Dir. by Sam Peckinpah - 2 hrs. 25 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
"The Wild Bunch" is a difficult film to write about, largely because it's so iconic and so imitated. But it's earned that status honestly.
Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads a stick-up crew, and they've set their eyes on a bank near the U.S./Mexico border. It's a trap, laid neatly by a railroad employee whom Pike had crossed before. The result is a bloody shoot-out, one that leaves townspeople, members of Pike's crew, and many of the railroad's bounty hunters dead. Pike and a few of his men get away with the loot, and retreat to their hideout across the Rio Grande, where they discover their loot is nothing but sacks of steel washers. Desperately searching for another score, Pike's gang comes across a Mexican general, who will pay handsomely for hijacking a shipment of weapons intended for the U.S. Army.
There are three large action pieces in this film: the initial heist, the hijacking of the train, and the shoot-out at the end of the film. All three are spellbinding, and breathtakingly modern in execution. It's to Peckinpah's credit that despite the complicated editing, I never got "lost" visually. That's one aspect of action films that's exceedingly difficult to pull off - it's far easier just to edit haphazardly than to focus on making the material make sense. Also, none of the characters are the least bit glib about this violence. These aren't clever men slumming and scamming the system. These are hard men who eke out a living by taking what's not theirs. There are no quips or one-liners, and despite the long stretches of time between intense bouts of action, not much reflection on their actions, either.
The point at which this film goes from a stylishly-executed western/heist film to something far more interesting is a quiet scene between Pike and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). After they've fled the scene of the initial heist and discovered that they got away with nothing, everyone's winding down, and drinking. Pike tells Dutch that the botched heist was supposed to be his last. Earlier in the film, the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) had used the same line in an attempt to haggle a larger piece of the pie (before discovering there were only steel washers in the bank bags), but it was clearly a ruse. Pike's admission carries a lot of weight; he's clearly been at this a long time, the game is changing (and not in his favor), and he's physically breaking down. But it's Dutch's reply that changes the film: "Back off to what?"
These aren't the sort of men who have a retirement plan. They make a score, drink and whore their money away, and try to make another score. Being good enough at armed robbery is a sort of curse: those who die get a quick (and painful) retirement, but if you survive, something will eventually catch up to you. It might be the law, it might be a bullet, in Pike's case, it's simply time. There is nowhere to back off to. Once this realization is made, Pike doesn't seem to fear death at all. That's not to say that he courts it, he is also responsible for the livelihood of his men, but survival no longer is his main focus.
This plays out in his interactions with General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). He's aware that Mapache would prefer to kill him and his men and just take the guns instead of paying out according to the deal they had agreed upon. His solution is the threat of blowing up the guns along with himself and his men. And when Pike decides that he must have Angel (Jaime Sanchez) back to free him from being tortured, there's no illusion of surviving that decision. Pike, Dutch and the Gorch brothers walk right into the General's face, guns ready to go. Pike has been pressed into a corner; the railroad men led by a former member of his gang, Deke (Robert Ryan), who himself has been pressed into a untenable situation, on one side, leaving one of his men behind to be tortured to death by a sadistic General who is running roughshod all over his own people on the other. When Pike sees that there is literally no future left for him, he and his men decide that at least they can take down an evil man on their way out.
At the time "The Wild Bunch" was released, it was considered nearly impossibly violent. Years of violent films have lessened the shock factor, but what hasn't lessened is the intensity of these clashes. When this film was restored to it's original run-time in 1995, it received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA (it had originally received an R rating), despite none of the ten minutes added back having any violence whatsoever in them. This is a muscular, mean, hardened film that doesn't shy away from depicting a sort of casual cruelty that people often engage in. It's entertainment when adults do it, but the opening sequence shows a bunch of children toying with a scorpion covered in red ants for their amusement. Peckinpah explicitly shows that people don't turn cruel, it's right there from the very beginning. It's understandable if that's an unpalatable view, but "The Wild Bunch" offers plenty of evidence to that. This film suggests that this part of humanity may be inescapable, but that you can choose to fight against it.
5 / 5 - Blu-Ray