Warner Bros-Seven Arts
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Phil Feldman
Screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Waylon Green
Based on a story by Waylon Green and Roy N. Sickner
THE WILD BUNCH represents a lot to me personally. Besides being one of the greatest Western movies ever made. THE WILD BUNCH was my first “grown-up” movie that my father took me to see. Just the two of us went and we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner afterwards to talk about the movie. It was a great day and there’s not many days from my childhood that remain as vivid as that particular day. It also was the first Western I ever saw in a movie theater and so began my overwhelming love for the genre which is just as fierce today.
Sam Peckinpah may have had his faults but by God, could the man direct a movie. And THE WILD BUNCH, along with “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” and “Ride The High Country” represents what I personally consider his holy trinity of Westerns. And yes, even though “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” is set in modern times, it is a Western.
But in a way, THE WILD BUNCH is set in modern times as well. The gang of aging outlaws we follow through the movie don’t carry the time-honored six-shooters we’re used to seeing in a Western. No, these guys pack .45 automatics and pump shotguns. That’s because the movie’s set in 1913. Times are changing rapidly, thanks to technology, represented in the movie by the railroad, automatic weapons and automobiles. Pike Bishop (William Holden) Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and Freddie Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) are The Wild Bunch and their latest job has gone totally bust. They attempt to rob a Texas railroad office and end up being ambushed by a posse of bloodthirsty yet hopelessly incompetent bounty hunters (Peckinpah regulars L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin among them) led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who once was Pike’s best friend and rode with The Wild Bunch. He’s been released from Yuma with one mandate: hunt down and kill his old partners or get sent back to Yuma. He really doesn’t want to go back to Yuma.
They end up with bags full of washers instead of gold. The failure of this job brings the gang to a painful conclusion: times are changing and as Pike says; “We’ve got to start looking past our guns.” There’s no more wild west for these guys to roam and they’re getting too old for this line of work.
Pike and the others make a deal with the Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to rob an Army train transporting guns and ammo and turn it over to him. Mapache’s willing to pay them enough to retire on but Angel’s not willing to steal guns for Mapache. Mexican himself, Angel argues that Mapache’s nothing but a petty tyrant, setting himself up as general to exploit his own people. Angel also doesn’t appreciate Mapache having stolen his woman. But due to the presence of a German munitions expert/military advisor (Fernando Wagner) it’s pretty obvious to ex-military men like Pike and Dutch that Mapache’s ambitions are anything but petty. Angel agrees to help rob the train if he can have some guns to give to his village.
And so The Wild Bunch goes off to pull what they hope will be their last job. But it’s a job that will test their rough code of loyalty to each other. A job that will end in bloody vengeance.
There’s really not much I can say about THE WILD BUNCH that you probably already haven’t read or heard about your own self. It’s rightly earned its reputation as a masterpiece of filmmaking. And more than 40 years after it was made it still is considered one of the most violent movies ever made. In 1993, the movie was resubmitted to the MPAA ratings board for the movie’s theatrical re-release and the board slapped it with an NC-17. Hard to argue with that one, considering the astronomical body count. And especially that apocalyptic final shootout in which The Wild Bunch massacres an entire army in a suicidal orgy of gunfire that has to be seen to be believed.
But it isn’t just the violence that makes this movie so outstanding for me. It’s the perfect cast that is nothing less than convincing in every shot. The themes of trust and betrayal between men who try to be honorable in a world and profession that won’t let them. The moody interludes between the characters. Such as the quiet talk between Pike and Dutch as they lie beside a campfire. Or the conversation with an old Mexican bandit. Or the ending which carries the promise of a new Wild Bunch.
If you’ve seen THE WILD BUNCH then you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I don’t know why you’ve waited this long. It’s a masterpiece, plain and simple. If you’ve never seen it, watch it at your earliest opportunity. If you have, what the hell, see it again.