"It ain't what it used to be – but it'll do"
- Set inside the Mexican Revolution of 1913, The Wild Bunch follows a bunch of aged outlaws as they go on the run from the law and the railroad in the United States to racketeering across the border for a Mexican warlord. They are not a young bunch; these outlaws are relics of an era were the western gun-slinging outlaw could thrive.... or at least fit in. But time has betrayed them - horses are replaced with cars; rifles for machine guns. Mexico, for this bunch, is the last bastion of the American West but even the chaotic sands of the Mexican frontier cannot halt the changing winds of time. And yet amidst these changing times a kind of integrity and honor code that comes with being a ruthless outlaw remains ("When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished! *We're* finished! All of us!")....
A bit controversial in its day because of the gratuitous depiction of western violence, The Wild Bunch showcases a senseless, cruel, and almost sadistic portrait of the west. The west, in this film, is a bloody, back-stabbing place of hopelessness and death in a way that had largely not been depicted in the genre. Director Sam Peckinpah spares the audience nothing with his grueling and off-putting yet gripping depiction of western violence – but amid the repulsive nature of the bloodshed is some flat-out innovative action pieces (specifically a wonderful destruction of a bridge) as well as some complimenting dustings of humor.
Peckinpah's dark and violent vision of the west is brought to life through the film's interesting characters. The Wild Bunch sees strong performances from William Holden as the shrewd Pike (with an expected amount of added dimension – although I wish that Robert Mitchum had not turned down the role first since he would have been perfect), Ernest Borgnine as the steadfast Dutch (with an expected amount of added humor), Edmond O'Brien as old man Sykes, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the tempestuous Gorch brothers, and Jaime Sanchez as fiery Angel.
Out of the entire impressive cast headlined by a sound William Holden, it was the supporting performance of Robert Ryan that actually impressed me the most. Perhaps known more for playing villains throughout his career, Ryan takes a sympathetic turn with an underplayed but heavy and insightful performance of Deke Thornton. A conflicted man in search of freedom and redemption – Thornton is the most interesting and relatable character in the film. Thornton plays a fascinating role in the story as an outlaw who is let out of jail to pursue the wild bunch. He is a good man and does not want to be in the position that he has been forced into, especially because of his past friendship with Pike. However, the railroad has him by the short hairs and he has the choice of either being forever locked up for the crimes he committed in the past or, with the help of the unpredictable monsters he has the misfortune of working with, can be set free once he catches or kills the bunch. Thornton does not walk with Pike, Dutch and the rest of the bunch – rather, he chases and shoots at them - but he is most certainly one of them. Deke Thornton, on top of being one of the most captivating characters that Ryan has ever played, is the character that does much, if not the most, to capture the integrity and defeated spirit of The Wild Bunch.
While not exactly a redefining film for the western genre, The Wild Bunch is a western that, along with a few other westerns of the era (such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973)), definitely opened the genre up with a then atypical take on the western film. I think that the importance of the film's thematic and psychological aspects on the western film are a bit overplayed since the genre was not nearly as shallow as a whole as some of the film's champions suggest. One could argue that the characters and themes of The Wild Bunch are handled in a more powerful way than other westerns have (I would not necessarily); but there have been plenty of rich characters and thoughtful themes in western films prior to the arrival of The Wild Bunch in 1969. Instead, the significance of The Wild Bunch within the genre has more to do with its horrific depiction of violence and grim interpretation of the changing early 20th Century west.
CBC Rating: 8/10