#32 – The Wild Bunch
The Plot In Brief: A “wild bunch” of aging bandits travel to a Texas town, lured by the promise of a poorly guarded railroad payroll. Pike (William Holden) is the leader of the group and makes all the decisions. His right-hand man is Dutch (Ernest Borgnine). We sense the two have been together for a very long time. The Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) and Mexican native Angel (Jaime Sanchez) are more recent additions to the gang.
The bunch rides into a town run by Mapache, a Mexican warlord fighting against the forces of Pancho Villa. Mapache and his soldiers convince the bunch to rob a train containing arms intended for U.S. troops. The bunch commits the exciting robbery flawlessly. Just when it looks like the bunch might actually complete “one last big score,” all hell breaks loose in the most violent finale in motion picture history.
The Wild Bunch also signals the virtual end (for a time, at least) of Westerns as a viable genre in Hollywood. Though filmmakers continue to produce Westerns—and every ten years or so there are always the signs of a modern resurgence—I do not feel I am overreaching to suggest that The Wild Bunch serves as the symbolic tombstone-in-the-desert of the classic Hollywood Western. Its themes of growing older and “the end of the road” only serve to make this distinction more richly ironic.
The fact that The Wild Bunch signals the “tipping point” of Peckinpah’s career adds extra richness and relevance to one of the greatest final lines in cinema history. Surveying the future after the film’s famous climactic massacre, elderly Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) concludes, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”
wrote about The Wild Bunch and opined that the film’s two major themes were honor and betrayal. While I still believe the film explores those themes, I now feel that the overriding themes are aging and loss. The wild bunch is facing the end of the trail; they are no longer young men, they suffer from past injuries, and at one point Pike even says, “We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” Of course, this may simply reflect my wandering subjectivity as I view the film in different ways over the course of many years. I am currently staring at retirement in about a year, and I am wondering what it will be like to finally “hang up my spurs and guns.” Unlike the wild bunch, it is not my intention to go down in a hail of gunfire and glory.
I would also like to reconsider my early quibble about the film’s forced camaraderie among the men being the film’s weak point. I have since caught a theatrical screening of the film (a magnificent 70mm print of the film’s 1995 restoration, screened during the Music Box Theatre’s recent 70mm Film Festival) and I saw that the “laughing scenes” with which I took issue play very differently in a packed theater. Like the Marx Brothers films A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, which were edited to account for audience laughter, The Wild Bunch was designed for an audience in a theatrical setting. Seen in this proper setting, scenes designed to establish the bunch’s joyful bond work just fine and do not come across as forced at all. I was wrong.
“In nomine Patrice, et Scorsese, et Spiritus Peckinpah. Amen.”