Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the aging leader of a motley collection of outlaws (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O'Brien, Jaime Sanchez, Bo Hopkins) who try to pull off one last score in 1913 Texas. But a robbery goes horribly wrong when bounty hunters led by railroad detective Harrigan (Albert Dekker) ambush them, leading to a bloody massacre. The Bunch flees into Mexico, pursued by a posse led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), Pike's ex-partner. The Bunch finds themselves working for bloodthirsty Federale Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), who is trying to suppress Pancho Villa's revolutionaries - but their loyalty is conflicted when Angel (Sanchez) turns out to be a member of an Indian tribe oppressed by Mapache. After robbing a US Army arms shipment, the Bunch allows Angel to take some guns for his tribe - but Angel is captured by Mapache and brutally tortured. Finally, Pike, "tired of being hunted" and sick of himself, leads the gang in a desperate last stand.
"The Wild Bunch" is an American masterpiece. Best-known for revolutionizing big-screen violence, Sam Peckinpah's magnum opus is far more than just a blood-soaked splatter-fest. It's the distillation of Peckinpah's world-view - corruption, moral ambiguity, changing times and men, the horror and glamor of violence, and the complex nature of honor and loyalty. Any misguided critic who views Westerns as outdated popular entertainment needs to watch this film; it has enough character, narrative and thematic depth to put many novels to shame.
Indeed, The Wild Bunch is a cinematic novel. It portrays the theme of doomed men struggling to outlive their time, and the inherent impossibility of doing so. Men like Pike, Dutch, the Gorch Brothers, and Deke Thornton are products of their time - men who are clever and cunning but not particularly intelligent, who live by a Code, and who see violence as a way of life. In this new era, honor and loyalty are irrelevant; Harrigan and his scruffy bounty hunters are concerned only with personal profit, which, as Pike himself admits, "cuts an awful lot of family ties". Even the Bunch's unity is questionable: the surly Gorch Brothers dispute Pike's every move; grouchy old Sykes is a grumbling, cackling liability; and the idealistic Angel traps the Bunch into an unwitting death. Only Dutch remains unremittingly loyal to Pike, but ultimately, they HAVE to stick together in order to stay alive - they simply have no other choice.
Pike Bishop is a fascinating creation, a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions. He is a man trapped by his own sense of loyalty and honor - "When you side with a man, you stick with him" - but he repeatedly fails to live up to it. He leaves Crazy Lee to die, similarly betrays Sykes, lets Angel be captured by Mapache, and, we later learn, is responsible for Thornton's arrest. In spite of his bluster, he's really a selfish, petty man who's only happy when he's in control (see the train robbery, where Pike is able, albeit briefly, to recapture his youth). He has too many scars, too many betrayals and failures to simply move on; he's a haunted man who knows his time is up, and his attempts to "modernize" his gang are laughable. Ultimately, sick of himself, Pike makes a stand - and ultimately, by sacrificing his gang for Angel, he finally lives up to his code.
Deke Thornton is Pike's mirror image. Thornton was Pike's partner whom he left to be captured. Offered a choice between continued imprisonment and hunting down his old gang ("30 Days to get Pike, or 30 Days back to Yuma"), Thornton chooses the latter; he knows the old days are over, and unlike Pike is willing to change. He, too, is trapped by his own sense of honor; he loathes the greedy, incompetent bounty hunters and longs to join his gang, but he gave Harrigan his word, and cannot break it. This is an agonizing compromise, often explored by Peckinpah; it's interesting to compare Thornton to Tyreen from "Major Dundee", or more pertinently "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" which plays as The Wild Bunch told by Deke Thornton.
One would be remiss if they discussed the film without mentioning the violence. The movie features three scenes of horrifically graphic violence, with squibs and fake blood, rapid parallel editing, and slow motion. The violence isn't nearly as graphic as the spate of action and horror films since, and yet is infinitely more effective; if not actually realistic, its sheer visceral impact makes up for artificiality. Accused by ignorants of glamorizing violence, Peckinpah simply shows violence as it is; repulsive and horrific, but perversely thrilling. If this weren't the case, then why would violent Westerns and action movies be so popular? It's not exactly a subtle statement, but one of immense power; the violence is not gratuitous, but necessary to show a world where violence has become not only commonplace, but impersonal, cold, and acceptable.
The movie features arguably the finest cast assembled for a Western. William Holden gives one of his best performances, using his own persona as a fading star to accentuate Pike's character. Ernest Borgnine's endlessly loyal Dutch and Robert Ryan's compromised Thornton complement Holden perfectly. Albert Dekker and Emilio Fernandez are both hiss-able villains who make it easier to sympathize with our protagonists. The supporting cast includes Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as bounty hunters, Dub Taylor as a Bible-thumping preacher (was R.G. Armstrong unavailable?), and Bo Hopkins in a memorable bit as Crazy Lee. Only Edmond O'Brien's scenery-chewing as Sykes and Jaime Sanchez's theatrically "mannered" Angel are weak points, but neither is actively bad.
This isn't to mention Lucien Ballard's gorgeous cinematography, or Jerry Fielding's beautiful, poignant score, or the subtle symbolism and supporting characters. The Wild Bunch is, simply put, an American masterpiece, and one of the great films of all time.
13 out of 16 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.