The Wild Bunch
My favorite western of all time. Picture this: Bill Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, and Ben Johnson. My god, they’d plow through The Magnificent Seven like Panzers through Belgium. They’d eat John Wayne and Randolph Scott for lunch, and chew up Clint Eastwood for an appetizer.
The tension in this film starts right with the opening credits. It is 1913. We see a group of about eight guys on horses, dressed in US Army khaki, riding into a dusty little town, to drum and cymbal music by Jerry Fielding. We alternate with shots of children pitting big red ants against a scorpion, then setting the bugs on fire. The soldiers go into a bank, draw down on everybody in sight, and Holden says, “If they move, kill ‘em.” Freeze frame: “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.”
Perched on rooftops across the street is Robert Ryan, who used to be part of this gang, and a motley crew of hired bounty hunters. It’s an ambush. Down the street, a temperance meeting is breaking up and the old ladies and reformed sots are marching right down the middle. The gunfight begins, and it’s a slaughter of teetotalers. Holden, as Pike Bishop, deliberately uses the innocent bystanders to confuse the issue as the gang makes its escape. And he’s supposed to be the good guy. Sort of.
Now re-wind your consciousness to 1969, if you are old enough to remember that turbulent year. Bear in mind, every cliché is startling and original the first time you see it. Back then, when a guy got shot he grabbed his chest or belly, screwed up his face, maybe said “You got me, copper!” and collapsed artfully. Maybe there would be a spot of blood on his shirt. Peckinpah almost single-handedly destroyed that idiocy. Blood exploded from bodies, which twisted and turned in slow motion. Guys were lifted off their feet when hit with shotgun blasts. Sure, you’ve seen it a billion times now, it is the most overworked stuff in show biz, but it was jaw-dropping back then. I sat there stunned as the violence was choreographed like a dance of death.
There’s a lot more going for this film than just its violence. All the other cast is excellent, and there’s even comic relief that’s almost Shakespearean, or at least Lucasian, provided by Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, sort of like R2D2 and C3PO. The photography by Lucien Ballard is the best since some of John Ford’s westerns. Most of it is in Mexico, and you just feel hot. There is one of the most memorable stunts I’ve ever seen, when a big wooden bridge full of soldiers on horseback is dynamited and they all fall into a river.
This gang knows their day is done, they’re getting too old for this work. Without saying a word about it, they set out to find their deaths in a bloodbath unlike anything ever seen on the screen at that time.
It is clear that Peckinpah loves Mexico and the Mexican people, and hates the scumbags who have dominated them for most of their history. One note: be sure to see the restored director’s cut. The release version, which is the first one I saw, is still a great film, but the restored scenes give it much more depth.