the decline of the Western genre, but each impacted Hollywood in significant ways. The former may not have been the first "buddy picture," but the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford revitalized those kinds of films. As for The Wild Bunch, while more violent and bloody films preceded it, they weren't mainstream movies with big stars and a major director. Many critics and filmgoers considered its violence shocking at the time.

Indeed, The Wild Bunch opens and closes with beautifully choreographed and edited scenes of carnage. It was enough, according to one Peckinpah biographer, for some audience members to walk out of the film when it was first released. However, sandwiched between those bloody scenes, Peckinpah presents a carefully-crafted tale of family loyalty and changing times.

Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton.
The Wild Bunch opens with Pike Bishop and his gang riding into a bustling town to rob a railroad office. Bishop (William Holden) has no idea that it's a trap set by a former pal, Deke Thornton, whose permanent release from a brutal prison hinges on his capture of Bishop. By the time, the outlaws realize it's a set-up, it's too late and their only option is to shoot their way out of town. The ensuing gunfight leaves the streets littered with dead bodies, including many innocent townspeople caught in the hail of bullets.

When Bishop regroups after a narrow escape from the town, his gang has been reduced to just five members. Moreover, their loot from the robbery turns out to be bags of worthless metal washers and Thornton is leading a gang of bounty hunters in pursuit. With few alternatives remaining, Bishop and his men journey to Mexico, where they make a deal with a ruthless revolutionary leader to steal guns and ammunition from a heavily-guarded train for $10,000. It's a decision that will ultimately result in the demise of the quintet.

Except for the bookend shoot-outs and a splendid train robbery scene in the middle, The Wild Bunch is a dialogue-driven film. Bishop repeatedly emphasizes the importance of family loyalty, for make no mistake that these outlaws are a family. They bicker, threaten each other, and talk of splitting up, but ultimately they abide by Bishop's code: "When you side with a man, you stick with him." It's enlightening when Bishop reveals to Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), his closest companion, that he feels responsible for Thornton's capture in the past. For his part, Thornton has nothing but respect for Bishop--although he's willing to capture or perhaps kill him to avoid returning to prison.
Pike's gang leaves a poor village that provided them with a moment of peace.

Set in 1913, The Wild Bunch also explores one of Sam Peckinpah's favorite themes: the end of the Wild West. Bishop and his gang marvel when they see an automobile and talk about machines that can fly in the air. The days of horse-riding outlaws are coming to an end and Bishop knows it: "We got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." It's a theme that Peckinpah visited earlier in his elegant classic Ride the High Country (1962) and would return to again in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).

Peckinpah wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike, but Marvin instead chose Paint Your Wagon (1969), which offered a hefty payday. That was fortunate for The Wild Bunch, for William Holden gives one of his finest performances as the weary, gritty Pike. According to most accounts, the star and the director clashed often on the set, arguing about issues such as whether Holden should wear a fake mustache (he initially refused, but finally agreed...and it's hard to imagine his character without it).

Ernest Borgnine as Dutch.
The supporting cast is exceptional, especially Borgnine, Robert Ryan as Thornton, and an unrecognizable Edmond O'Brien in his last great role as an old-timer who is fiercely loyal to Pike. The camaraderie between Holden and Borgnine seems so genuine that the two were paired again in the 1972 Western The Revengers (which is strictly a standard oater).

Sadly, the graphic violence in The Wild Bunch doesn't seem as horrifying as it once did. Slow-motion shots of bullets entering into bodies and blood spurting everywhere have become too commonplace on the silver screen. However, it is still jarring to see children participate in the violence, whether they're playfully reenacting the opening gunfight or actually picking up guns and shooting people in the climax. One has to wonder what will become of these desensitized youngsters as they grow into adults.
The Wild Bunch makes their final walk.

While The Wild Bunch may be Sam Peckinpah's most famous film, it's not his best (that would be The Ballad of Cable Hogue). But fifty years later, one can appreciate The Wild Bunch as a landmark motion picture that showcases its director's visual flair and love of the Western genre. It also contains one of the most iconic images of 1960s cinema:  the shot where Thornton's men are seemingly suspended in air for a split-second when Pike blows up both ends of a bridge. It's a brilliant metaphor for the end of the Old West, which is literally slipping away from men like Thornton and Pike. It's also a reminder that--when he wanted to be--Sam Peckinpah could be a truly great director.
The bridge collapses out from under Thornton's men.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's (CMBA) Anniversary Blogathon. Click here to check out all the other great entries as the CMBA celebrates its tenth anniversary.


Caftan Woman said...

Wonderful and insightful look at The Wild Bunch which both offends my perhaps overly sensitive heart with its violence and wounds it with its emotion.

Also in 1969, True Grit and Support Your Local Sheriff! Westerns all over the map.

Eric Warren said...

Ah. The Wild Bunch (and Peckinpah). The film audiences hate, but critics love. Still mildly controversial, still a great example of "old school" American film-making. As the story marks a transition from the old west, the film marks a transition from one type of Hollywood film-making (traditional, studio system fare, some of which is classic and timeless) to a new, grittier Realism. This of course includes Walter Hill, Roman Polanski and many others who actually saved Hollywood with their new Auteur Realism.

Nice post, as always.

Citizen Screen said...

Loved reading this. I'm a huge fan of The Wild Bunch and agree, Holden and the supporting cast are fantastic. I particularly enjoyed reading your discussion of it being a dialogue-driven film overall. I never gave that much thought until now. Also, thank you for the The Ballad of Cable Hogue recommendation. I've never seen that one.

Once Upon a Screen

Christian Esquevin said...

Amazing to thing Wild Bunch is 50 years old. I remember seeing it in the theater when it released.And it was controversial - but a lot of movies were in those years. Great review Rick, and you hit all its important elements. Nice choice for the blogathon, and congratulations for your special CMBA Award!

FlickChick said...

I can't believe this film is 50 years old. I remember seeing it in the movies and being quite upset with the violence. Years later I gave it another go and was so glad I did. Not my usual cup of tea, but, hey - a good film is a good film. Great post, Rick. And many thanks for all of your support and encouragement over the years.

John/24Frames said...

Great take on one of my favorite westerns! Thanks for participating and thanks for creating the CMBA and all you have done!

rcocean said...

Great review. I love "The Wild Bunch" for the cast. What a bunch of great actors and let me give a shout out to Strother Martin and LQ Jones who are magnificent as two of the slimiest, bounty hunters ever. Director/script wise its pretty good too. My only beef is the machine gun slaughter. I'm sure it was "Shocking" in 1969, but now it just comes off as over-long and fake.

PS I'm constantly looking for opportunities to say "They? Who the Hell are "they"? in my best Edmond O'brien voice.

The Lady Eve said...

I was one who had trouble with the violence of this film back in the day. How innocent those times seem now! I have never seen The Ballad of Cable Hogue, though I know I need to soon. Thanks for a great take on The Wild Bunch, Rick, it really is a New Hollywood classic.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm glad to have read your review before seeing this film. You pointed out things I want to focus on when I finally do see it. Thanks!