THE WILD BUNCH, 1969
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Bo Hopkins
In the early 1900’s, a gang of outlaws rob a bank and flee to Mexico to escape the authorities.
Sam Peckinpah’s classic, "The Wild Bunch," has a claim to fame as one of the most violent movies in film history. In the 1960’s, many filmmakers began depicting ultra violence on screen. Penn’s "Bonnie and Clyde" and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy are examples of such films. Peckinpah was no different from his peers and set out to create a western which in many ways would be the opposite of films like "Stagecoach" and "My Darling Clementine." Yet, despite its deserved R rating, "The Wild Bunch" is in many ways quite similar to its western predecessors.
Remaining true to its genre, "The Wild Bunch" is essentially a story about the death of the wild west. Civilization creeps in via the Temperance Union, an immense threat to Pike Bishop’s (William Holden) way of life. Hoping to use the Temperance Union’s presence as a distraction, Bishop and his gang rob a bank in the midst of the march. While the bunch escapes into the hills, they soon realize that their robbery was unsuccessful and decide to flee to Mexico to escape the bounty hunters on their trail.
Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is hired to track down Bishop, his former partner in crime, in exchange for his release from prison. Both men appear ravaged by time, but Thornton appears a bit softer. Undoubtedly, Holden’s ragged appearance is due to his real life struggle with alcoholism. His matinee idol good looks have disappeared and he is perfectly cast in his role here as a curmudgeonly outlaw. The rest of the actors were excellently cast as well and it’s great fun to watch the interactions among the bunch. As I watched, I was reminded of a salty, washed up Rat Pack.
Ultimately, the bunch ends up in Mexico and becomes involved with a Mexican General and German officer who want them to steal American firearms in exchange for money. Bishop agrees to this but soon turns on the Germans and Mexicans after they betray a member of the bunch. Several times throughout the film, Bishop reflects on his time with Thornton, and it appears that at this moment he will not betray a friend again. Realizing that the end of his life near, he decides to go out in a blaze of ultra violent glory.
A flurry of gunfire appears on screen for about ten minutes. While the film has many detractors who have decried the violence, I would argue that the film’s message is one of anti-violence. The relentless gunfire actually becomes boring after a while and Peckinpah deftly how one can become numb to excessive violence.
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