THE WILD BUNCH (1969 United States)

thewildbunchballardpngA gang of American outlaws steals a trainload of US Army guns for a Mexican general, and are tracked relentlessly by bounty hunters. This is the film which fixes the Peckinpah ‘style’ for posterity to marvel at … guns, tequila, dust, whores – and more guns.

Typically for a Peckinpah movie, it is a requiem to the death of the Old West, permeated with the odour of decay. Dutch and Pike talk of their life together as free-ranging outlaws, and Pike observes that “those days are closing fast”. Gatling guns and automobiles are transforming the world, leaving no safe haven for ageing bushwhackers. During the opening credits we see children feeding scorpions into an ants’ nest. The graceful predators are overrun by sheer numbers, and pulled down by the ants. So it must be with Pike and his Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah’s familiar theme of American-Mexican ambivalence is a current running through the film. The Mexicans are sometimes caricatures – there is plenty of “Muchachos, vamenos!” – but Angel (Jaime Sanchez) cuts a dignified figure and the humble people of Mexico are treated sympathetically. The action straddles the Texan-Mexican border, and in each country the true struggle is that of the free individual against the behemoth of federal government.

WildBunchProcessionCroppedThe masculine values of the Western – courage in the face of danger and loyalty to one’s companero – are central to this movie. When Pike’s team realise that they have pulled off the robbery, the slow passing around of the whisky bottle is a semi-religious libation to the brotherhood of fighting-men. Though Pike and Deke (Robert Ryan) have a troubled personal history, and are now enemies, there is an unspoken bond of respect and affection between them. When Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) succumbs to his wounds, he dies calling Pike’s name.

The film takes care to distinguish between the outlaw-heroes and the rabble. Pike, played by William Holden, is “the best”. He runs his outfit with discipline and dignity. On the other hand, Thornton’s motley crew are merely stupid scavengers. Like the vultures that they are, their one aim is to plunder corpses. In the Wild Bunch, even the unruly brothers, Lyle and Tector, have a noble side to their nature. Peckinpah is sometimes pilloried for his technical tricks, and they are all on display here. It has to be said, they are well done. Actors are wired with electric squibs which squirt gouts of blood when they get shot. Men squirm and die in slow motion, allowing us to relish the carnage.

vlcsnap-2011-09-11-22h33m18s147Other technical aspects of the film deserve commendation. The shot of a falling bridge depositing a company of mounted railroad deputies into the Rio Grande is outstanding, as are the compositions of men, dust and horses during the gunfights. Soft dunes of sand and sweeping rivers are filmed with loving rapture. The confusion of the soldiers under attack in the boxcar is conveyed powerfully by the then-unheard-of expedient of a handheld camera.

Suspense is piled on skillfully during the railroad office attack, and extreme close-up is used throughout the film to heighten the moments of tension. Pike’s men receive a touching send-off from the humble folk of the pueblo who, knowing the nobility of a life outside the law, admire and love these strong, brave men. The life is a fine one, but it can end only one way. When the reckoning comes, the Wild Bunch meet it without flinching.

still-of-ben-johnson-and-warren-oates-in-the-wild-bunch-(1969)-large-picture

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