The Wild Bunch


They say that we should credit Sam Peckinpah for the way violence is portrayed in movies nowadays. Of course, that would be reducing his cinema to a pile of beans, because his films are about more than just people getting killed. Still, watching “The Wild Bunch”, you get a sense of what inspired guys like John Woo. Peckinpah tells intense tales of male bonding, where honor and loyalty are the codes to follow, even if it means a bloody end. When paired with the mythology of the Western, it adds up to a fascinating movie. Set in 1913, the movie has a bunch of aging outlaws trying to hold on to their old ways as the world around them is changing. Automobiles make their appearance, World War I is just around the corner. Is there still place for those old gunslingers? But what the film is really saying is that these guys don’t really have a choice. At one point, leader Pike says that he’d like to do one last big score and then pack off. But as Dutch asks, where would he pack off to? And anyway, they’d have to be able to pull a score at first.

What is startling but gripping about the film’s opening is that it puts us right into the action, as the bunch are ambushed during a botched bank robbery that was supposed to be their last job. Right from the start, Peckinpah is dazzling us with furious gunfire and bodies falling down in slow-mo, in a carefully crafted action sequence that almost feels like an apocalyptic ballet… You see what I meant about the influence on John Woo and those guys? The film then slows down to quieter scenes, as the bunch heads south, with a few less men. Guys drinking, playing guitar around the campfire or screwing whores, that’s all things we’ve seen in lots of Westerns, but this films puts a slightly more existentialist twist on them. Like Unforgiven some twenty years later, The Wild Bunch stars older guys who aren’t at the top of their form anymore. Pike is still standing by his code of honor, but he can’t help doubting himself by moments. Especially since his old partner Thornton is leading a group of bounty hunters that the railroad company sent after the bunch. Thornton would prefer to actually be with them, but there’s nothing he would hate more than going back to jail. And it all leads up to Mexico, where General Mapache hires the bunch to rob a train packed with weapons for his army, and everyone, even Pike and his guys know that this won’t end with them riding off in the sunset…

“The Wild Bunch” is a very interesting movie in the way that it doesn’t get cartoonish like Westerns often do. This is a tough and gritty world, and no one seems to get it easy. When shoot-outs break out, even innocent bystanders get killed. Peckinpah is clearly saying something about violence, pretty much that kids are watching and learning from our actions. Many scenes indeed feature kids witnessing outbursts of violence and then mimicking them in their games. Peckinpah’s take ain’t very subtle, but that’s part of his style. Like when you get shot, blood sprays out of you: you’re dead. The film stars many great actors who give brilliant performances, like Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine. The dominating presence still is William Holden, who interpreted Pike with an iron grip. The guy’s really a badass, but there’s still a deep sense of honor and humanity to his actions. If the guy steals, it’s because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. We follow him through the film and we sense that he knows he ain’t doing the right thing, but he just can’t take another path. Death seems to be the only way out…