Violence comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. in 1969, when Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was first released, it caused a stir because of its gritty, uncompromising style. The deaths in this film are neither sterile nor heroic. When a gun is fired, the result is inevitably messy. In many ways, especially in its determination not to glorify bloodshed, The Wild Bunch shares key themes with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven -- only this film came twenty-three years earlier. A classic in its original theatrical cut, The Wild Bunch is nevertheless improved with eleven minutes of footage restored.
The movie opens during 1913 in the small south Texas town of San Rafael. The Wild Bunch -- a gang of six -- has moved in to pull off a robbery. What they don't know is that it's a setup -- the sacks of money are filled with washers and there are dozens of gun-toting bounty hunters hidden in ambush. Things turn bloody and numerous innocent citizens are caught in the crossfire. The gang escapes with the bounty hunters hot on their trail.
Leading the Wild Bunch is Pike (William Holden), an aging outlaw who enjoys planning his capers as much as carrying them out. He's beginning to feel his age, however -- an old wound makes it nearly impossible for him to mount his horse and he wonders how many more jobs he'll be good for. Pike's right-hand man is Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), another grizzled veteran of the robbery circuit. The gang is rounded out by Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and the Gorch Brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson). One member of the Bunch is missing, however. Thornton (Robert Ryan), once Pike's closest friend, was arrested as a result of a past screw-up, and now commands the mercenaries hunting his old buddies.
It's possible to view The Wild Bunch as a straight action picture, albeit a highly stylized one -- Peckinpah's use of multiple angles and quick cuts is amazing. All the traditional elements of the genre are present: shoot-outs, male bonding, and a high body count. The director's methods of orchestrating tension are such that the movie has its fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments. But there's a lot more here. The Wild Bunch has level upon level of complexity even beyond the obvious metaphor of Vietnam, and has been structured to satisfy the more discriminating movie-goer.
Loyalty is certainly one theme. For all the internal strife within the Bunch, the bonds that tie them together are far more powerful than those which seek to break them apart. Betrayal of any sort is unthinkable, which gives added resonance to the dynamics between Pike and Thornton. Once companions, now enemies, only death can free one from the other. Oaths are important because they cement loyalty. One line, spoken by Pike, summarizes the film's viewpoint: When you side with a man, you stay with him.
More striking than The Wild Bunch's consideration of loyalty is the way the movie relates children to the violence surrounding them. Peckinpah populates his film with many young faces, most of whom have no lines. Through every scene of slaughter, they are there, cringing fearfully out of the way, eyes glued to the carnage, their souls slowly corrupted. With sadistic glee, they pit red ants against scorpions, then set fire to all the combatants. Aging men, weary of the violence of life, see children as innocents -- We all dream of being a child, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst of us most of all. -- but they don't see that hardships leave their mark early. In The Wild Bunch, there are always children watching, until the very end, when one does much more. This transition from observer to participant drives home Peckinpah's message.
For anyone who doubts the importance of The Wild Bunch, this new version is recommended viewing -- an opportunity to witness a style that has influenced film makers from Scorsese to Tarantino. Not only does The Wild Bunch illustrate Peckinpah's mastery of his medium, but it presents a story that is effective on nearly every level: the emotional, the visual, and the visceral. There aren't many epic motion pictures of this scope these days, so it's a rare treat to look back five decades and see something on the big screen that is as potent and relevant today as when it was first released.
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