Sam Peckinpah had worked on several TV series and several film productions, including The Deadly Companions, Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. He was an incredibly talented director but one whose fiery personality and personal demons could potentially derail any film he worked on. But in 1969, it all came together, Peckinpah making his classic, his all-time great film, one of the best westerns ever and best films ever in general, 1969's The Wild Bunch.
It's 1913 in a small border town near the Rio Grande, and a gang of outlaws, led by the infamous Pike Bishop (William Holden), disguised as soldiers ride in to rob the bank of a rumored silver shipment. The robbery is an epic disaster as a posse of bounty hunters, led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a paroled outlaw who used to ride with Pike, is waiting in ambush. Many of Pike's gang is killed in the robbery that nets them NO money. The remaining members of the gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), retreat into Mexico. They need a new job, a new robbery, a new chance to earn some money. Pike especially knows that time is running out, that times are changing, and their chances at surviving as outlaws is becoming ever more unlikely. It doesn't help that Deke and his bounty hunters have followed them into Mexico, looking to collect the bounties on these infamous outlaws. With time running out, what do they do?
What a movie. Every so often, each and EVERY thing involved in the making of a film comes together and forms that perfect symmetry. 'Bunch' is an all-timer, not just a movie I love but a great movie in terms of storytelling and in technical terms. Appropriate for the time it was released (the late 1960's), it is cynical, horrifically violent, brutally honest and generally downbeat. This is a western and film ahead of its time, helping set the tone where films would go in the coming years. This is Peckinpah at the top of his game. He would have other good to great to classic films, but this is his Great film. Just a gem.
There is little to nothing to criticize here. While the filming process sounds incredibly interesting (a film in itself), the choice to film in Mexico pays off huge dividends. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard shoots a beautiful movie with the Mexican countryside and desert as a backdrop. The locations are phenomenal. You feel like you're watching the actual settings of the Mexican Revolution to our story. Composer Jerry Fielding turns in quite the memorable score as well, appropriately epic at times and equally quiet and emotional as necessary in other scenes. Listen to a sample HERE. As for the story itself, Peckinpah and writer Walon Green turn in a screenplay that's just a gem. It isn't a movie in a rush, letting things breathe and allow the viewer to get to know the characters -- for good or bad -- over its 145-minute running time. Sit back and take it in. You shan't be disappointed!
Many westerns have dealt with the death of the old west, the end of an era, but none better than The Wild Bunch. It's 1913 and there's no place for these outlaws, killers and gunfighters anymore. The world is changing, and civilization (of sorts) is moving in to replace them. We follow a gang of those outlaws, robbers, killers/murderers as they try to pull off their one last job and step away, and it's a testament to the acting on display and screenplay that we feel any sympathy at all to these men. Like few movies I've ever seen, there is a doomed quality to these men who are working with limited time on their hands. They know the door is closing on them, more than likely a bloody death awaiting them if they don't figure out something soon.
Where Peckinpah's screenplay is so strong is in its characterization and its depth. There's a whole lot of acting talent on display in 'Bunch,' and for much of the cast, this is their all-time best performance or certainly one of their best. Holden's Pike Bishop is one of the most fascinating characters ever in my book, an aging outlaw who's outlived his time but doesn't know what else to do. Borgnine too is excellent as Dutch, his right-hand man who can also see the writing on the wall. Their scene together after the early botched robbery is essential, two men who potentially know what awaits them but go into things willingly because maybe that ending is what's supposed to happen. On the counter, Ryan's Deke Thornton is equally tragic. He's riding after his old partner, Bishop, and would much rather be riding with them than chasing them. But as the script relies on, your word is your word, and these men live by that coda.
One of the many things Peckinpah loved to touch on in his films was that bond of men under fire who come through while others don't. Holden's Pike is the mouthpiece for that concept, of giving your word and sticking by it even when it'd be far easier to tuck your tail and run. We see that again and again with the bunch, including Pike, Dutch, old, grizzled Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), the crass, unsavory Gorch brothers, Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the youngest of the group, a fiery Mexican. What's interesting is that though Pike and the bunch claim to live by this coda, they continue to fall short of actually living up to it. It's when they realize their faults in that department that the story takes a far more tragic turn toward the inevitable ending that you just knew was coming.
Because the already-mentioned star power wasn't enough, here's some more! Along with Ryan, look for scene-chewing Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as two scummy bounty hunters with Albert Dekker as the railroad magnate "employing" them. Emilio Fernandez is perfectly slimy as Mapache, the Mexican general claiming to be some sort of freedom fighter but it seems it is all for show, for more power, with Jorge Russek and Alfonso Arau (El Guapo in Three Amigos) as his subordinate officers. Also look for Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Chano Urueta in key (if small) supporting parts.
What 'Bunch' has become synonymous with over the years is its groundbreaking, sometimes horrifying portrayal of on-screen violence. It's not that Peckinpah lingers on the violence for the sake of shock value. Far from it, but instead he makes it into an art form. The idea of a 'dance of death' comes to mind in any portrayal of violence with three main set pieces (1. The opening robbery turned into a bloody shootout 2. A prolonged train robbery and 3. The final, bullet-riddled and blood-splattered gun battle). The editing is ridiculously fast and cut in with perfect uses of slow motion. Simply put, there is an art to Peckinpah's use of violence, both in the editing, in the overwhelming use of slow-motion blood squibs, and the impact of that violence we're seeing. If Bonnie and Clyde opened the door some for its own use of on-screen violence, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch kicked that door wide open. Almost 50 years later, it still resonates, and it's clear the impact it had on hundreds and thousands of movies released since.
It all builds to maybe the most memorable action sequence of all-time. If it's not No. 1, it certainly belongs in the conversation. In a sequence that's been dubbed "The Battle of Bloody Porch," it all comes together in an extended sequence that has lost none of its edge since its release in 1969. This is a transfixing scene that is equal parts horrifying and startling but you just can't look away. There are too many great moments just in this scene alone to mention, including an improvised walk the Bunch takes on their way to a final showdown (maybe the movie's second-strongest sequence). It is followed by a quick, shocking death, and then an eerie moment of silence that hangs in the air. With one gunshot, it is on, bullets flying thick in the air. Obvious SPOILERS but you can watch it HERE. If you haven't seen the movie, I don't recommend watching the sequence out of context. Watch the movie and soak it all in as part of the whole product. Just a remarkable extended sequence with virtually no music. The focus is the characters, violence and death. Nothing more. Nothing less.
A classic in every sense of the word. I pick something new up with every viewing, and it never loses any of its impact. A film without a weakness.
The Wild Bunch (1969): ****/****