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The Wild Bunch Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 1, 2006

    The Wild Bunch Review
    The Shootout.

    That final, cathartic release of all the tension, all the build-up in a hail of hot, self-righteous lead. It's the one staple ingredient of any western worth its salt. From the almost polite showdowns of High Noon and Rio Bravo to the realistic, yet elaborate, re-workings of Unforgiven and Wyatt Earp, the centre-stage finale has a natural, in-built story arc all of its own. Sergio Leone painted it into an exquisite art form of protracted, fatalistic expressions, teasing more with the suspense before the shooting than the eventual pyrotechnics. A loud crack, a puff of smoke and down the slowest guy went.

    But Sam Peckinpah blew all that pretension away and just turned the screen into a slaughterhouse. “Man, woman or child - when the shooting starts,” he seemed to be saying, “you're all fair game.”

    Be warned ... here there be unavoidable spoilers.

    Four grizzled, alcohol-soaked, world-weary outlaws strap on their guns and stride, side by side, into the compound of a vicious, tin-pot Mexican general and face-off against him and his entire army. The four, all that remains of the Wild Bunch, are violent, morally bankrupt desperadoes who have killed their way south of the border, chasing a doomed way of life in a grim attempt to keep their own legends alive. They are physically, geographically and metaphorically at the end of the line. Their last heist has gone bad, their dreams are in tatters, and only Hell will roll out a welcome mat for them. They're on borrowed time and they know it. The world has changed and it no longer has room in it for their kind. Theirs having now become literally a dying breed. But, just for once, at the end of their eventful, but despicable lives, they're going to do what's right. They've come for their friend, a tortured and humiliated captive, but each of them knows that they won't be making that long walk back.

    And so begins the Greatest Set-Piece Climax in motion picture history. Welcome, folks, to the shocking and controversial world of Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.


    It may seem a little strange to begin a review with a précis of the end of the film. But, really, that is entirely the point. The end. And there is no way you can talk about Peckinpah's tribute to death and destruction without confronting it head on, as The Wild Bunch does. Just as Jim Morrison sang it, the end is the only friend that they have got. The whole film has stated this all along ... that the inevitable is just waiting patiently for them to catch up with it. But it is about more than just the end of the titular gang. For Peckinpah, finally able to get his anti-authoritarian and nihilistic vision past the kneedling constraints of the studios in relatively one piece, it was a chance to comment on the true end of the Wild West - a demise that he, himself, felt with an almost apocalyptic agony. The end of a lifestyle that he adored. The turning point in America's history that he couldn't abide or fathom - the inexorable encroachment of the 20th Century. So, together with his Wild Bunch he chose to walk out and meet that sad end. But he, and they, were sure as hell gonna go down fighting. And have themselves some fun along the way.

    “They're blowing this town all to hell!”

    We meet Pike Bishop's gang during a bank robbery from which they will have to shoot their out. Dressed as US soldiers they blast their way through an ambush that has been set up by the vengeful railroad company, who employ a rag-tag crew of mercenaries, bounty-hunters and ex-cons, all scumbag no-hopers just as gleefully violent as their quarry, only a lot more indiscriminate, to bring them down. The resulting chaos throws you into this brutal conflict without time to draw breath, or allegiance to any side. Like the unfortunate temperance marchers - families in a joyous procession - who get caught horrifically in the crossfire and are mowed or trampled down, we are like random victims in a senseless massacre. We've turned the wrong corner and strayed directly into the abyss. Leaving many casualties on both sides, the Wild Bunch escape the town and flee for the border. Only in Mexico can they now find refuge. But, in hot pursuit, is Pike's former friend and associate, Deke Thornton - now a parolee and under the threat of further incarceration if he doesn't deliver Bishop face-down over a saddle within thirty days - who reluctantly leads the surviving members of the street-trash ambush.

    “It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do.”

    In the turmoil of a Revolution-torn Mexico - the lawlessness south of the border represents the closest thing to home that they can find - the Wild Bunch make the acquaintance of General Mapache, a tequila-addled Federale with grand ideas for his own delinquent little empire. Mapache wants to rob guns from a US Army supply depot to aid him in his struggle against the Villistas, but is too afraid to do it himself, lest he incur the wrath of their powerful neighbours in the already delicate situation that his country faces. Which is where Bishop and his gang, sensing the last job that they'll need to do in order to set themselves up at last, come in. So, in return for ten thousand dollars in gold, he and his men will rob the supply train for them. Needless to say, many complications ensue and this “last job” creates the fateful stand-off that gives Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch their one-way ticket to immortality. Despite their nefarious ways, the gang still adhere to a code of honour that even the apparent “good” guys in the tale could never understand. Even when faced with insurmountable odds, they will stick together and fight as one until the last bullet is fired.

    “If they move ... kill 'em.”

    The Bunch loses a few in the opening battle, thus the gang we get to know are Pike Bishop (William Holden in a career best performance), stalwart lieutenant Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson respectively), the Mexican member and patriotic catalyst Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and grizzled old-timer Freddy Sykes (Edmund O'Brien). All are over-the-hill, rundown and dangerous. Even when not engaged in calamitous battles with their numerous enemies, they fight amongst themselves, their squabbling a precarious prelude to the violence that rules their lives. When Sykes leads them across treacherous sand-dunes, and a few of the horses take a dive down the slope, Tector Gorch's anger almost puts a bullet in the garrulous old soak's head. Peckinpah is at pains to show us that these men are not heroes. They are making their way in the world the only way that they know how - with guns and the will to use them, no matter who gets in the way. But the passage of time has taken its toll. Experts to a man they may be, but age has slowed them, dulled their wits and the arrival of a new century has left them behind, clutching for a reason to go on. Automobiles on the streets confound them, and there's even talk of a vehicle that can fly sixty miles through the air, though pig-headed Tector won't hear of it. Fabulous new machine guns are on the market - something that does take their fancy (with utterly earth-shattering results, come the finale) - and the use of grenades, pump-action shotguns and semi-automatic Colt 45s have replaced the old six-shooters and Winchester rifles that we knew and loved. The times may have changed, but the technology of death-dealing has remained as steady as ever. Yet, the Bunch grow uneasy at the unpredictability of Mapache (a fantastic performance from Emilio Fernandez) and find themselves caught up in events they are beyond even their capacity for quick getaways. Besides, poor old Pike can hardly even mount his horse any longer, a career of devil-may-care escapades having worn him down. Pretty soon, they will have no choice other than to take that final, fatally courageous walk into oblivion. But, when the time comes, they will have big grins on their faces.

    “We all dream of being a child again.”

    Co-written by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is a lean tale stretched across an awesome, and meticulously detailed landscape, that paints an ultra-realistic evocation of the era. Compare it to the similarly-themed Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (also from 1969 and featuring virtually the same inevitable conclusion) and the big star sheen of the ever-popular Paul Newman and Robert Redford vehicle comes up disastrously short. Peckinpah had this story in his blood.This, more than any of his other films, western or not (and there have been as many failures as successes) is the summation of his thoughts, vision and single-minded retaliation against the system. Warren Oates may be playing the fading Sam Peckinpah of later years in the blistering Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (itself a contemporary western set in the lost limbo-land of Tex-Mex amorality), but there is more of the real Sam-the-renegade revealed here. The Wild Bunch, the gang themselves as much as the film, epitomises his feelings at the conservative tirade he saw all around him. America had just limped through one of the darkest and most violent decades in its life - Vietnam, presidential assassinations and race riots puncturing her like a slow-bleed stomach wound - and this was his response, his wake-up call to the nation. Violence was everywhere, and the only way to combat it was to take it on, face to face. Just like in the old days that he admired and revered so much. When Pike and his gang opt to greet their annihilation, so does Peckinpah. He knew full well that his own self destructive tendencies of alcohol and drugs, which were, in the main, a form of vitriolic attack on the society around him, were just as much as sacrifice that had to be made as that undertaken by the Wild Bunch. And it is hard not to hear his own voice amid the frenzied scream from Lyle Gorch as he mans the big machine-gun at the end.

    “We ain't nothing like them. We don't hang nobody!”

    Obviously remembered mainly for the incredible slaughters that bookend what is actually a long and thoughtful movie, The Wild Bunch is also a wonderful character study of fractured alliances - both professionally and brotherly - loyalty, and a bond that transcends even the threat of death. The dogged hunter, Deke Thorton (Robert Ryan at his very best) admires his former buddy, Bishop, more than anybody else alive. He looks at the execrable dross that makes up his posse (including magnificent turns from Strother Martin as Coffer and L.Q. Jones as T.C., bounty hunters who are in a paradise of blood-soaked booty after every shootout) and we can sense his longing to be riding with the Bunch once more. Although his fear of going back to prison is extremely valid, considering the harsh treatment he received there, we know that the last thing on earth he wants to do when he meets his quarry is kill him. There is an early moment when Deke and Pike have each other in their sights, but both opt to shoot the guys standing off to one side, letting one another off the hook. Partly, this is out of respect and a loyalty that goes far back. But it is also out of a mutual need for the adventure, for the giddy thrill of it all. To keep the chase alive. It is something only members of the Wild Bunch could ever understand. This restored Director's Cut retains the extra ten minutes or so that fleshes out their back story and the depth of the relationship between them is poignantly and touching revealed. The previous DVD release was the fuller version too, so don't go expecting anything here that you hadn't, perhaps, already seen. We are also treated to the grand, large-scale battle that successfully fleshes out the character of Mapache. No longer is he merely the spaced-out wannabe dictator who can barely even focus let alone give orders. It is great to see this sequence for the sight of the small boy who looks up to his leader with awe and pride, as it shows that Mapache does possess courage and charisma and can actually be an inspiring leader. When he looks back at the boy there is a wonderful, albeit brief, expression of compassion.

    “We've come for Angel.”

    The violence, as we know, is jaw-dropping. Peckinpah truly ushered in a whole new onslaught of films with their graphic depiction of inter-personal mayhem liberated with the power of his landmark movie. It's true that Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde from two years prior had found great pleasure in igniting the blood-squibs on Fay Dunaway and Warren Beatty, and George Romero had certainly taken the pushing of boundaries a little further with his celebrated Night Of The Living Dead only the year before. But The Wild Bunch would go spectacularly and gruesomely beyond anything other than real-life trench warfare in its visual representation of what bullets could do to the human body. It heralded the birth of a new and meaner form of cinema that would take root within every genre, spawning a brand of picture that would take no prisoners and reflect the hidden atrocities that an entire generation of Americans were too terrified to confront. In real-life, the East had become the new Western Frontier, with Vietnam like the Little Big Horn on acid. Violence was shown on the news every night as the horror of war was brought home, but nobody had seen anything like this before. For violence, just like the theme of the end of everything, is what this film is all about. Oh, you can find subtexts aplenty in the murky, soulless world of Pike Bishop and his gang's last run, but Peckinpah's emphatic statement is wholly, inescapably and indulgently about man's brutality towards his fellow man.

    “T.C. Tee-Cee! Look, it's them. It's the Gorch's!

    The battles that open and close the film, lasting barely fifteen minutes apiece in a film that runs for two-and-a-half hours, are the most dramatic and notorious that I have ever seen. Forget Saving Private Ryan, without The Wild Bunch Spielberg's bodycount would have been as bloodless as chimps' tea party. Using his patented flash-cuts of real-time amid slow-motion welters of gory action, and punctuating his set-pieces with vivid editing by Lou Lombardo (who clocked up more individual edits during the final bloodbath than some entire films. Terence Malik's combined work put together, anybody?) he created a miasma of mesmerising mutilation that just pounds away at you, viscerally emptying buckets of offal across the screen. His trademarked techniques, much-copied since, of course, were no stylish flash in the pan just to maximise the effect of the bloodletting, either. Whilst serving with the US Marines in World War II, Peckinpah witnessed a Chinese coolie dropped by sniper fire and famously recalled the moment as “the longest split second of my life.” His razor-cut/slow-mo combinations are an attempt to recapture that same breathlessly detailed instance between life and death. No-one since has come even close to portraying it as realistically, or as heart-stoppingly as Peckinpah. Especially you, Walter Hill, no matter how much you tried in the eighties with The Warriors, 48 Hrs and, especially, a rehash of this very film with Nick Nolte in Extreme Prejudice.

    “Come on, you lazy bastard!”

    Even though most of the film relies on elegiac storytelling to convey its message of aggressive reaction to change, the atmosphere of violence pervades all. Death is only ever a step away. But the cleverest and most influential aspect of all this doom - and it is this that the film's naysayers and critics keep failing to grasp - is that Peckinpah is not simply revelling in the glorification of violence, he's celebrating the grand signature of mutual extinction. And, if you look, there's some awful and chaotic, yet exhilarating, beauty to be found in this bloody maelstrom. The moment when the Wild Bunch have actually achieved the impossible - and are really holding Mapache's entire army at bay - is one of the most electrifying you will ever see. Check out the soldier who even begins to put his hands up in surrender! Dutch's exultant, triumphant grin as the four survey the kingdom they have just toppled and then Pike's what-the-hell decision to break the spell with his Colt 45. Even Sergio Leone at his most intensely inspired could not match this magical moment. And then the wonderful turns on the machine-gun that Tector, Lyle (God, that scream goes through me every time I hear it) and finally Pike take, cutting a swathe through heroic cinema's iconic legacy with almost orgasmic rage. There's so much indelible imagery thrown at you in the last twenty minutes or so that your mind's eye will simply never let you forget it. But the most amazing, almost transcendent scene - and I know I am not alone in citing this - revolves around Deke Thornton taking Pike's old pistol from its holster. When Jerry Fielding's fantastic score swells here, I defy you not feel a lump in your throat the size of Nebraska. Majestic.

    So, the film that broke the mould. Censors struggled with it, the public was horrified by it and the western died beneath it. Barring the brilliant Cross Of Iron with James Coburn, Sam Peckinpah would never be this good again. Epitomising the “troubled genius” like a self-tooled cliché, the filmmaker would struggle with personal demons in a vain rage against the system that he would never again win. The Wild Bunch is evidence that he was an exceptional talent and it is, in my opinion, an absolute masterpiece that demands attention. A classic and a milestone in movie history.