Monday, April 5, 2010

Review – The Wild Bunch

April 6, 2010

The Wild Bunch – U.S., 1969

Just before the credits to Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch begin rolling, images of five of the film’s lead characters appear on the screen one after another. In these images, the characters are smiling broadly; some are even laughing. Seeing just these images, one could logically conclude that the men on the screen in front of them were each decent, jovial, fun-loving characters, and perhaps that is indeed how Peckinpah wants viewers to see them by the end of the film. To do so, though, would be to ignore the carnage that lies in their wake – the mounds of dead bodies, the children who will never see their fathers again, the women hurt by the men’s insatiable appetite for sex or feigned romance. Is all of this meant to be forgotten so that the legend of Pike Bishop (William Holden) can take shape? Perhaps, but it’s a hard sell.

The Wild Bunch begins and ends with probably two of the most violent scenes in film history. In the first, Pike and his group of mercenaries attempt to rob a bank. Unknown to them, on the roof of the building just opposite the bank crouches a group of mostly young and inexperienced hired guns, whose sole job it is to capture Pike and his men dead or alive. Neither of these groups has reason to care for the town or its inhabitants, and when the bloodbath that follows eventually subsides, it is mostly their bodies that line the town’s blood-soaked streets. Pike and four of his men escape with their lives. Of the other group, about half live to fight another day. In this battle, none of the men in these two groups display any of the noble characteristics that we have come to expect heroes to have. Towards the end of the film, Pike and three of his men decide to take on an entire army. It’s essentially four against at least one hundred Mexican soldiers. There is a certain righteousness to their decision – one of their own is in danger, and they are indeed bound by a moral code to rescue him. What’s missing from their action is a sense of greater purpose. What they do, they do for their group alone. Is this heroic then? Possibly, but it is never completely altruistic.

How one views Pike and his crew, comprised of Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Freddy Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates), Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), depends on how you view them as they journey from south Texas to Mexico. Along the way, each of them mentions that all they need is one more big score to be done with this life forever. We see examples of the increasing strain that exist between them, and one of them yearns to help his people defend themselves against General Mapache, whose campaign of terror has left Mexico divided and chaotic. As the film progresses, Pike and his men will find themselves working for the general out of necessity. Viewers looking for them to grow a conscience as a result of this will be disappointed.

Leading those in pursuit of Pike is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of Pike’s crew and one of the film’s most interesting – and underutilized - characters. Despite ample reason to do the opposite, it is apparent that Deke still holds Pike in high regard, and he freely admits to wishing to be riding alongside him once again. However, he’s also a man who values his life, and if he doesn’t deliver Pike, it’s back to Yuma for him. As for why he doesn’t just run away, the answer is simple: He gave his word. Pike understands this. Dutch insists that what’s important is who you give your word to.

There is much to like about The Wild Bunch. The characters are all somewhat interesting, the weapons heist is well filmed and completely believable, and Deke’s pursuit of Pike is rather gripping. There is also much to dislike about The Wild Bunch, from its silly use of “the last job” to make characters sympathetic to supposedly humorous scenes that simply fall flat. In one scene, Pike and his men pass around a bottle in an act of camaraderie. By the time, the bottle reaches Lyle, it is empty. As Lyle stews, the other four roar with laughter. I guess you had to be there. There will also no doubt be some people who take issue with the way women are portrayed in the film. Most of them are prostitutes or of such low moral standing that they make decisions based on what will benefit their purse. Perhaps they do so out of economic necessity. However, the film does not entertain this notion, and we’re simply left to view most of the women we see as opportunistic and immoral. Even when they appear to be kind and sympathetic, they may still stab “our heroes” in the back.

By the end of the film, I neither cared for Pike and his crew nor wanted them to be successful. I simply watched with an increasing numbness, similar to the way I watch the lead characters in most gangster films. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a film that doesn’t have someone who resembles a conventional hero, but nothing that followed the film’s shocking opening scene made me think of Pike and his gang as anything other than criminals who should be locked up for life. I have a feeling that that sentiment is not what Peckinpah intended for audiences to have, and the fact that I felt that way says something. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Wild Bunch, for I did. I just didn’t feel toward it the way I do for westerns such as Unforgiven, Lonely are the Brave, and The Searchers. Those films deserve to be considered some of the best of their genre. The Wild Bunch is somewhat entertaining and has some compelling characters, but to me, the film never reaches the level of excellence or importance that it strives for. (on DVD)

3 stars

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