Not being a huge fan of the Western genre I had only one reason to watch The Wild Bunch. The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah is one the main influences of my favourite director John Woo. I was not expecting much from this western. Lets just say that by the end of the film I found myself completely engrossed in the film and its characters.
The Wild Bunch is a group of six bank robbers led by Pike (William Holden) a fellow who’s getting old and is looking for something else to do. In 1913, the Wild Bunch embarks on their last robbery, but unknown to them, the place they are robbing isn’t as cash-rich as they’re led to believe. After a bloody gun battle with a band of mercenary headhunters led by a former Wild Bunch member, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the Wild Bunch escapes. The town that they leave is left in tatters with citizens lying dead in the streets.
The film follows Pike and his band of robbers as they try to find one more robbery to do before retiring. The band of robbers finally sign up to help a Mexican general steal weapons from a US Military train. Not far behind them is Thornton. Thornton’s main drive to catch Pike is that if he doesn’t do it within 30 days, he’ll be sent back to jail. Thornton cut a deal with the devil for his freedom from prison, in order to keep his freedom, he must led a posse of inept bounty hunters in their chase of Pike.
Peckinpah is by no means an indirect director. In The Wild Bunch he takes on many themes including the main one of loyalty within a group. And it is with his unfiltered look at this band of robbers and the bounty hunters that we see the contrast between the two groups in their loyalty. Peckinpah doesn’t make anything light or fluffy, including the action.
The action in The Wild Bunch is amazing. I can see exactly where Woo gets his influence. There are two big action set pieces in the film that show just how brutal Peckinpah wanted the film to be. There are no pretty deaths in this film everything is messy. Peckinpah uses slow motion, quick cuts, and multiple angles to capture the sense of urgency in the action set pieces and does it so well that I was pulled right into the film during those minutes. But, as much as The Wild Bunch can be seen as an action film, it has much more than that.
Peckinpah uses many objects and people in the film to not so subtly hit home different messages. His use of children in the film is one of the best examples of this. As the film opens we are treated to the image of children, scorpions, and ants. This whole montage is a foreshadowing of what will happen in the town. And as the film continues, we see that the children in film are changing as the Wild Bunch is also. From good and innocent flinching at the deaths in the town to remorseless and immoral the little soldier children.
Although all of the performers in the film are brilliant, there are three that are standout. William Holden as Pike is the absolute best casting for this part. With a face that shows a sense of tiredness at what he is doing, Holden makes Pike a likeable bank robber/murderer. Ernest Borgnine as “Dutch”, Pike’s best friend, switches from different emotions as quickly as needed and is completely believable: watch him after Pike “helps” one of the Wild Bunch members who is blinded during a gun fight. But, the best performance, though not one that gets a lot of screen time, is Robert Ryan’s as the reluctant Thornton. Although Thornton has to keep his word and do his job, he is reluctant to do so because he doesn’t have the right people in his band of bounty hunters and because he is still has a little loyalty to Pike. Ryan gives a brilliant performance as Thornton.
Released in 1969 The Wild Bunch was a violent film that created a lot of news I’m not old enough to know, being born in 1975, but my friend John Higdon who saw The Wild Bunch in theatres says, “As I recall, it was the first movie I ever saw that had guts spewing out when folks got shot.” Viewed today, the violence is still pretty gritty and gruesome, but a bit on the lighter side because of the purveyance of gratuitous violence in Hollywood. The version of The Wild Bunch that I screened was the 1995 director’s cut of the film. I have not seen the original version and could not tell you what the differences are, but the director’s cut of the film is amazing. Don’t Miss The Wild Bunch. You can find the director’s cut of the film on DVD.