A director whose reputation perhaps is larger than his volume of work is “Bloody Sam” Peckinpah, who we previously touched on briefly in our review of Major Dundee some time ago. Well Peckinpah’s opus is surely 1969’s The Wild Bunch and deservedly so. Many of the motifs and themes hinted at in his previous work – Charlton Heston, for example, often stated that The Wild Bunch was the movie Peckinpah wanted Major Dundee to be.
Peckinpah was known for the violence of his films, especially for the era, and also the slow-motion, almost dancelike deaths throughout his films. Fellow director Howard Hawks once he could kill and bury three men in the time it took Peckinpah to shoot one and have him fall to the ground. He isn’t far wrong.
The Wild Bunch marked a new slice of the American West on film. It is the story of a gang out to make one last score – and a big one at that. One whose proceeds will fund the gang’s retirement. Unfortunately their big score doesn’t play out as expected and we realize than that time has in many ways passed the bunch by- technology and progress, and yes perhaps middle age, have caught up with them at last. To complicate matters one of their own has been captured and is, to save himself, working against them to secure their capture and demise.
After the survivors of the failed robbery regroup and lick their wounds, it is clear that they didn’t consider failure and they have no plans for the future. Ultimately, though I don’t recall it ever is stated as such, they decide the time is right for retirement.
They arrive at Angel’s (Angel is a member of the bunch) home village to trade in their horses. On arrival they learn that Angel’s father has been killed by General Mapache, a two-bit Mexican thug masquerading as a low level dictator. Mapache has also kidnapped Angel’s girlfriend and taken her for his own. Although Angel claims otherwise, it is clear that vengeance will be his.
The bunch heads off to Mapache’s camp in a further attempt to trade in their horses and, after diffusing a scuffle which arises when Angel sees his former girlfriend in Mapache’s arms, agree to steal a shipment of weapons from the American Army for Mapache and his German advisors in exchange for ten thousand dollars.
Not trusting Mapache the bunch decide to go into his camp singly and offer the location of part of the weapons in exchange for a part of the payment. When Angel’s turn comes, Mapache accuses him of stealing a case of rifles (which is true) and holds him captive, torturing him by dragging him behind a car mercilessly.
Of course keep in mind than Thornton and his group are in slow but determined pursuit.
Learning of this the bunch decide to rescue Angel in a surely suicidal attack on Mapache’s compound. In perhaps the most violent and well done gunfight in cinematic history, the bunch is finally slaughtered. As the vultures circle, Thornton’s band arrive and loot the numerous bodies. Thornton looks on with pity for his fallen friends and sits solemnly outside the fortress.
The Wild Bunch is a superb film, among the best of all Westerns and surely the finest Peckinpah film by far. Beyond the commonly known and perhaps – at least at the time- controversial degree of violence is the phenomenal casting, which matches the theme of the movie.
William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Edmond O’Brien are the key players. Much as their characters are being left behind by the rush and progress of technology, so were the actors themselves being passed by via the Hollywood machine they were a part of.
Holden himself is especially powerful here. Holden, who usually played the laid back and perhaps indifferent characters, here is so powerfully and adamantly angry and embittered that this abrupt casting against type works insanely well.
The extended director’s cut of The Wild Bunch came out a few years ago and is also available on blu-ray. I highly recommend this release as the added detail of the HD release is breathtaking. You can actually see textures and the pores on Holden’s face. If anything the added detail adds still more power and imagery to the picture. Blacks are strong and there is only a slight hint of edge enhancement.
The upgrade in video and audio quality, along with a strong helping of supplemental material make it a sure must have for any fan of the genre.