Retro Review: ‘The Wild Bunch’

In 1969 famed controversial filmmaker Sam Peckinpah was tapped to produce a Western based on a story Warner Bros. had purchased the rights to a few years prior. Nothing much was expected of this movie, but Peckinpah took the creative freedom Warner Bros. gave him on this project and crafted what has become one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Assembling a cast of veteran cinematic tough guys, Peckinpah wrote and directed a film which would be equally controversial and respected The Wild Bunch.

In the 1910’s aging bandit Pike and his raucous crew, are looking to pull one final job before retirement and as we know this is bound to go wrong. Indeed it does as one of the former members of the crew, Pike and a band of shifty bounty hunters start a massive gun battle forcing the Bunch to go on the run. They end up in Mexico where they form an uneasy alliance with the warlord General Mapache and agree to pull a job to get him a cache of American military weapons. But a double cross from the general forces the Wild Bunch into what ends up being the bloodiest shoot-out in any Western film.

The Wild Bunch is many things, violent, fast-paced, well-acted, but what it is not is subtle. Keeping to the style we now know of the now revered writer/director Sam Peckinpah the Wild Bunch makes bold points about violence in media and societal changes in grand instantly memorable fashion. The movie he has given us is unapologetic in its raw grittiness and brutality, if this not what you want from your movie look elsewhere. Pike, Dutch, the Gorch brothers and the other characters of this film are by no means good guys, but they are bad guys who live by an old code. But now that they are firmly in the 1910’s so many of the ideals they clung to are relevant. Now even those supposedly on the side of law enforcement are not afraid to rack up a body count if they see fit.

The violence of the Wild Bunch has been a criticism since its 1969 release. Granted the film does begin and end with two epic set pieces filled with no shortage of bullets and dead bodies. Editor Lou Lombardo genius mix of quick cuts and slow-mo truly throws the carnage at you and force viewers to see and think about what is happening and how it is all ultimately futile. For all the dead and dying left behind after their initial heist, Pike only ends up with a bag of washers thanks to Deke. But the film is so much more than that; it is about a group of hard-bitten men in their twilight years looking at a world leaving them behind. In the face of this the Wild Bunch do the only thing they know how to do in order to maintain relevancy and pull one last big heist. It is in the scenes where there is no action that we truly see who these people are. As Deke told the scumbag bounty hunters he is reluctantly leading, Pike and his gang are MEN, something this crumb bums would not understand. Whether they are laying around a campfire or partaking in the booze and women Mapache plies them with, this is where you see the character moments that stick with you.

With a movie about grizzled, rugged, old gunslingers you need a cast believable to take on these roles. To this end Peckinpah cast a number of legendary actors who have built careers playing tough guys in westerns, war movies, and film noirs. The Wild Bunch features an embarrassment of acting riches with the likes of: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Edmond O’Brien and more. For the likes William Holden and Robert Ryan their days as leading men may have been over but this gave them a certain world weary demeanor which added a solid layer of authenticity to their performances and the rivalry between the characters of Pike and Deke.

This movie is the ballsy and unapologetic masterpiece that made Sam Peckinpah the legendary director that he is. By the 1960’s the Western was fading as a key part of mainstream cinema, but the Wild Bunch proved there was plenty of bullets left in the genre’s 6-shooter for any artist with the guts to take on the challenge. This movie along with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and the Dirty Dozen, was part of a film revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s the legacy of which can still be felt today.