Wild Bunch, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/12/07 19:05:24

"Longs for the good old days but reminds us they were nasty, too."
5 stars (Awesome)

Maybe "The Wild Bunch" isn't quite as SHOCKINGLY violent today as it was upon its first release; what Peckinpah did in 1969 was pretty close to unprecedented. But even if the amount of raw blood and guts isn't the sort of thing that challenges the boundaries of the "R" rating by todays standards of mayhem, it's still able to take the audience aback.

This is, after all, one of those movies where you have bad guys and worse guys, as opposed to good and bad, and as we watch the opening robbery of a Wells Fargo office turn into an ambush and then a bloodbath, it's far from clear which is which. The robbers are thieves, after all, and the one guarding the hostages is a real creep, but the railroad detectives and bounty hunters staking the place out are all too willing to shoot first and ask steal the boots off the corpses later; it's no wonder that Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the former member of the gang the the railroad has dragooned into helping catch them, spends most of his time feeling like he's on the wrong side.

Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't. It soon becomes pretty clear that the gang's leader Pike Bishop (William Holden) isn't terribly attached to anybody in his gang, except maybe Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), and will sacrifice them without batting an eye. Indeed, leaving one ember behind for the law to pick up seemed to be his plan. None of the gang are completely amoral, though - especially Angel (Jaime Sanchez), who is looking for a way to defend his village - and both in between and amid the violence, the audience has to keep eye out for which individuals have personal moral codes, and how willing they are to cross those lines. Age and experience are a factor, although not always in the same way: Pike and Dutch have made it to middle age by eschewing the sentimentality that Angel carries around, but their brand of pragmatism doesn't wear so well on the younger members.

William Holden and Robert Ryan are seldom less than riveting on-screen. Their characters share a bond of respect and betrayal that unites them so strongly and sets them up as clear counterpoints that it's easy to miss that the only scene they have together is a flashback - and that scene was left on the cutting room floor when the film was originally released. Holden makes Pike appear tired, recognizing that he has to adapt to changing times and showing the strain, even though he's generally able to handle it. Ryan's Deke seems more active, but less willing to be flexible. There's impatience and contempt in his every expression. He's resigned to his lot, but always looks like the only reason he doesn't kill the idiot he's dealing with is that he knows what prison is like.

The rest of the cast gives good support. Ernest Borgnine is one of the all-time great sidekick actors because he can convey loyalty and offer a counterbalance to someone's personality while still creating a character that could exist on his own. He imbues Dutch with just enough of a conscience on certain matters to make Pike question himself, and can be sarcastic or worn out as the moment demands. Jaime Sanchez is the kid of the group, making Angel appear just short of naive in a lot of areas - he still holds to certain ideals, but no-one is ever going to mistake him for starry-eyed. Edmond O'Brien slaps on a set of bad teeth to play Freddie Sykes as a sort of non-mentor mentor - you never get the idea that Pike looks to him for wisdom, or even that he knows any special secrets that the younger guys don't (he's kind of the fool), but you're not surprised that he sticks around longer than some other characters. He's an old man, but you don't become an old man in his line if you can't handle yourself.

Meanwhile, Emilio Fernandez plays the closest thing the film has to a straight villain, General Mapache, just right. There's sadism to him, a real enjoyment of his cruelty, but he's the kind of sociopath who appears a fool at first. He can get far on simply killing anyone in his path, but he'll be in trouble when he encounters someone smarter or more ruthless than he is. The cast is further filled out by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the Gorch brothers, members of Pike's gang, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as the particularly vile bounty hunters Deke has to attempt to lead, and a whole host of others.

When it came out, The Wild Bunch was noted for being one of the most frantically edited movies ever made, although it seems relatively sedate by today's standards. Peckinpah is well ahead of his time, though, getting plenty of angles of his important shots and communicating the chaos of a gunfight by switching perspective every few seconds. Even as he's doing that, though, he's able to deliver information about what's going on more clearly than many directors who followed him. The train robbery at the film's center is one of the greatest set pieces of all time, as the music cuts out and the gang stealthily goes about their business. You can see every move Pike and Deke are making and the outcome is constantly up in the air not because Peckinpah springs things on the audience without warning but he establishes a situation the two smart people can each take advantage of.

It's probably the least excessive of the action sequences, and if there's any complaint to be made about the movie, it's that violence for its own sake occasionally seems excessive. The slaughter in the last act seems pointless after a while, although that may be the point: When two groups that rely on violence and intimidation collide, the end is preordained and nothing you want to be near. It just keeps going on and on past any goal either group may have because killing is all they've got. It's excess on the film's part, true, but it's a kind of representative excess.

Which is part of what seperates "The Wild Bunch" from its fast-paced, bloody progeny: It recognizes that its violence is a destructive, ugly force, and even as it allows us some sympathy for those who make violence a way of life, it also doesn't let us look away form the havoc they leave in their path.

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