a critiQal film review The Wild Bunch (1969)

Plot: Aging outlaw Pike Bishop (Holden) prepares to retire after one final robbery. Joined by his gang, which includes Dutch Engstrom (Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Oates) and Tector Gorch (Johnson), Bishop discovers the heist is a setup orchestrated in part by his old partner, Deke Thornton (Ryan). As the remaining gang takes refuge in Mexican territory, Thornton trails them, resulting in fierce gunfights with plenty of casualties.

722 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 36s)

For this week’s #TBT Review, it was time to take a look back at one of the most famous westerns of all time: The Wild Bunch. Considered to be director Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus, and listed on several “movies to watch before you die” lists, it seemed like a mistake on our part that we hadn’t seen it yet.

But, would The Wild Bunch be worthy of all this praise? Or had time (and the attitudes of today) spoiled the impact of this film for the next generation?

The Wild Bunch is lead by three particular members of its cast: William Holden (Pike), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch) and Robert Ryan (Deke). As Pike, an aging outlaw whose time is passing him by, William Holden – along with his faithful friend Ernest Borgnine, compose most of what the titular group is about. As Deke, a former member who is now hot on their trail, Robert Ryan also turns in a top-notch performance.

The rest of the cast, including most of the other members of the titular group aren’t quite on par with these three in The Wild Bunch. Despite quite a bit of screen time, they just can’t seem to grasp the viewer’s attention, and become mere backdrops for the three main characters. Jaime Sánchez is the notable exception, although his character also seems to fade into the background before he finally steps in near the finale.

Without seeing most of the other classic westerns, it’s hard to compare The Wild Bunch to its fellow genre films. It’s been noted that the film ushered in a whole new level of violence, and there is a couple of intense action sequences that seem to back that up. However, it’s rather tame by today’s standards, and the violence isn’t quite as impactful as it once was.

Still, there’s a melancholy to The Wild Bunch that’s hard to resist. Despite quite a few scenes of oddly intense laughter, the viewer can’t help but feel sorry for these characters. The world has passed them by, and while they are beginning to realize it, they also know it’s too late to make the changes needed for them to catch up. They are relics of a bygone era living on borrowed time, and don’t have a clue what else to do. Instead they continue to plug away like they always have, trying to stave off the inevitable hopelessness of their situation.

Then there’s the dystopian view of the world that is apparent in each sequence of The Wild Bunch. With the “bad guys” of the pic showcasing a strong code of morality (albeit a skewed one), and the supposed “good guys” not caring how many innocents get in their way (or having any sort of shared sense of group with each other), it’s a role reversal that has the viewer rooting for the bad guy. Even so, even that role reversal is muddled by the seemingly complicated Deke, who, despite running with the bunch of other immoral “good guys” – not to mention betraying his former running buddies – still manages to possess a moral code that is more in line with the “bad guys” than his compatriots.

While The Wild Bunch does seem to have a too long running time, the viewer can see director’s Sam Peckinpah’s vision of the “slow burn”. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too slow, and the movie could have been a bit faster-paced for viewer’s tastes today. The near-maniacal laughter sequences that abound seem a bit out of place as well, with the director obviously trying to lighten up – if only for a few moments at a time – what is a rather dark film.

While the viewer can see why The Wild Bunch is considered a must-see, it seems like it would be a better film if the viewer had a few westerns already in their viewing history. When compared to modern-day western masterpiece that is Unforgiven (1992), this film can’t help but fall in its dust a bit thanks to its too-slow pace and lack of background character development.

Still, it’s melancholy feel and good guy/bad guy role reversal still manages to give The Wild Bunch an impact that can still be felt by viewers today. Just make sure you caught up on some of the other classic westerns first.

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