It begins with a spoiler from a scorpion…
As William Holden and his men ride into town with a grim task in mind, he passes some sadistic children cheering on a couple of scorpions succumbing to an attack from the endless bites of a swarm of ants. What we don’t know at the time is we’re getting a preview of The Wild Bunch’s truly insane climax, arguably the most notorious in the history of the western, as Holden’s cadre of lethal but aging gunmen square up to an entire army of corrupt federales in order to find a modicum of inner peace in a time that’s moved on from the ideals they once knew.
When it came to negotiating the soulful brutality of the western as the as the sixties came to a close and the lines of heroism started to blur, surely the best man to negotiate these changing times was the irrepressible (and often drunk) Sam Peckenpah. This, my friends, is the sound of the old West dying with blood in it’s lungs. This, is The Wild Bunch.
Seeking one last score to secure their retirement, Pike Bishop and his gang of almost over the hill outlaws try to stage a robbery of a railroad office in Texas. The year is 1913 and the time of outlaws roaming the west are steadily becoming a thing of the past due to the world stubbonly moving on; and as if to make that point directly to Pike’s face, the robbery collapses into a frenzied bloodbath due to a cadre bounty hunters laying in wait to stage an ambush. Making things extra personal is that the man leading the triggerhappy posse is Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton who has been reluctantly deputized in order to hunt down his old friend to avoid jail time. Escaping with his life alongside fellow gang members Dutch, Angel and the Gorch brothers and reuniting with crusty old timer Freddie, they are dismayed to find out that the loot they swiped was merely a ringer and after all that blood and shooting, all they have to show for it is sweet fuck all.
Knowing they have Thornton’s men following in their wake like a short-legged dog on a leash, Angel suggests they cross the Rio Grande and chill out in the village he was born in, but upon arriving they find out the place is run by the brutal General Mapache, an officer in the Mexican Federal Army. Pike, sniffing a possible deal to be made, he and his men agree to work for the General and try steal cache of weapons for him to aid in his fight against Pancho Villa despite there being obvious bad blood between Mapache and Angel.
Pike will eventually find his old-school morals tested as he’s forced to choose between settling for that last, big score or being faithful to your ideals – but one thing’s for sure, the old ways are going to lay down and die without taking a few hundred people with it.
Released in the same year as John Wayne’s True Grit – another western about the old ways evaporating thanks to the steady march of time – The Wild Bunch couldn’t be more different. The mournful musings of craggy old men are heartfelt yet bitter and yet the movie is still filled with a genuine sense of adventure whenever the drunken navel gazing and obsessing over the breasts of numerous Mexican women is quashed by the thrill of a hold up. With that being said, as progression and supposed civilisation sweep the land, the attempts to get the lawless wiped off the face of the earth means that even the quote unquote good guys resort to questionable methods to purge the west of out dated outlaws. The stick-up that opens the film goes as spectacularly wrong as a heist can go with a parade of innocent people getting virtually liquefied in the crossfire thanks to the itchy trigger fingers of Thornton’s ill disciplined posse. Peckenpah famously wanted the violence to show that dying wasn’t like how other westerns chose to portray it – usually by a man clutching his chest and sinking bloodlessly to the ground – and by fuck, did he succeed with the legendary climax.
A breathless cacophony of bullets, gore and screaming people dropping like shacks of shit is super slo-mo the final gunfight may be the greatest of it’s kind ever filmed and by turns is exhilarating, horrifying and legitimately heartbreaking as Pike, Dutch and the Gorch’s add roughly an extra stone in weight each thanks to how many bullets they soak up as they mow down countless Federales with the staccato roar of a Browning M1917. It’s Pike’s ethos made flesh, going out in a blaze of glory for a just reason instead of trying to negotiate a rapidly evolving world that has no use for them – but they don’t go down easy and they certainly don’t go down clean as Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch isn’t above taking a shrieking senorita as a human shield, while Pike messily blows away another in retaliation for catching a bullet.
William Holden – looking a long way from Sabrina – is magnificent as the aging Pike, who was going through something similar in real life due to his leading man days slowly drying up and every line is heavy with regret and meaning – “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” he laments, probably knowing full well that catching lead is probably the best case scenario for all of them and he’s magnetic from beginning to blood soaked end. Borgnine is…. well, he’s Ernest Borgnine, isn’t he; and while he’s not really much more than Pike’s conscience throughout the film, he still makes an Ernest Borgnine style impact and his nervous little laugh before the thuderous gunfire dominates the soundtrack is as memorable as any of Holden’s craggy musings. It’s the little details that stand out too and because the year is 1913, Peckenpah make sure he adds bits and bobs here and there that you wouldn’t normally see in your usual “classic” western like a shiny, gleaming automobile, or the fact that most of the cast use Colt handguns or pump action shotguns instead of the usual revolvers.
As a virtually flawless western that changed the face of how action scenes where edited, I will say this, however – anyone who has even the slightest love of horses will be genuinely alarmed at the movie’s treatment of various four legged steeds as they’re required to throw themselves to the ground, hurl themselves through windows and – most audaciously – be standing on a exploding bridge which drops them into river like a giant dunk tank.
However, not to trivialise the traumatizing of noble creatures, but it seems everyone has a rough go of it as the movie forges a path to it’s brutal conclusion and Peckenpah is smart/sadistic enough to even give the characters one last hoorah as the tonally much lighter sequence a the train robbery gives the leathery players one last taste of the good old days when murdering people for guns or silver to make a living seemed far simpler.
A truly great film about truly awful people, The Wild Bunch is a film about regrets, honor and what it truly means to to have the world move on and leave you standing still – something that is incredibly relevant in these rapidly changing times. An obvious and huge influence on such filmmakers such as John Woo and Walter Hill, The Wild Bunch has a straight shot at possibly being the greatest western ever made – wait a minute… a straight shot? Scratch that, make that bloody thousands.