The Wild Bunch

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The Wild Bunch is one of those movies that when I was watching it, I could immediately tell it was good, but unfortunately I didn’t really connect with it that much. It’s really hard for me to review films when this happens, but I’ll give it go. The Wild Bunch depicts a gang of outlaws past their prime, and does so with record amounts of violence for the time.

Leading the bunch is Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), and chasing them is a former member, Deke Thronton (Robert Ryan). Flashbacks show how Pike betrayed him earlier, and now he is forced to hunt the bunch down in order to avoid prison. The story warms up with the bunch getting tricked into stealing a bunch of worthless steel washers, and then moves ahead to them going after some guns for a Mexican general. A member of the bunch, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), takes issue with this because the general is terrorizing his people, so Pike makes a deal with him that he can buy a case off them with his share of what the General’s paying them. Unfortunately, the General captures and tortures Angel just when they are handing the guns over, leaving the bunch to go back and get him.

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The film’s opening scenes tell you all you need to know about the film. The bunch rides into town to unsuspectingly steal the washers, and a group of children are watching ants eating a couple of scorpions alive. It’s pretty gross, but ingenious all the same. The ants, smaller, less powerful creatures, are able to cause trouble for the scorpions even though they are bigger. Switch the scorpions for the bunch and the ants for basically everyone else in the film, and it all makes sense. The bunch live by their code of honor; their word and their sense of duty to each other above all else. For everybody else it’s a free for all. Added to this is the fact that the ants are egged on by children. Make way for the new generation.

The casting of Holden and Borgnine is really ingenious here. They are mostly familiar through much more polite ’50s films, but here they are, all older out in the wild west. It’s interesting seeing them in this context, and their casting speaks to the generational conflicts in the film. They are tired and worn, their faces perpetually lined and old. They look exhausted but they keep going.

Though I found it hard to get emotionally involved in the story, the Robert Ryan character was the closest I got. He leads the posse going after the bunch, but he doesn’t respect any of the men he leads. He wants to ride with the bunch again, that much is abundantly clear. They are working for a railroad, so there’s another layer of self-contempt there.

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Unfortunately, I think the film is a bit too long. There are a lot of scenes of the bunch partying with the Mexicans that I feel could have been cut out. I realize their purpose, they are supposed to reinforce the camaraderie among the bunch, but they got kind of old after a while and didn’t do much for me. For all the objections about excessive violence at the time of its initial release, its portrayal is actually one of the best things in the film. It’s shown with the respect it deserves; violence is dealt out indiscriminately and it always has a cost. Not to mention the ’60s style editing and zooms keep you involved.

Though I have to admit I didn’t fully get into The Wild Bunch, I could tell it was a pretty darn good movie. The style was interesting, even though the film ran a bit long in my opinion. The generational conflict was portrayed well, the men don’t necessarily think they are that great, but they don’t like what’s going on around them. It’s one of the many westerns concerned with the death of the west, and it is as haunting and regretful as any of them.

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“We’re after men, and I wish to God I was with them.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review
The New York Times review

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