I had a home alone day off yesterday, so I spend the early afternoon with The Wild Bunch. It’s a favorite of mine, and I hadn’t seen it in a few years. Now I’ve seen it recently, and it’s still a favorite. A few things are a little dated, but the whole holds up very well.
It’s odd to watch The Wild Bunch now and think back to the furor its violence caused when it was released in 1969. Not that it isn’t graphically violent, but years of action flicks have inured us to such things. What The Wild Bunch does better than most movies is make the violence hurt. The results are not quick and antiseptic; you see and hear the suffering.
Director Sam Peckinpah also did a wonderful job of setting the film in its time. My wife asked last night why they would go into the Battle of the Bloody Porch knowing they were going to die. She didn’t watch it with me yesterday and was relying on memory. Seeing it play out, knowing how it ends, they wouldn’t have it any other way. (Stealing a line from the movie.) Their time had ended. They were Wild West-style outlaws, living in a world of automobiles and, as Pike Bishop verifies, airplanes. The Mexican Civil War is going on, and a German officer is agitating against the United States as World War I approaches. The Bunch’s preferred handgun is the original M1911 Army Colt Pistol, which, as the German officer points out, is illegal to own; it’s for military use only. These are men holding a Nineteenth Century occupation in what is clearly the Twentieth Century. It’s only a matter of time for them, as is noted several times. To choose the manner of their exit may have been a blessing.
What I took away most this time is Peckinpah’s wonderful job of unapologetically describing his characters. These are vicious criminals and ruthless killers, not averse to using innocent bystanders as shields. They have internal rivalries, yet the loyalty to each other is unquestioned. The affection between Pike and Dutch Engstrom is touching in its coarse way. Even Deke Thornton, the former gang member who turned against them to stay out of prison and blames Pike’s inattention for his capture, wishes he were back with them. It’s a precursor to The Sopranos, laying out terribly flawed characters in their entirety, allowing the audience to decide about them.
The cast is, of course, superb. A Western with Warren Oates and Ben Johnson has a leg up on most others right off the bat. Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan could have had their parts written for them. It’s William Holden who stands out. I came to his work late in his career, so my defining memories of him are as a slacker who does only what he has to in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag-17, and The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Pike Bishop is as far away from Joe Gillis as can be imagined, yet it is Holden’s portrayal of Pike’s combination of ruthlessness and fairness that holds the movie together.
The American Film Institute ranks The Wild Bunch as the sixth greatest Western. That’s hardly faint praise, but it’s a far superior film to The Searchers (Number 1). That doesn’t make it Number One—Unforgiven, High Noon, and Shane are also ranked ahead of it—but a washcloth could be draped over all four in terms of excellence. To my thinking, The Wild Bunch ranks behind only Unforgiven. If Sam Peckinpah had made only this one film, he’d deserved to be ranked among the greats.