R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Wild Bunch

Since the inception of cinema, the Western has always been a mainstay of film goers. Through the works of John Ford and Howard Hawks, the Western genre skyrocketed, and was eventually able to claim some of the greatest films ever with pictures like The Searchers and Red River. Audiences flocked to see heroes such as John Wayne and others fight to the death against hordes of enemies in places like Rio Bravo and Fort Apache.

In the 1950’s, things began to change in a roundabout way for the Western. At the core of this change was Akira Kurosawa, who’s Samurai films were receiving world wide acclaim. His pictures, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo were winning countless prizes and catching the eyes of American film makers. Kurosawa’s films were morality plays, and although they took place in 16th Century Japan, they were ultimately timeless.

While Director John Sturgess was the first to bring Kurosawa to Western shores with The Magnificent Seven. The movie is tons of fun, but the film lacked the serious tone of its Japanese Predecessor. Two attempts to bring remakes of Kurosawa films with a closer in feel to their originals came in 1964. The first, The Outrage, starring Paul Newman and directed by Martin Ritt, attempted to translate Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon. It was only partially successful. Sergio Leone was the second film maker to attempt to translate the works of Kurosawa to the screen for Western audiences that year with A Fistful of Dollars for which he converted the story of Yojimbo. Fistful finally brought to screen for Western audiences the type of story Kurosawa had already portrayed for the Eastern world, it even had the same themes that the great Japanese master had brought to light.

What Leone’s film did for the genre was bring an end to the type of Western that featured only “White Hats and Black Hats”. A Fistful of Dollars ushered in a new era where villains and heroes were all shades of gray. Heroes were more human and easier to identify with because they were fallible. Even villains had their moments of humanity.

In 1969 two shining examples of this type of Western came to theaters. One of the two films was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film depicted the real life outlaws as funnymen, but at the same time was very real. The two were not caricatures, but seemed to have actual emotions and down to earth outlooks. The film has real life gravity to it and also has a very high entertainment value. The duo’s gang in the film is called “The Hole in the Wall Gang” which was not actually the name of Butch and Sundance’s band of thieves. The reason for this change is because of the release of a film that included the name of the real gang. That film is one of the greatest American Westerns ever.

The Wild Bunch Starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine. Directed by Sam Peckinpah.

The year is 1914 and the American West is dead. With the modern world taking hold of all of the United States many men who had lived their way of life by the gun are now finding that that dream is ending. One such group is lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden), a group of criminals. The crew knows their way of life is coming to its twilight so they plan one last heist. Dressed as cavalry men, the robbers enter a bank with a plan to steal enough to secure their freedom and the chance to disappear into a luxurious obscurity.

Having other plans is Deke Thorton, played by Robert Ryan. Pike’s former partner, Deke has, as way to reduce a long prison sentence, now sided with the Railroad companies that he and the bunch used to rob . Deke and a group of bounty hunters lie in wait for Bishop and his friends as they reach the bank. All is going according to plan until one of the bounty hunters accidentally reveals their position.

What happens next in the film shocked audiences in the theaters in 1969. As the bank robbers spot their potential captors, all hell breaks loose in the most violent sequence captured on film at that time. The situation is compounded by a church group caught between the two groups of combatants.

The bunch gets away, but with many casualties. The five remaining members are horrified to find out that their comrades have fallen for nothing as the banks money is replaced by common household washers. Their ticket to retirement has now become a demand for one more job. The quintet of antiheroes; Pike, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle (Warren Oates), Tector (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), all decide Mexico is best place to find work and lay low. For five men in need of unlawful work, revolutionaries requiring illegal guns are heavy employers.

Upon arriving down south, the bunch learns that a General named Mapache is willing to pay top dollar for guns to help his revolutionary army. The group is also aghast as to the fate of the surrounding villagers in Mexico as Mapache has ravaged the countryside and “volunteered” all the local young men to join his cause. Angel in particular refuses to work with Mapache as his native village is one of the communities devastated by Mapache’s greed. Also Angel conceals a personal vendetta against Mapache as his woman was taken by the General.

Despite Angel’s protests and their own misgivings, the group decides to work for Mapache, stealing the guns from a U.S. Army Munitions Train. Angel finally relents his protest against the rest of the group when he convinces them to give a box of guns and ammo to his people. This deception is quickly discovered by Mapache and Angel is captured in the process. Also Thorton and his posse have rediscovered Pike’s trail, and are in hot pursuit.

These events set up the Bunch’s final showdown with Mapache’s army which features a sequence of such violence that it demands the shootout at the beginning of the film to relinquish its title as the bloodiest ever filmed. The end of the film is somber, but it does not come without a sense of satisfaction.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, it was mired in controversy. Two groups emerged from theaters upon its release. One group was ready to condemn the picture for its excessive bloodshed, thinking the movie vulgar and obscene for it realistic portrayal of violence. The other group championed the film as a masterpiece. Those enjoying the film stated that it was the horrific violence portrayed in the movie that indeed made it a work of art against bloodshed. Eventually it was the pros whose voices outlasted the cons. Today, the film is rightly considered one of the best Westerns ever produced.

Sam Peckinpah made a picture, which while not actually a remake of a Kurosawa film, was closer in theme and feel than any other American picture made at that time. From the first moment of the film the audience receives masterful use of symbolism from Peckinpah as the gang watches a group of children drop a scorpion into an anthill. The Wild Bunch is at the end of their era, much like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo. They are outcast in a society that they helped establish, much like the ronin of Seven Samurai. Also like the Samurai they stick together, though it is only their word that keeps them bond to each other. They fight it as much as they can, but their consciences cannot allow them to let one of their own die unjustly at the hands of Mapache.

One can also see a “tradition of violence” that The Wild Bunch is an integral part of. The chain actually begins with Kurosawa, who pushed levels of violence to a greater and greater degree from Seven Samurai to Ran. The next link is Bonnie and Clyde, with its closing shootout that turned the duo from celebrity into legend.
The Wild Bunch is the next link, with its introductory and climactic battles cementing its place in violent cinema history. The battles are small masterpieces by themselves of editing, choreography, and planning. The final sequence took 12 days to shoot and featured more blank rounds of ammunition fired than in the entire war that the film actually portrayed. 10,000 squibs were used in the sequence and a shortage of extras was compensated for with soldier’s costumes patched up and painted and sent back into the fray.

From there, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather fought through early criticism to eventually transcend great film itself. Then Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver brought the violence to the inner city slum where Robert Deniro’s Travis Bickel goes on his bloody rampage. This tradition goes all the way to modern masters of violence and action with John Woo’s The Killer and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. All have been leveled with reputations of excessive portrayals of realistic violence. All have gone on to reach reputations of greatness.

To totally dismiss the film is to also dismiss the wonderful performances with in it . William Holden is a solid rock of acting and charisma as Pike. One can see the years of wear and tear piled on Pike through his facial expressions. He is a man that immediately commands respect and respect is given to him. At the moment where the bunch decides to go and try to rescue Angel, even if it means their death, Pike was originally supposed to have a big speech. Holden changed the copious dialogue to a look he gives his men and the single phrase “Let’s go.” The moment is a showstopper.

Robert Ryan’s Deke Thorton is also a performance to be remembered. Thorton is a tortured man. He is torn between the authorities he gave his allegiance to, and his old mates. It becomes clear though, without a doubt still sides with Pikes group. He sees that his posse of cutthroats and rednecks lacks the honor of the thieves he once counted himself among. He wishes to be among his friends again, but knows it would mean his incarceration. Ryan is able to give Thorton the undercurrent of guilt without going over the top. The performance is very subtle and very moving.

The rest of The Wild Bunch are all very likable. Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch is steadfast in his loyalty to Pike. While mostly relegated to sidekick in the film, his presence is still very much felt. Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Jaime Sanchez are all very commendable in their roles. Lyle and Tector are supposed to be brothers in the film and the portrayal of that relationship with Oats and Johnson is very believable. Sanchez’s Angel is a wild card in the group. He is full of fire and passion and it is obvious he will die for his beliefs.

On the shortlist of the greatest Westerns ever made, The Wild Bunch will undoubtedly be a name cemented among the greats of the genre along with The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Unforgiven and The Searchers. It brought a revitalization to the genre, and enabled it to endure even today. Though as controversial at the time as Pulp Fiction or Private Ryan, The Wild Bunch stands with them as testaments to their visionary directors’ excellence and also a look at the greatness that proceeded them.