There are westerns and there are Westerns. During the early years of Hollywood the western was a staple part of the film industry able to endure from the earliest filmmakers through the transition to sound, then colour and on. In fact during the fifties / sixties the western was also a staple part of the new TV format. Produced quickly they were pretty formulaic in there plot, in essence “Cowboys and Indians”. From this genre there are few directors whose films can ever be called “Classic”. John Ford is one, able to produce some of the best known westerns ever and making John Wayne an American icon. Sergio Leone was another, making an icon of Clint Eastwood, at the time a TV star from… westerns. Then there is Sam Peckinpah. Himself a veteran TV director, cutting his teeth in the western format. He burst onto the cinema screen with Ride the High Country (1962), a story filled with the Peckinpahian ideals, ageing, coming to terms with the new, friendship and loyalty tested; it is a magnificent film and brought with it a new and exciting force behind the ageing genre. After this high start, his next film, Major Dundee was taken from him and butchered by the studios, so much so that even though Peckinpah's name was on the title he refused anything to do with it. In fact the trouble he caused meant he was banned from making another film in Hollywood for four years. This was 1965. Many thought he would not work in studio cinema again, boy were they wrong.
Fast forward to 1968, writers Walon Green, Roy N. Sedor and producer Phil Feldman had a script for a film entitled The Wild Bunch; all they needed was a director. Enter Sam Peckinpah, who had been working out a meagre existence back on the small screen. With his input (he is credited with the screenplay) The Wild Bunch grew and grew becoming so much more than just another western. Following the “last job before retiring” of Pike (Holden) and his gang, the ‘Bunch’ of the title, Peckinpah takes us on an extended posse hunt, incorporating all his personal ideals and infusing the tight dynamic script with hard edge to produce one of the best westerns, nay best movies, ever filmed.
Right from the off there is something very special about The Wild Bunch. The opening credits juxtapose ants swarming a scorpion with the Bunch riding into town in what is a metaphor for the Bunch’s existence, the up and coming battle and bookends their final and hopelessly outnumbered stand. The scene itself, like many of the best scenes in any Peckinpah film was improvised on the day and this is when he is at his very, very best. The very fist line of the film closely followed by Peckinpah’s credit might be his epitaph “If they move kill ‘em”. The failed robbery shoot out at the beginning of the film was just a taster for the cinematic violence that was to follow, but even so it was big and bold enough to be the climax of other, lesser, films. The robbery was a set up by the railway firm to try to capture/kill Pike and his men, realising this they head to Mexico to escape the posse. Whilst there Pike agrees to take one last job before retiring; he agrees to steal a consignment of rifles for ‘General’ Mapache (wonderfully portrayed by Emilio Fernandez). The plan goes without real incident, their escape route involving detonating a bridge with dynamite (in what was the biggest stunt and the last scene filmed) dumping the pursuing posse in the river.
When handing over the rifles in a calculated move of trust against blackmail, Mapache rightly guesses that Pike donated one of the rifle cases to Angel, newest member of the Bunch to give to his kin, Mexican Revolutionaries. It costs them dear. Powerless to stop him, Mapache takes Angel hostage for torturous sport. After reflecting on this just outside Mapache’s fortress, Pike and his hardened Bunch act on their philosophy of “a man without loyalty is nothing” and the stage is set for one of the best scenes in cinematic history. I’m not talking about the bloody shootout, on which more later, but the walk towards it. Again it was a scene improvised on the day from a single line in the script. It epitomises Peckinpah’s maverick nature, the four lone gun men, resigned, in their walk to destiny; each step bringing to a close their existence, not only their lives, but their very way of life, seen in every line of their weary faces. Many scenes in many films have tried to capture that raw emotion, the power, that elegance; whilst some have come close none have matched. And it is made all the more powerful by the violence of the shootout immediately following. Up until The Wild Bunch, mainstream cinematic violence had hitherto been seen as rather tame, seen but not felt, if you will, especially within the western genre. This was not Peckinpah’s take; he wanted to show violence for what it was; ugly, brutal and messy. To this end he loaded up his extras and actors alike with squibs packed with gallon upon gallon of blood. Filmed in slow motion and centre stage the bullet wounds really are just that; ugly, brutal and messy. The film ushered in a new wave of cinematic violence with the likes of Peckinpah’s own Straw Dogs and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange following in its wake. Even by today’s blood stained standards The Wild Bunch is a lot to stomach and on that front its legacy is assured.
However, the film is so much more than the violence that most remember it for. There are uniformly excellent performances from all the principle cast; the story goes that William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez and Ben Johnson sat on the first day of principle photography and didn’t know their lines; Peckinpah, like a sheriff of old, scolded them in his darkest, meanest voice and within an hour all were ready to roll. This gruff and head strong attitude drove the actors to give some of the finest performances of their career; particularly Holden as Pike. His story and in essence the reason for the film, of running out on a friend that was subsequently caught and tortured (Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton the leader of the posse hunting the Bunch) haunts his every waking hour. It’s our sympathy for this tragic character, who is really nothing more than a violent thug, that turns our perspective on the characters. Yes they are ruthless, yes they are brutal, but there is a humanity there that spurs our emotion and we side with them in all their excesses. The arguments between divided loyalties, “He gave his word” “It ain’t his word, it’s who he gives it too” that really hammer home the love these men have for each other, even when they are pitched against themselves. They are filled with the magnetic quality that Peckinpah himself had. Much is made of this back story to Pike which is ironic because it was these very scenes that were removed by the studio after the films initial run in 1969. These and a few other character moments make up some eleven minutes of footage removed to reduce the films run time to two hours to allow more screenings per day; a horrific practice and one that still happens to this day. Restored back on standard DVD in 1999 and again in the excellent two disc special edition last year, this HD print is also the ‘director’s cut’.
A lot has been said about The Wild Bunch in the last thirty eight years, nearly all of it good. The fact that it is still talked about is a testament to its magnificence. The fact that it still has the power to enthral and to disgust is a testament to Peckinpah’s vision. The fact that it can stand up to today’s films and then outshine them is a testament to how well crafted and all encompassing The Wild Bunch really is. If the film could be likened to someone’s personality then that person would be Sam Peckinpah; A gruff, gritty exterior hiding a tender soul with a charisma that demands attention and a heart that can move mountains. If you only get the chance to see one film in your life, then The Wild Bunch might well be worth choosing.
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