The Wild Bunch

1969. Woodstock and the moon landing and the Manson murders and all that. A different time.

Not just because of bed-ins and bellbottoms, though. Another thing that was different was that people watched westerns. Tons of them! BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID topped the box office, TRUE GRIT won a best actor Oscar for John Wayne, plus there was MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE, CHARRO!, 100 RIFLES, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF!, SAM WHISKEY, MACKENNA’S GOLD, GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, PAINT YOUR WAGON, THE UNDEFEATED, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE, A TIME FOR DYING. By comparison, I only count nine super hero movies last year, and to get there I had to include GLASS, HELLBOY, BRIGHTBURN and JOKER.

It couldn’t go on forever. John Ford, Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh and Delmer Daves were done making westerns. Howard Hawks only had one more in him. Several years earlier, Sergio Leone had rebuilt the genre in a completely different style, launching an entire national industry in Italy. Then in ’67 BONNIE AND CLYDE pushed the limits of onscreen violence, and in July of ’69, the countercultural, modern western EASY RIDER revved the engine on what would be come “New Hollywood” in the ’70s.

And Sam Peckinpah was hungry. He’d gotten into trouble with MAJOR DUNDEE in ’65, going over budget, fighting with the producer, getting it taken away from him and re-edited. His reputation took a hit, and he got fired from THE CINCINNATI KID a couple days into filming. Luckily NOON WINE, his 1966 hour-long for ABC Stage 67, was well received, giving him the opportunity for a comeback. So what the hell, he went and made an all-timer of a western, but a little different from his previous ones. This was a western made for a time when people were disillusioned about the war in Vietnam and the violent images it brought into their homes.

THE WILD BUNCH is revisionist in both form and content. The amount of film shot, the number of camera setups, the speed of the edits and the use of slow motion were all unusual for the time. The finished film was long, mean and violent. It’s weird to think that in that superficial sense Peckinpah was sort of a precursor to Michael Bay!

I come from a subsequent generation, so by the time I saw it it was legendary. It was around the time I was discovering the Dollars trilogy, and it impressed the hell out of me, but I don’t think I saw it as being as revolutionary, as rock ’n roll, as Leone. It seemed like an extremely well directed, you know… normal cowboy movie. But I was awed by Peckinpah’s depiction of violence, something I had not seen in a movie like that. It appealed to a young man’s fascination with transgressive movies, but it felt less like some cool fucked up shit than like a cry of outrage about mankind’s savagery.

When I went many years without rewatching it, he thing that really stuck with me when wasn’t even the characters – it was the kids dropping a scorpion into a pen of ants they’ve made, and smiling as it gets torn apart. As if to say that there is no innocence. We don’t turn bad (or wild). It’s in us from the beginning.

They’re just some kids playing in the town where Pike Bishop (William Holden, DAMIEN: OMEN II) and his gang are robbing the railroad office. The job is a disaster of nearly RESERVOIR DOGS proportions – they get ambushed by a team of bounty hunters led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE OUTFIT), who we will learn is Pike’s former partner, which explains why they stare each other down from a distance, and Deke hesitates to kill Pike when he has the chance. The Bishop gang’s messy escape pushes back hard against years of sanitized westerns with its indiscriminate hails of gunfire popping juicy squibs on innocent standersby. For example, the tuba player in the South Texas Temperance Union parade gets it. And the kids see the whole thing.

And by that I mean they see the whole movie – kids are everywhere. They’re near the rendezvous point, smiling as they listen to the gang joke about whores. There’s one that rides around with General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez, RETURN OF THE SEVEN), the main villain of the movie, who will end up killing the hero! And hell, there’s a baby being breastfed underneath a bandolier. That pretty much says it all.

But before all that there’s kids playing guns after witnessing a real gun fight. There are bodies laying around, locals crying, and bounty hunters (one wearing a cross!) arguing over who get’s the bodies. Traditionally, these would’ve been the good guys, trying to stop robberies, but the brutality of the shootout shatters any illusion of that, and L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin’s outlaw-hunters look like ugly, sweaty bandits. And they’re just working for the railroad – how can it be worth all this just to protect some giant company’s money? One of the locals even chews them out, saying they “turned our town into a battlefield.” Yeah, and there will be other towns as the chase continues.

Pike’s right hand man is Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine not long after hanging with that other wild bunch, THE DIRTY DOZEN), and he’s also got the Gorch brothers, Lyle (Warren Oates, 1941) and Tector (Ben Johnson right after HANG ‘EM HIGH), and this guy Angel (Jaime Sanchez, INVASION USA, FLORIDA STRAITS, BAD LIEUTENANT). But he left behind young Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins, THE GETAWAY, THE KILLER ELITE, UNCLE SAM) to watch the hostages. Living up to his name, that psycho went Mr. Blonde on them, and he didn’t make it out – not that anybody was coming back for him. Which makes it real awkward when they meet up with old Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) and he asks how his boy did. He didn’t mention Crazy Lee was his boy, didn’t want him to get special treatment or something.

Oh, uh, you bet, Freddie – your boy did great!

This is not the only abandonment Pike feels guilty about. The big one was back in the day (shown in somewhat awkward flashback) when he fucked up and left Deke to take the fall and go to Yuma Prison. All these years later Deke has come up on a choice to either go back to prison or hunt his former partner for the railroad company, and he’s not that torn about it. His posse tracks the bunch down to Mexico, where they get mixed up stealing a box of weapons for the general.

More than the story, the appeal is the theme of these hard-bitten, regretful guys struggling with having outlived their era. That opening robbery was supposed to be one last job, but who are they fooling? Still, Pike says, “We gotta start thinkin beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.”

He’s older than some of the others, and has to prove to them (and maybe himself) that he still has it. I love the scene where he falls getting onto his horse because one of the stirrups breaks off. They laugh at him, tell him he needs to hang it up, not just giving him shit but legitimately challenging his leadership. He seems humiliated. But then he gets up on there with only one stirrup and makes it work. Case closed.

There’s a whole lot more that happens. You’ve probly seen it. I don’t need to get into it all. It’s cool when they blow up the bridge and all, but to me the interesting part is the end. They make Mapache happy by bringing him his weapons, but Angel has a personal feud with the general over a woman and ends up captured. Not content to do a boring torture, they tie him up and drag him behind a car (the ultimate symbol of the changing times!). The general drinks and smokes a cigar and people ride on Angel like a sled. Jesus.

And so the next morning, that wild bunch of guys, having heard what’s going on, all start to feel like shit that they didn’t stick up for Angel, and all make a decision that they have to go back for him. No more leaving people behind. Doesn’t matter if they’re all gonna die. (Which they are.) It’s probly cinema’s most important badass nod/oh shit it’s on moment when they all just go out into the sun, look at each other, and know what’s up. Dutch smiling and chuckling like oh shit, we’re doing this, aren’t we? They get their rifles and stroll confidently to their destiny, side-by-side in a row, the camera pulling back to show their surroundings, making them look even more mythic. Where they’re going there will be machine guns. There will be blood spouts. There will be vultures, both literal and figurative, picking over their bodies. But what else were they gonna do?

That’s what I love most. That mix of melancholy and badass. Too old, too stubborn, going down, don’t care. At least they’re doing it together.

This entry was posted on Friday, March 6th, 2020 at 8:40 am and is filed under Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

40 Responses to “The Wild Bunch”

  1. This is one of my favorite movies of all time, and seeing it get a Vern review is probably the best unintentional birthday present I could get (thanks bud!)

    There are few movie moments that give me chills like that scene of Pike telling the Gorch brothers “Let’s go,” and that pregnant pause before Lyle says, “Why not.” IDK why but I always remember the little bird that looks like it’s about to die, as he tosses the money to the prostitute. Those little visual poetry embellishments just heighten the tragic nature of the violence.

    I watched Tombstone recently and that entire end credits scene of them walking at the camera seems like a nod to the end of this one.

    Or when he (SPOILER) shoots the general(?) and Dutch looks at him and give that knowing “oh shit” giggle.

    Or the obvious joy of Tector and Dutch getting handsy with the Mexican girls while swimming in a barrel of wine. “While Pike was dreaming of washers, you were matching wh*res… in tandem!”

  2. I think the Wild Bunch is still my favorite Sam Peckinpah film, and probably also my favorite western. I kinda need to see Once Upon A Time In The West and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly again, but there is just something mesmerizing about the final shoot out.

    Is there still any directors like Sam Peckinpah left, you know a director that is an alcoholic, have women problem and a problem with the studio and the cast? It’s like something that has been left behind, and probably for the good. It’s interesting how Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is what I would call a “metaphorical self-biography”, where it’s not a true self biography, but where the main character is a stand-in for the director and the plot is kinda a metaphor for where he was in Hollywood and his career at that time. And it would get way worse for him.

  3. I get your point about it being “an extremely well directed cowboy movie”. It is so much more obviously, but there is part of it which feels more in line with what had been the traditional way of doing these sorts of films, crossing paths with a more explicit kind of expression that includes nudity/sexuality and more ruthless violence. It still got an X rating when it was resubmitted to the MPAA in the early 90’s, but yet there are not many, if at all, curse words in the dialogue.

    Peckinpah is fascinating in that he had such an affinity for a brutal time in American history, but never really glamorized it like maybe the Ford’s of the world did. His focus on the dying breaths of that era in many of his films puts a fine point on the whole approach of how to show the Wild West. While this was allegory for the savageness of Vietnam, the similar way PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID was allegory for an America tired of it all including it’s crackpot president, feels more significant now.

  4. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    March 6th, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    One thing I find pretty amusing is that, IMHO, Peckinpah and John Woo are two of my favorite directors of action, and they both professed to abhor violence while putting an awful lot of it in their movies. But for my money Bloody Sam was successful in making his violence revolting and depressing, whereas Hard Boiled makes shooting up a tea shop or hospital look like great fun.

    Anyhow this is definitely my favorite western. It’s right on the knife’s edge between classic and modern styles, it’s Oates and Borgnine among other of my favorite actors, and I always enjoy a film that shits on the putative innocence and goodness of children.

  5. Yeah Peckinpah was great because he clearly has affection of that old way of life, but he’s not sentimental at all about it either. He could always make it feel really sad and depressing, but not always!

    My favorite is still Bring Me the Head of Alfred Garcia, mostly because while I like westerns, I LOVE crime movies and especially grimy sleazy ones and it’s definitely one of the sleaziest.

  6. I’m almost lost for words, Vern, and I hope this will be a discussion that goes on for a long time. Let me just share a little bit of my original review;

    “We’re not going to get rid of anybody! We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be! When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re done! We’re finished! All of us!»
    -Pike Bishop

    “THE WILD BUNCH is about the feeling of getting too old (most of the actors were my age), about the struggle to get things done in your own way, about human values, about how to be remembered for posterity and that there are things in life that are more important than a quick buck . It is now impossible to imagine other actors in the roles such as Pike, Deke and Mapache. But the truth is that stars like Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Richard Harris, Brian Keith and Mario Adorf were all in the spotlight before William Holden, Robert Ryan and Emilio Fenandez were finally selected. And thank you very much for that decision. All three must be said to be doing the roles of their life under Peckinpah’s sometimes ruthless direction. And it’s probably only because all the others on set also give everything they have, that they don’t steal every single scene they are in. A lot has been written about the violence in THE WILD BUNCH, and especially during the final sequence in Mapaches headquarters. But few have pointed out what wonderful craftsmanship lies behind that scene. It was filmed with four cameras from one side until everything was in the box. Then the cameras were moved to another point and everything was filmed again. Just keeping track of who stood where and was shot in which body part must have been a nightmare. And speaking of nightmares, they had 350 uniforms to use for 6,000 shooting scenes. They solved this by using tape behind the bullet hole, rinsing most of the theater blood with water and then painting over the next blood ampoule with beige paint. Next on stage! When THE WILD BUNCH was relaunched in a new director’s cut version in 1994, it got a new 18-year limit for cinema viewing. What other movie in history can boast of being an equally powerful experience for audiences 25 years after the original premiere?”

    This is a google translate, so I’m sorry it it’s not grammatically correct.

  7. By the way, I ran your comment “Not bad” by google translate too, and it came out “The best movie ever made” as I suspected.

  8. I really ought to watch this again. It’s been 20 years and I pretty much only remember the final slaughter and the bit with the scorpion. I remember being impressed by how clearly influential the treatment of violence was, but I wonder if this is another one of those movies you really needed to have introduced to you by your dad at a young age for it to really imprint on you. I also wonder if I’ll get more out of it now that I’m also an old fuck running on the last fumes of his former relevance.

    I haven’t seen much Peckinpah, to be honest, but of the ones I’ve watched, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ETC. is far and away the one I liked best. Granted, I haven’t seen CONVOY yet.

  9. In a twisted irony, the great platform FilmStruck had a bunch of Peckinpah movies on just before WarnerMedia closed it down. I watched RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE. HIGH COUNTRY makes an interesting case for the crossroads between the established Hollywood Western and something quite different and transgressive his later films would take. In some respects it was quite woke for 1962. Unfortunately CABLE HOGUE is not as impressive in this regard, but you can’t go wrong with Jason Robards as a rusty reprobate who like all other Peckinpah heroes, can’t move forward with the times.

  10. My favorite is still Bring Me the Head of Alfred Garcia, mostly because while I like westerns, I LOVE crime movies and especially grimy sleazy ones and it’s definitely one of the sleaziest.

  11. THE WILD BUNCH is essentially, as Peckinpah claimed in interviews, a love triangle between Pike, Dutch and Deke. When they recorded the “I wouldn’t have it any other way”-scene by the fire, he cried so much he couldn’t yell “cut”.

    In YOU’VE GOT MAIL Tom Hanks’ character claims that THE GODFATHER has the answers to everything in life. He’s wrong, it’s really THE WILD BUNCH. Everything you want to know about love, friendship, business, honor and loyalty is covered in this masterpiece.

  12. I do have to say though, that some of you guys are kind of doing what a lot of people do with this movie…talk about how all of these good qualities like honor and such is found within this movie. But remember Peckinpah still looked at these guys true…they were real scumbags, not Hollywood cute people. They shot innocents and used them for cover in gunfights. They were garbage and they all got what they deserved.

  13. I’m glad you gave this one a write up. It’s what they call an ur-text. Seems straightforward until you realize what it’s doing is generational mythmaking. I think you could’ve written four times as much and still have plenty left to say.

  14. Have you seen RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY? It’s a necessary companion piece. REVIEW IT!

  15. Also, doesn’t Pike = Liam Neeson in everything since TAKEN? Doesn’t Pike = Clint Eastwood in everything since UNFORGIVEN? This movie laid groundwork for so many other movies and careers. Like, Bronson post-DEATH WISH? Bruce Willis post-WITH A VENGEANCE? LOGAN? Craig-era BOND? Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth? Find me a movie with a grizzled badass that doesn’t owe a debt to THE WILD BUNCH. (I’m not even sure that PICARD doesn’t owe a little debt to Pike, except that Picard stays hopeful!)

  16. I’d also strongly recommend RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY to anybody that loves this movie and/or Peckinpah. It’s a key film with many of his themes. (Also his misogyny which is in this movie to a degree as well.) The scorpion scene is an endlessly interesting one. I’m with Craig S. Zohler (he did a great interview for the Unspooled podcast which also covered this movie well) and his comments that I can often see different readings and be persuaded by each one, for each time I re-watch the movie. Ultimately, I mostly come down on the side Vern does, but there are other times where I wonder if societal corrupting influence, the harsh conditions surrounding this environment, the changing times colliding things, or a combination.

    In terms of nitpicks, since this movie is so often and justifiably held up as one of the greats, I do wonder what’s exactly going on and does it for the oasis scenes. The flashbacks aren’t exactly elegantly executed, but I have less a problem than some other viewers do because they seem like a depiction of Pike’s memory and guilty, which he has to imagine in a soapy way. Not a wrong way, but a dramatic way that underscores why Robert Ryan feels let down and betrayed in a way that resonates for why the Bunch can’t sit by for Angel at the end.

  17. By the way, that review was for you, Pegsman.

  18. If you watch the latest director’s cut, with more and konger flashbacks, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Pike was an asshole when he rode with Thornton. But, as with Dutch, his former partner still want to be with him.

  19. Thank you very much, Vern. I’m deeply moved by this.

  20. This does feel special. Most days I’d say THE WILD BUNCH is my favourite movie, and that’s been true for most of the last 40 years. But it ain’t my daddy’s western. Even if it was released a few weeks before TRUE GRIT, make no mistake, THE WILD BUNCH came to bury those westerns. Or at least, blow them to pieces with a Browning M1917.

    There are no white hats here, and to be sure Pike and his men can be venal and vicious, but that’s not all they are, and the film shows us that. Yes, it shows us the viciousness of children too, but as Don Jose says, “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”

    And the acting. I’d love Borgnine and Ryan and Oates and Johnson for pretty much everything they ever did anyway, but Holden’s performance is a miracle.

    That walk to collect Angel is undeniably totally badass, but what really matters is what comes next. Not the bloodbath, but the quiet moment after Pike and Dutch shoot Mapache and we cut from one actor to the other, everything being said with the eyes and the set of the jaw, until Dutch laughs and Pike stands tall again.

    Bad men who get what they deserve? Well, they get what they want, even if they were never going to get Angel. Like Will Munny says, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

  21. I have to agree with Ghost about BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. I think it’s a matter of record that Oates was playing Bennie as Peckinpah. I always thought it made a nice companion to John Cassavetes’s THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, which Cassavetes clearly intended as a statement about his struggles as an artist, but with a performance by his lead, Ben Gazzara, that actually works against that.

  22. MajorCalloway: Spencer Tracy in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK predates this by almost 15 years, so I’d perhaps place that as the origins of the older bad-ass variety.

    On television I’d say Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut on BETTER CALL SAUL (and of course BREAKING BAD) is perhaps a descendant of Pike as well.

  23. I’m not sure anyone is saying THE WILD BUNCH originated the concept of the grizzled and tired badass. Many westerns, including Peckinpah’s own, had been there before, and Bogart and Spencer Tracy had too. The point is that THE WILD BUNCH states those ideas and themes perfectly, as no film had before, so that no film following it could approach the subject without invoking it. It’s the high-point of the subgenre; everything that comes after it is just noodling on its theme.

  24. The difference between THE WILD BUNCH and other westerns is that in this one all men are bad.

  25. For further exploration of THE WILD BUNCH I recommend W.K. Stratton’s very informative book.

  26. Can you imagine this being remade by John Woo with old stars Nic Cage, Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford?

    Old era of Action Gods being given one last chance to show who they were.

  27. Gibson is attached to direct a remake for WB

  28. I’m actually not that scared of a remake. It will be so different, that they will only have the title in common. Peckinpah was a liberal Nixon hater. And, well, Gibson’s not.

  29. Gibson directing; with Fassbender, Fox and Dinklage rumored to be starring.

  30. “The Bishop gang’s messy escape pushes back hard against years of sanitized westerns with its indiscriminate hails of gunfire popping juicy squibs on innocent standersby.”

    Vern I love this sentence so much I just wrote it on the wall next to my desk.

  31. Thank you. “Standersby” seemed like a real word at the time.

  32. Peckinpah said that he wanted to show what it feels like getting shot. I haven’t been shot myself, so I can’t really say what it feels like. But it certainly looks painful the way he films it.

  33. There’s a goofy tribute of sorts to this movie in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In an episode called Bad Eggs, Buffy encounters two spectacularly dumb cowboy vampires named Lyle and Tector Gorch.

  34. You’ll also notice that Joss Whedon got a five-series spinoff from Buffy called Angel. And Luke Perry’s character in the original Buffy movie was called Pike.

    SERENITY starts with a botched robbery, then sees our protagonists pursued by ill-intentioned agents of the law, and ends with a massacre in defence of one of the gang.

    I think it’s fair to say that Whedon feels the influence of THE WILD BUNCH.

  35. I don’t think I go through a single day of the week where I don’t quote something from THE WILD BUNCH. All bosses are “so god damn right” as Harrigan or crazy like Mapache. And even if I have some colleagues that resembles the bunch, some days they behave like egg sucking gutter trash.

  36. That crucifix the bounty hunter is wearing has a rifle cartridge instead of a little Jesus.

  37. Yeah, Peckinpah apparently wanted Strother Martin to look like he was a member of a motorcycle gang.

  38. A 1913 Hell’s Angel to be exact. Gordon Dawson ripped the Jesus off of a crucifix and then wired a cartridge on it and torched it. The mostly Catholic crew and extras were horrified. He tells the story in a YouTube video. Just Google Word on Westerns and The Wild Bunch

  39. Thank you for the tip. I tend to read and watch everything Bunch related I can get my hands on. Just found out a couple of days ago that Lee Marvin was involved in the project before the script was even written.

  40. A bit irritating that the tagline for THE WILD BUNCH is “An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score”, when all the actors are my age!

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