The next big stop in the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book as I return to the Historical chapter, is Peckinpah’s ultra-violent, wonderfully bloody take on the Hollywood Western.
A group of professional outlaws out of step and out of time looking for one last score find themselves fatally wandering the line between the old and the new.
Filled with beautiful locations, fantastically shot action beats, and a story filled with themes of honour and loyalty, the film remains as engrossing today, and as important, as it was when it was released in 1969.
William Holden is Pike Bishop, the ageing leader of the group. He is loyal to his entire bunch, even if he doesn’t like them all. In fact the only relationship that he seems to value is that of Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). The rest of the Bunch includes Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the Gorch brothers, Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) the oldest member, and Angel (Jaime Sanchez) as the true moral heart of the group.
Pursued by a gang of hired guns working for the railway, and led by a former member of their group, Thornton (Robert Ryan), the Bunch head south of the border and become embroiled in an arms deal with General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) which will bring them to a moral decision that has consequences for all of them.
From its opening robbery to the last moment, including that iconic final showdown, the film comments on the changing times, the nature of violence and its cost.
It had been a long time since I saw this film, so long in fact, that it felt like I was coming to it again for the first time, and I found myself totally caught up in it. Peckinpah’s direction is masterful, and it’s difficult to choose a favourite sequence or moment (though the train sequence is pretty awesome, and the improvised walk to Mapache’s). They are countless.
The film rockets along on rails racing from beat to beat, never shying away from the results of violence and the bloodbath at the end of the film is iconic, stunning and resonates through the decades. Something that helps to underline the realisation that the Bunch are out of touch, as they come face to face with the face of the modern world.
The film broke the image of the Hollywood idealised version of the Old West, showing it to be rough, dark and violent. It also served as a reflection of the times in which the film was released. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement, and those incidents provide context for the film, though it works just as well now.
A helluva ride, brutally violent, and masterfully made, The Wild Bunch truly is a Western classic.