Guns, titties, and the most gruesome Wild West shootout to ever be caught on film.
BQB here with a review of “The Wild Bunch.”
The Old American West was a villain’s paradise. There were trains to rob and banks to stick up but little to no law enforcement presence to get in the way. The Feds just had not invested enough to bring law and order to a lawless land.
By the early 1900s, that all changes. The West has become more established. The government has put up the money and built up enough infrastructure to keep hoodlums at bay.
That’s good news for the Godfearing folk but bad news for Pike (William Holden) and his sidekick Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) who head up a murderous band of cutthroat killers known as “The Wild Bunch.”
These aging gunslingers are relics. Dinosaurs even by early 1900s standards. Cars are replacing horses. Railroads are given more protection and a gunslinger with a six-shooter is no match for an Army man with a machine gun.
In short, the black hat Old West villains are being put out of business but as Pike and Dutch hope, not before they make off with one last score.
These crooks have one in mind. They hope to rob a train load of guns to sell to a corrupt Mexican general. However, there are tensions between the gang and Mexican forces that look like they might turn bloody.
Meanwhile, Harrington, a railroad company boss, has sprung Pike’s ex-gang member Thornton (Robert Ryan) to lead a band of yahoos that have dispatched to hunt Pike and his cronies down. The stakes are high for Thornton as he has been told in no uncertain terms that if he fails to catch or kill Pike, he’ll be sent back to prison.
I have to be honest, I’ve heard about this movie for years and finally found the time to watch it. I didn’t like, not because it’s a poorly made film. The action scenes are very well choreographed and the overall message is clear – this is a time when the gunslinger’s days were numbered.
It’s never quite said outright but it is said symbolically. Pike is a coldblooded killer who lives only for money and is willing to murder to get it. Gunslingers looked their victims in the eye and knew it was highly possible that their victims might get the drop on them, shooting them before they can get a shot off.
Meanwhile, as Pike and his boys rob a bank, there are a group of kids having a good laugh as they watch a scorpion being devoured by ants and later, they set a fire that burns the ants and the scorpion. What’s the interpretation? Men like Pike looked their victims in the eye and watched them die. Hard but at least there was that buffer – i.e. a man had to be a real son of a bitch to be a killer so hopefully more moral minds would prevail to keep the whole word from erupting into chaos.
However, these bug burning kids would go on to become the World War II generation, inventing contraptions and weapons of mass murder that could be dropped with the flick of a button without having to look a victim in the eye.
When you have to look that victim in the eye, you must really want to kill them. If you don’t have to look them in the eye, mass killing on an epic scale becomes easier and that’s no good for the fate of the world.
I lost my point. So while the film carries that important message, I didn’t like it because the characters just were not likable at all. Pike and Dutch are miserable pricks who’d kill their mother if she swallowed a nickel. They’re old buzzards with no redeeming qualities and there’s nothing to hope for in them. You can’t root for them because you know if they win they aren’t going to become nice people. They’ll just continue to be miserable, booze soaked, prostitute banging pricks.
Worse, the final scene is, as far as I know, considered to be the must violent in Western history, perhaps even in movie history. In the midst of it all, Pike calls a woman a bitch and shoots her dead. Dutch grabs a prostitute and uses her as a human shield, allowing her to take bullets meant for him. Both men prove themselves to be utterly horrible and you just hope that the Mexican Army takes them out quick and puts them out of their misery.
I do think that was the point of director Sam Peckinpah. If the early 1900s meant the end of the gunslinger era, then the late 1960s meant the end of the whitewashed, happy go lucky cowboy films of the 1950s. No more John Wayne saying “Howdy pilgrim.” No more Gene Autry singing songs and playing the guitar. No more shoot-outs were everyone misses because here, shots cause bodies to gush blood. The Old West villains were bad people who took advantage of a bad situation to do bad things and Peckinpah is showing them in all of their terrible glory, warts and all. They were not to be revered but rather, to be reviled.
Also, and perhaps this is a spoiler but so be it, throughout the film, the idea of a final showdown between Thornton and Pike, i.e. a grudge match between two ex-gang members, is built up and then it never happens. Seems kind of lame.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy because it shows the grittier side of the Old West. Technically not shelf-worthy because I didn’t like the main characters although I believe that was the director’s point.