“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“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.”
Like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch is a movie I knew by reputation for years before I ever got around to actually watching it. And like Bonnie and Clyde, that reputation was 100% based on violence. These are two movies that churned stomachs and angered censors on release. But since they came out in the 60s, violence has been done to such an extreme in so many movies since, it’s always a risk that a move like The Wild Bunch won’t be as shocking or affecting by modern standards. Then I remembered that The Wild Bunch was directed by Sam Peckinpah, possibly the most stereotypical manly, alpha male, whiskey swilling director of all time, and I was immediately reassured that The Wild Bunch would still pack a punch.
It’s 1916 and Pike Bishop (William Holden) along the titular bunch ride into a small town, planning to rob the local railway office and make off with that one last big score that will set them all up for life. The only problem is, it’s a setup by former Wild Bunch member, now coerced lawman helper, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). After a lot of gunfire and more than a few casualties, Pike and his men escape with what they think is a fortune in silver, but turns out to be worthless metal washers.
Laying low in Mexico, the bunch, including Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle (Warren Oates) and Angel (Jaime Sanchez) head for Angel’s home village. After an indiscretion involving the local, corrupt Generalissimo, Pike bargains for his man’s life by offering to stage an elaborate train robbery to help the General’s war effort. All the while, Deke and his militia are hot on the bunch’s trail.
The bullets fly within the first five minutes of The Wild Bunch kicking off, and they rarely stop. As much as this is a neo western, at the beginning of a total new wave of American cinema that was the 70s, it still has its foundations deeply in classic Western mythos and genre rules. Peckinpah just heightens them and pushes them to new extremes. The violence is visceral and relentless, but it’s not what makes this movie so effective.
It’s the men at the centre of this violence. When Pike and Deke have a camp fire discussion about life, regrets and what drives them to be the ruthless men they are, this one short exchange is enough that you totally believe everything they do from this moment on. You probably won’t agree with their actions and motivations, but you at least understand them.
The characters of Pike and Deke share almost no screen time together, but those few, short moments are more than enough to completely fill in their history. They also let you know exactly how hard it is for Deke to carry out his current assignment, and how hard it is for Pike to view is former friend as a current enemy.
The violence might be what put The Wild Bunch on the map, but with decades of hindsight and the evolution of film violence since, it’s good that the violence is now kind of just a footnote to modern movie watching eyes. While it might have been shocking and distracting in 1969, now, it’s just one great part of telling a great story.
Best Original Screenplay (Peckinpah & Green nominated, lost to William Goldman for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid)