Ladies and gentleman, the time has arrived for me to review a new kind of genre compared to all my reviewed films so far; the western genre. Western films were very popular in early American cinema because of actors like John Wayne. But as the decades came and passed, the popularity of the western began to decline. One of the last memorable westerns from the olden days was this film, 1969’s The Wild Bunch. It has received ecstatic reviews and it has been praised for its realism and its themes. The violence portrayed in the film was, and remains controversial. From this era, it’s my understanding this is one of the most violent films you’ll see. As for myself, I respect the film very much especially when it comes to the realism aspects and the gritty performances. I actually disliked the film on my first viewing, but my second viewing changed my mind rather drastically. Still far from a perfect film, but I understand why people called this film a classic and I found myself really warming up to it after my second viewing.
The themes are very interesting and I believe these themes that affects everyone, old and young. It’s about a clash of old versus the new. The setting of the film is right after the turn of the 20th century in the years leading up to the first World War. The wild bunch aka the main outlaw gang are old, worn out, and ready for retirement. Times are changing and it’s not all about the horses and the guns anymore. Technology is beginning to be pivotal at this point in America. One of the bunch remarks after seeing a car, “they’re gonna use them in the war, they say.” Because of changing times, new generations come into play. In the very opening scene, we see the bunch passing a group of children playing with scorpions and eye contact is made between the leader, Pike and one of the children. I think that is important because it sets up the last few scenes of the movie. In a sense, the passing of the torch from the older to newer generation. I thought these are very powerful scenes and the film uses them very well.
One of the controversial things about the film is the use of the violence. The violence gives the movie its sense of realism. Director Sam Peckinpah meant to use the violence as an allegory to the Vietnam War, in which Americans were seeing on their television sets every night. Peckinpah wanted to show that violence was awful, and not a pleasant thing to witness. Most western films glorified the violence and made it bloodless. But Peckinpah’s vision was different. Such gun battles were common on the American frontier, and they were extremely bloody. The last act of the film makes a fine example of that statement when Pike’s gang decides to take on a Mexican village whom kidnapped one of their members. So be forewarned, the film does not shy away from it’s violence.
This outlaw gang led by Pike (William Holden) is on the brink of retirement. They know their time is up and its up to a new generation to take over. They plan on doing one last score before they settle down. However one of their own is kidnapped by the Mexicans and although the group knows it is a suicide attempt, they decide to possibly do their last hurrah by staging a rescue mission. I think the plot was pretty good, and once again the themes are prevalent throughout this story. They ain’t young men anymore.
The performances are very effective from everyone, but its the three leads who steal the thunder. William Holden is an amazing actor and I felt he was perfectly cast as Pike. He brought good leadership qualities to his character. He is a man who knows when it is time to move on. His first mate, in a sense, was played by Ernest Borgnine. He also delivers a quality performance as Butch. I also loved the performance of Robert Ryan, the former gang member turned bounty hunter who is charged with bringing Pike to justice. I loved seeing the dynamics of Ryan’s character who was a former friend of Pike and is now going after him.
There are two giant violent action set pieces-once in the beginning and once at the end. While I think the action itself was done well, I didn’t like the treatment of civilians, especially during the first one during a failed bank robbery. There was a mighty gun battle with Ryan’s character, Deke on a rooftop shooting down at Pike’s gang in the bank, but with no regard to the civilians. I mean the man is on the side of the law, so I was bewildered by that. But it’s not really a major issue. The second part is pretty much a “blaze of glory” act. I won’t give what happens here away, but rest assured there are many, many bullets used in this sequence.
I found interesting how you could parallel the themes of the story to the themes of Peckinpah’s career. He hadn’t made a film in five years prior to the film because he was fired off his last movie. He is extremely difficult to work with and it was hard for him to progress into new Hollywood. Just like his characters in the film, he was old, worn-out, drunk, violent, and a man ready to move on. He is a very accomplished director, but he was given a very notorious reputation.
The Wild Bunch is a good western and it was mostly a fun if somewhat grueling watch. The violence can be hard to watch sometimes, especially during that final gun battle. Peckinpah wanted realism, and well he got it. He said his mission was to show people the feeling of being gunned down, and I did get that feeling a few times. The film is not a light movie. It’s about betrayal, violence, and the realization that your time is up. The movie does not shy away from its messages and it will hit you hard. I loved the realism of the movie, which many older Westerns are devoid of. Peckinpah’s screenplay does serve the film justice and so does the look of it. I often got the feeling I was out there amongst the sand with the people in the movie. The movie is not for the light-hearted, so consider yourself warned.
My Grade: B