Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Alfonso Arau
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Expectations: High. It’s The Wild Bunch.
When I was a teenager I loved The Wild Bunch because it was bloody and violent in ways that I had never seen in a classic western. This violence — and the way it was edited — would forever change the course of American cinema. Re-watching the film in my 30s, I am struck by how the violence is never presented as entertainment. It is instead meant to affect the viewer, and while 45 years of violent, bloody filmmaking have definitely softened its impact a bit, it’s still incredibly brutal and hard to watch at times. The violence also makes the film feel a lot more modern than its contemporaries, which I’m sure is a huge reason why this film has continued to resonate with audiences over the years.
On the surface, The Wild Bunch is about a gang of bandits who are looking to make one last score before getting out of the game. On their tail is the calm, mild-mannered Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who was once a trusted member of the outlaw group. It’s a rather simple and often-used story, but The Wild Bunch never feels simple or clichéd. One of the first images on-screen shows a group of children huddled around a colony of red ants attacking a small group of scorpions. This image is not only striking, but it is representative of the rest of the film and the struggles of the main character Pike (not to mention our own fascination with watching violent struggles).
Pike (William Holden) is the leader of the bandits, and he’s ready to settle down. His leg was injured a while back so he’s no longer the spry gang leader he once was, and at this point in his life he’s got nothing left to live for. He is the scorpion, stinging those around him to the point of being alone, and the weight of his troubled past eats at him night and day like an unrelenting colony of ants. There’s no future for a man like him; death is an inevitability with such an unremitting force of nature constantly feasting on his body and soul. This is a hard lesson to come to terms with, and this entire theme (which informs and drives the film) is one that was completely lost on me during my teenage viewings. Perhaps that’s why I thought many of the non-action scenes were so boring back then.
While this character’s core psychology is interesting and engaging, it’s where Peckinpah takes the character that really makes The Wild Bunch soar. Throughout the film, Peckinpah includes shots of children watching the violence that these old men bring with them. Sometimes the children smile, sometimes they imitate what they saw, firing imaginary pistols at each other. These moments are constant reminders that the level of stark violence that dominated the world of Pike and his contemporaries is learned and not in-born. Humans have a propensity for violence, and we will always be drawn towards it, but willfully killing without remorse is not a natural instinct. Ultimately, it is when Pike lays eyes on a small, helpless baby wrapped in blankets that this point is solidified in his mind. The world is moving on, this is no country for old men and their old, wild ways. Due to finally connecting with and understanding this theme, I found The Wild Bunch oddly optimistic for such a bloody, gritty, violent film.
And that violence is incredibly well filmed. Specifically, it’s the editing that takes the film beyond being a simple western and allows it to achieve mythic status as a piece of cinema art. The violence is not merely shown in stark reality, it is inserted between gun blasts in quick shots filmed in slow motion. The combo of exploding blood squibs, slow motion and brilliantly composed shots on-screen for only a quick second is quite an effective example of montage (the construction of the scene, not the kickass ’80s use of the term). It creates the feeling of an intensely brutal battle, even though we are only taking it in through small bits and pieces. Our mind fills in the blanks between the shots; editing this good is akin to telepathy.
If you’ve never seen The Wild Bunch, you’re missing out on one of the best American westerns of all time. It will always be a film most known for its use of violence, but what’ll keep me coming back for more is Pike’s character arc and how he deals with the end of the wild world he’s known his whole life.
The Wild Bunch is the Large Association of Movie Blogs’s (LAMB) Movie of the Month! Head over to the LAMB site for more reviews of the film, as well as the LAMBCast podcast discussing the film (which will be out sometime next week, I had to post this one early…)!