The Wild Bunch: Down To The Last Man
This movie opens with riders on the trail. They are tough hombres wearing their old army uniforms. The uniforms are a cover because these men will go against anybody who gets in their way. They are The Wild Bunch. Traditional Westerns portray good guys and bad guys in the old west. The good guys are honest and brave. They fight fair and respect people. They uphold the law and want to see peace, and the family way in towns and territories.
In The Wild Bunch there are no good guys or bad guys. Morality is ambivalent and integrity is spotty. It’s hard to decide who to root for. We have Pike Bishop (William Holden) leader of the Wild Bunch and Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) leader of the bounty hunters who are after Pike because he has a price on his head. The hunted and the hunters are all killers and robbers.
Early in act one; we see Pike’s gang attack a town bank. They shoot up the whole town, grab the money bags and leave their new kid behind. On the way out of town, they find that one of their gang is so seriously injured he can’t go on so they shoot him. They take their booty south of the boarder where they meet up with Freddie Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) an old gang member. The gang starts fighting over shares of the loot. Now we see them exactly for who they are: a group of brutes who fight each other and even their leader to get what they want. Their behavior is just as terrifying as any of the shoot outs in the movie.
One of the gang, Angel (Jaime Sanchéz) takes them back to his village in Mexico. The villagers take in the group since they are Angel’s comrades. The village holds a huge fiesta to honor them. The town treats the gang like returning war warriors. We find out that the villagers are Native Mexicans who the Spanish Mexican majority abuse. The Native Mexicans are endearing but can be dangerous.
Major Zamorra (Jorge Russek) leads Federales into a town. Zamorra rides in an automobile, at the time a new and seldom seen invention. Major Zamorra wants the Wild Bunch to rob guns from a US army supply train and his Federales will purchase them. After this plan is made, the plot twists and turns. The Wild Bunch, the bounty hunters, and the Mexican army confront each other numerous times in different locals.
Sam Peckinpah, the writer/director, made a menacing movie with constant turmoil and abounding fear. He had a reputation as a hard drinking, alpha male. You can see his reflection in his characters. They are a rough group of desperadoes who have only macho loyalty. They rob, drink and have their way with women. These men are the antithesis of the cowboys we admire. There’re even mean to their horses. There’re demons riding out of hell. If you’re a louse, can shoot a gun and ride a horse you can be a foot soldier. But the leaders are confident, skilled professionals. A t times, they act honorably and are loyal. Among the gangs’ echelons are excellent actors although past their prime.
It’s distressing to watch a Western that violates all the conventions that we’ve come to expect. Director John Ford’s movies like Stage Coach and My Darling Clementine are classics and have principled, just and admirable heroes. Solidly good men are absent in The Wild Bunch.
Peckinpah is remembered for his brutal blood-letting scenes and unruly characters. The gun battles are shot and edited well. Particularly exciting is the bank hold-up in the first act. Scenes of pain and violence are sometimes foreshadowed through children’s play and animal’s lives. Peckinpah examines the underside of humanity and changes the dynamics of the Western. What Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch is that he kills and buries the great mythical heroes of the west.
This movie is not for children. It is so violent and twisted that most of the audience who remain today are curious cinephiles. They have come to see the movie that turned the tide of the Western.