THE WILD BUNCH - Ain't Like It Used to Be
“The Wild Bunch” remains Sam Peckinpah’s bloody magnum opus about an era fading into the dust
The Wild Bunch
Realease Date: June 18th, 1969
Date of My First Viewing: August 6th, 2019
50 years. That’s how long since “The Wild Bunch” was released into theaters and society as a whole. With the Vietnam war raging, Sam Peckinpah’s tale about a group of outlaws trying to avoid the approaching dangers of the law and approaching dangers of time itself took people by storm with its unrelenting violence and unromantic presentation of the old west. For Peckinpah’s efforts, “The Wild Bunch” has been hailed as one of the great westerns of all time and, frankly, one of the great films in general. It was a film for its time, but it’s a film that remains timeless.
The story of how I just now came around to seeing “The Wild Bunch” has a few different layers. This is one of those films that I know I should have watched back in college. Frankly, I thought I had. When I sat down to watch it, I couldn’t remember a thing about it, so it was safe to say that this film and I avoided each other during my "film student” phase.
Let’s fast forward several years to the summer of 2019. I’ve just seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, which takes place in 1969, and I’ve been revisiting “Red Dead Redemption 2". It’s easy to see why I decided to finally give “The Wild Bunch” a viewing. I wanted to watch a film that would have been in the public mind of the characters in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Well… at least in the film’s final act, which takes place just under two months after the release of “The Wild Bunch). I also wanted to watch a film that had to have been on Quentin Tarantino’s mind when he came up with the idea for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. Both that film and “The Wild Bunch” deal with eras fading away into the future with characters struggling to adapt to the change.
For those who might not know, the plot of “The Wild Bunch” is relatively simple. Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads a band of outlaws that includes Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle (Warren Oates), Tector (Ben Johnson), Angel (Jamie Sanchez), and eventually old-timer Freddie (Edmond). The group, sans Freddie, opens the film by robbing a railroad office of silver but finding out the haul was nothing but a decoy. It turns out the railroad set things up as a trap to catch Pike’s gang by way of the posse led by Deke Thorton (Robert Ryan), a former member of Pike’s gang.
Now on the run, Pike’s gang ends up in Mexico and crosses paths with the army and associates of the corrupt General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). Pike and his gang end up agreeing to steal a cache of U.S. Army weapons for Mapache before, well, things go south as one would assume.
As earlier mentioned, the overall theme of “The Wild Bunch” is the coming to grips with the end of an era. The time of Pike and his gang, a group of outlaws living by their own code, is at an end. The year is 1913. World War I is just on the horizon. Technology is encroaching everywhere, even the relatively untamed west. Two key pieces of technology are presented in the film and represent change. The general’s car is seen a few times, and it will soon replace the need for the horse. The other piece of technology is more direct in is representation of change, and that’s the machine gun.
The machine gun plays a big role in the final climax and shootout (It really shouldn’t be a spoiler that a film like “The Wild Bunch” ends in a massive shootout). Pike and his gang handle things well with their traditional weapons, but things change once they start firing the machine gun. Everyone gets mowed down as they stand behind this new piece of technology, this new killing machine that doesn’t really require a lot of skill to operate. These old school outlaws can’t survive with this new school form of weaponry. Pike dies with his main gun still in its holster. The film ends with Thorton taking it as a symbol of what used to be while the vultures circle the end result of the shootout. It’s a fascinating bit of commentary made by Peckinpah during the film’s climax.
Like most of these “Movies New to Me” reviews, I’m not breaking any new ground with these observations. “The Wild Bunch” has been analyzed over and over for the past 50 years. That being said, though, the themes are still important to recognize and discuss. I think anyone can relate to a film about the passage of time and how some people can’t seem to get with a new era approaching. Old habits die hard.
Before I close out, I do also want to touch upon the technical artistry on display with “The Wild Bunch”. Peckinpah’s and editor Lou Lombardo’s use of different film speeds and rapid cuts, especially during the opening shootout, gives the film a wonderful sense of chaos and distortion. The viewer feels the chaos and insanity through the disorientation of the editing. The cinematography from Lucien Ballard is also a beautiful in that it paints the southern Texas and Mexican border area as a place of both beauty and dread. It’s still an untamed land trying to be tamed by untamed individuals.
There’s no real excuse why it took me so long to see “The Wild Bunch”, but, hey, props to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” for giving me the nudge to finally cross this one off my list. Even on my first viewing, it was obvious why this film is praised the way it is. This is a masterpiece of a film, and one I’ll definitely be revisiting.