An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the "traditional" American West is disappearing around them.
Brutal and elegiac masterpiece. Outlaws led by Pike Bishop on the Mexican/U.S. frontier face not only the passing of time, but bounty hunters (led by former partner of Pike, Deke Thornton) and the Mexican army as well. In 1969 Sam Peckinpah picked up the torch that Arthur Penn lit with 1967's "Bonnie & Clyde", and literally poured gasoline on it to impact on cinema to the point that the shock wave is still being felt today. The death of the "Motion Picture Production Code" in 1967 ushered in a new era for cinema goers, it was a time for brave and intelligent directors to step up to the plate to deliver stark and emotive thunder, and with "The Wild Bunch", director Sam Peckinpah achieved this by the shed load. The Wild Bunch doesn't set out to be liked, it is a harsh eye opening perception of the Western genre, this is the other side of the coin to the millions of Westerns that whoop and holler as the hero gets the girl and rides off into the sunset. Peckinpah's piece is thematically harsh and sad for the protagonists, for these are men out of their time, this is a despicable group of men, driven by greed and cynicism, they think of nothing to selling arms to a vile amoral army across the border. The film opens with a glorious credit sequence as we witness "The Bunch" riding into town, the picture freeze frames in black & white for each credit offering, from here on in we know that we are to witness something different, and yes, something very special. The film is book-ended by ferocious bloody carnage, and sandwiched in the middle is an equally brilliant train robbery and a slow-mo bridge destruction of high quality. Yet the impact of these sequences are only enhanced because the quality of the writing is so good (Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner alongside Peckinpah). There's no pointless discussions or scene filling explanations of the obvious. Each passage, in each segment, is thought through to gain credibility for the shattering and bloody climax. There is of course one massive and intriguing question that hangs over the film - just how did Peckinpah make such low moral men appear as heroes, as the "four outlaws of the apocalypse" stroll into town, their fate to them already known?. Well I'm not here to tell you that because you need to witness the film in its entirety for yourself. But it's merely one cheeky point of note in a truly majestic piece of work. A film that even today stands up as one of the greatest American films ever made. 10/10
There are no ‘good guys’ in The Wild Bunch, only bad guys and worse guys. The titular bunch are thieves and killers, but at least they won’t rob a dead man – unlike the posse of bounty hunters, led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), sent by the railroad company to bring the bunch in dead or alive. Deke, himself a former bunch member, is considerably more evolved than the mercenaries railroad man Harrigan (Albert Dekker) has saddled him with (“chicken-stealing gutter trash,” Deke calls them). There is no love lost between Deke and bunch leader Pike Bishop (William Holden), but the former has only accepted the task of capturing the latter because success means freedom (Deke has been temporarily released from jail expressly to track down the bunch; as Harrigan warns him, it’s “Thirty days to get Pike or 30 days back to Yuma”); on the other hand, Pike holds no ill will toward Deke because he would do the same were the situation reversed. This is interesting because, according to Roger Ebert, men like Pike and Deke live (and, as it turns out, also die) by a code, and “The men provided to [Deke] by a railroad mogul are shifty and unreliable; they don't understand the code of the bunch” – but then the rest of the bunch doesn’t necessarily understand it either. Pike respects that Deke has given his word that he will chase the bunch to hell and back and hell again if need be; that the word was given to the railroad company is immaterial. But to Pike’s second in command, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), “That ain't what counts! It's who you give [your word] to.” So the code is at best hazy even to the bunch, and perhaps only Pike and Deke are really privy to it – but, considering they have been at odds with each other since before the events of the film, it stands to reason that one of them must have broken it. All of that notwithstanding, the code exists; maybe only in name, but it does – it has to, otherwise what do aging pistoleros such as Pike, and Deke, and Dutch, and Lyle (Warren Oates), and Tector (Ben Johnson) have left to convince themselves that they are at least the bad guys and not the worse? The only character who still believes in something is the much younger Angel (Jaime Sánchez), who wants to give some of the guns the gang plans to steal for the sadistic General Mapache (Emilio Fernández) to a band of Pancho Villa supporters (Pike and the others agree, though not before making sure Angel will forfeit his share of their earnings in exchange). While Angel has ideals, the others have dreams – mainly of “quitting” after one “last job” –, but it makes little difference; they all pay the price for their hopes and ambitions, because they have all gone the wrong away about them. If there ever was a film illustrating that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, this is it. And yet, those bad guys… well, they weren’t all that bad after all, were they?