1960s, 3.5/4, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Western

The Wild Bunch

#4 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

Peckinpah met great success with “Noon Wine”, his television film starring Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, and he was able to secure funding for his grand, revisionist western, The Wild Bunch. John Wayne saw this and bemoaned the death of the myth of the Old West. Dirty and violent, Peckinpah’s exploration of brotherhood in a dangerous world without honor feels like everything Sergio Leone was trying to do with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only much more successfully.

The titular bunch are a band of outlaws led by Pike (William Holden) with his second in command Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) enter the small Western town of Starbuck to rob the railroad payroll office. Atop a building across the street stands Deke (Robert Ryan), Pike’s former partner who went to prison and is now working at the behest of Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the railroad man out to stop Pike no matter what, in order to avoid prison. Using a band of degenerates as support, Deke’s men open fire down into the crowded streets as Pike and his men leave in the middle of a temperance march. It’s a bloodbath, and Pike only gets away with four of his men, the rest dying in the streets. It was all a setup, their bogs of gold being nothing but steel washers, and having fled to Mexico, they are faced with an uncertain future.

This is where the narrative meat of the film resides. It’s a common sight in Peckinpah’s work, all the way back into The Westerner, to see men bond in violent ways. The scene where Pike manages his men, in particular the animosity that erupts between Lyle (Warren Oates) and Angel (Jaime Sanchez) with Lyle wanting Angel to take a smaller share, the reveal of the washers, the mutual disappointment in the situation, and the comradery of five men sharing the same awful fate. Angel is the newest member of the gang, and this terrible result, the loss of the promised gold and the survival after a bloodbath, brings him in as a full member. They gain direction when they return to Angel’s hometown and discover that the Mexican general Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) raided it and carried off Angel’s girl Teresa (Sonia Amelio) with her going willingly. This gives them direction again while the ultimate goal of the effort to find Mapache is an unspoken conflict. Angel wants revenge, but Mapache represents a potential new score somehow.

The thin line between violence and non-violence in this world gets crossed multiple times when the bunch meet Mapache, sitting at a table nearby until Angel sees Teresa. She’s dismissive of him, openly happy to be with the man who killed his father in the village, and he shoots her while she sits on Mapache’s lap. More male bonding happens through the unreliability of women (though Angel gets a bit of a beating for a while), and Mapache promises the bunch $10,000 to rob a US Army train just across the border, steal the sixteen cases of guns, and bring them to Mapache to help him in his fight against Pancho Villa. Mapache is nothing but a glorified thug, though, and the bunch feels no loyalty towards him, much less basic trust.

The train robbery is strong action filming by Peckinpah, evolving from a heist to a cat and mouse chase with Deke in the train (his presence being based on a hunch that Pike would target it, which is thin, to be honest). The pursuit goes on horses and deep into the Mexican countryside, after an exploding bridge that sends Deke and his men swimming, of course.

The final third of the film gets caught up in the process around extracting payment from Mapache while protecting the bunch themselves. Pike goes in first with information around where one fourth of the stash is hidden, which he exchanges for one fourth of the gold. This process repeats until Angel and Dutch deliver the last fourth, minus one box. Mapache sees through the excuse that it was lost instantly, knowing the Angel delivered it to his brethren fighting Mapache, and only Dutch gets away. Suddenly, the bunch is faced with their moral quandary.

Up until this moment, I’m entertained by this gritty look at the dying Old West in the 1910s. It’s a story of a handful of men trying to find their way in a world that does not fit them, but it’s a rather loose narrative. The movement from the opening shootout to Mapache feels meandering. The process around getting the payment feels dragged out and unnecessarily detailed (it seems designed to get Angel in a place where he would get captured without having the whole bunch around to make a decision on the spot). It’s good, solid stuff. The finale, the most famous part of the film, is something else though.

For all the narrative issues I have with the first two-hours or so, there is real character work going on to bond these men together. Facing the real breakup of their group at the hands of Mapache, a bandit with a title that they see as lower than themselves despite his position at the head of a small army, the men wordlessly come together to do what they know have to do: save Angel. That decision is a bloody one, leading to the carnage that made the film famous.

That carnage is brutal, over-the-top, and still grounded in the emotional reality of these men, caught out of their own time, finding a way to go out on their own terms, by using a machine gun to mow down a small army of Mexican troops out of vengeance. Peckinpah has really left his mark on cinema because of how he films violence. There are the flashier elements like his occasional use of slow motion and quick editing, but he had the explicit desire to inform the audience what it must feel like to be gunned down. The chaos that erupts, even with the quick cutting, is surprisingly coherent. It helps that the action takes place on a relatively small stage. The heroes are on a raised platform in an amphitheater-like building without a roof, so it’s all about those at top shooting down at those trying to come up with the occasional action from someone trying to come in from above. It also helps that these men are doomed and we don’t have to watch over-complicated heroics as they get away.

Just outside of it all is Deke, who comes in at the aftermath to see his former friend dead, his ticket out of jail punched, and nowhere to go in the modern world he left behind.

I should talk about the meta elements of the violence as well, I suppose. You don’t start an ultra-violent movie with a handful of kids gleefully watching a colony of fire ants eating a trio of scorpions without noting the connection. I do think it’s obvious that Peckinpah was self-aware of the breaking point with the past his vision of violence in the Old West had, but I find it hard to believe that he really disapproved of it. I think he enjoyed violence in movies, much like many people enjoy the kills in a good slasher, and he was needling the audience with that opening, telling them that they were going to enjoy his spectacle like the children were enjoying their own.

Some of the storytelling is a little loose for my tastes (there’s a bit of Pike’s backstory about the love of his life having a husband who caught them, shot her, and grazed Pike before running away without ever revealing his identity that I’m pretty sure is Deke but never actually comes up again after the flashback scene, for instance), but that ending really is a doozy. It’s not just technically impressive, but it also has a real narrative point about our characters. It doesn’t feel random but a natural extension of who they are and how they approach the world. These are not good men, and they are not going to go out well. They are going to go out their own way. There is honor among these thieves, even if they don’t have much honor outside of their own in-group. If this wasn’t an influence on how Scorsese viewed his characters, I’d be surprised.

After the intelligent mess that was Major Dundee and the emotionally gripping little portrait in “Noon Wine”, The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah going for broke. He made a film that is fully his, and it is a very strong drink for sure.

Rating: 3.5/4

12 thoughts on “The Wild Bunch”

  1. My problem with the Wild Bunch isn’t the violence. If anything, Peckinpah is showing violence is a more realistic way (if you can say that about the stylized sequences). Killings happen fast, bullets are indiscriminate and don’t care who you are or what you have going on in your life.

    My problem…I don’t like the characters. Most of them don’t even have the style to make me enjoy their escapades (like Richard III or Al Swearengen). I need good characters for me to really enjoy a movie. I can appreciate artistry, theme, even good performances, but I need character first. Seriously, Angel can go fuck himself.

    Honestly…I sorta think Sam Fuller does it better.

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    1. I really don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. I can still root for Pike.

      Peckinpah pretty obviously saw himself in most of his main mail characters. I really get the sense that he wouldn’t have been the kind of guy I would have wanted to ever hang around, but Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia just convinces me that he really needed a good hug.

      I’m happy to watch his doppelgangers on screen, though.

      Angel does screw everything up, almost on purpose, but that bond of the gang is more important than the screwups of one man, especially in a world that doesn’t want any of them.

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