The Wild Bunch review by The Grim Ringler

In the annals of film, I think its safe to say that no Western has had as much scholarly work written on it as Wild Bunch has (I suppose High Noon or perhaps Shane might be up there but my guess is Bunch beats them) so I wont even attempt to plumb the depths of this film. What I will say is that the analysis and kudos are well deserved. Few films can manage to tell a good tale, change a genre, break taboos of violence, and have as much subtext left over as Wild Bunch has and still remain a damn good film at its heart. As much as I love say Citizen Kane, and while I firmly believe its the greatest American film ever made, it just aint a fun watch. Bunch, while not nearly as important as Kane, is fun to watch. So, while I wont even attempt to get into all that there is to this film, I do hope I can do the film justice in my review and maybe perhaps present a film that some of you may never have seen.

Six men, having just failed at a high stakes bank robbery, find themselves hunted by the railroad men they have stolen from, the government who needs to exorcise them, and a friend who has betrayed them. The men take refuge in Mexico while they plan their next gambit and while there cross paths with an ambitious but corrupt general who has sights on conquering Mexico. They make a deal to steal arms for his soldiers, thus creating their last score, and all is well. Well that is until one of them crosses the general, a man who has murdered this member of the Bunchs father, and who has been arrested by the general when it is learned he (with the gangs help) gave a box of arms to some resistance fighters. Facing a world which has moved past cowboys and bandits, the men must face their own mortality and their own ideals and decide if they are willing to risk their lives, all they really have left anymore, to save their captured comrade, or whether they will simply fade away.

There is a sadness to Wild Bunch and its band of desperate desperadoes which gives the film its resonance. These are not your fathers gunslingers, all chest-forward machismo and flying lead, these instead are villains, murderers and thieves the lot of them, who become heroic only in giving up. These are men who have fought the system and society, clinging firmly to the old ways and old customs that died with the changing of the century. Seeing a car, one of the earliest of cars, brings about awe in the men as if they had just witnessed a miracle. Wanted in their own land, these men retreat to a Mexico so entrenched in villainy and poverty that these men feel at home. This is a place where time hasnt passed them by, where they are kings again and where they can live out their days if they choose. But there is an inevitable feeling of dread in these men, the ghost of a thought, which tells them that for men like them, there is no escape. There is no happy ending. And to a degree they are happy for that. More afraid of what they would do if they were to retire than they are afraid of death. The world has been a grand game of outlaws and cowboys and its time for the game to end. And there too is the feeling that they are tired of being the bad guys. Seeing the conditions the people of Mexico live in, the utter poverty of it all, and that these people still find the courage to celebrate the life they still have. And watching this, the Bunch realize they have no family, friends, no ties, no home. All they have is each other and this dream of one last score so they can retire. But when one of their own, the young Mexican Angel, is caught and tortured by a ruthless general who has hopes of ruling Mexico, the Bunch find their souls, and their cause. Angel was willing to give his life to help his nation. He was willing to die for a cause. And now, so are the Bunch. Willing to die, not just for Angel, and not just in an effort to end the rule of a child-tyrant, but in order to save themselves from themselves. They would rather die in a hail of gunfire than to live out their years on the run and out of hope. There is a brilliantly gruesome scene early in the film of children dropping two scorpions into a small arena, only to be assaulted by fire ants. And as the scorpions are dying, their tails and claws flailing wildly and helplessly, the children drop hay onto the entire arena and burn all of the creatures alive. And that is as beautifully horrific a foreshadowing to the fate of the Bunch as anything. The Bunch are both the scorpions and the children. They are both the damned and the damning. They enter a compound filled with Mexican soldiers, the four of them gleefully facing down an army, playing the part of the scorpions. But they too are the hand of fate, the vengeful hand of a god who has seen too much and who has sent these four riders of the apocalypse to mete out punishment. And in the end, there is a sad nobility in the deaths of the Bunch. They die, not because they need to, for they can escape, but they die because they have to. They know no other way to end their own story.

Brilliantly photographed, director Sam Peckinpah made the most of his locations and uses the desolate, lonely landscapes to frame his ghostly anti-heroes perfectly. Peckinpah, no newcomer to controversy, brought his grim, hyper-realistic violence to Wild Bunch and forced people to watch the brutal final act of his film. He used violence not as a crutch, or as titillation, but as a statement this is war, this is violence, this is death. All of the actors here are wonderful in their parts but the standout here is William Holden, who, as the quiet leader of the Bunch, refuses more than the rest to give up the old ways. Just as he refuses to turn his back on those ideals. When hunted by a man working the railroads as a bounty hunter, a man who had been one of their own kind not long before, Holden and Ernest Borgnines characters fight over how this man can turn on people who had once been their friends. Enraged that Borgnine cannot understand it, he insists that the man has no choice but to serve his new masters because he gave his word!

Sadly, a lot of people wont get into this film for a variety of reasons. Its too old. And sure, its an older film, for sure, but its themes are timeless. More than the age of the film though, I think the ideals of these characters will alienate some people. The idea of standing up for beliefs like ones word, and sacrificing everything for a friend, as well as the notion that its better to burn out than fade way, may seem alien to some people. I would like to think I am just being a pessimist though. What I will admit it is is slow. Very slow. These men are in no hurry and neither is their director so that, at times, you really begin to wonder if this was shot in real time. But thats really the worst thing I can say about the film.

The DVD is sadly pretty bare, which is a shame, but the image is clean and sharp, the sound, strong, and you get an interesting documentary about the making of the film that sheds some light on the entire affair. It is a flipper disc though, which is ridiculous, and truly, this is a film that is CRYING out for a true special edition. Hell, some of the cast was still living not that long ago, they coulda gotten a commentary. Grrr.

A beautifully brutal ode to all things dead and gone, this is the epitome of an oldie and a goody. Perhaps not the greatest Western made, but surely one of the most important and influential. A classic in every way.


9 out of 10 Jackasses
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