The Wild Bunch (1970)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine

Release date: January 29 (UK). Wow, the 70’s already. Have to say I was long overdue a return to this one and thanks to a near as dammit UK release I finally get my chance. May contain cowboys and spoilers…

At the time, many critics felt that The Wild Bunch glorified violence. I am at a loss as to how intelligent writers might arrive at such a conclusion. Logically, I’d have to conclude none of them were intelligent, but surely that’s too simple an explanation. I’m not disputing a high percentage of cinema-going punters were drawn to the ultra-violence, Peckinpah himself was reportedly mystified and disgusted by such open bloodlust in his audience. The violence is brutal, gory and ugly. How can anybody glorify it, revel in it? Of course, the final showdown is operatic, iconic… When anyone ever mentions The Wild Bunch I immediately think of Lyle Gorch, his creased white shirt stained with claret and sweat, screaming as if in orgasm as he mows down Mexicans with a Browning M1917 machine gun. But I also see those two kids near the start of the film, bystanders as the opening shoot-out messily unfolds, hugging each other in terror as the bullets whine around them. It is arguably the most potent image in The Wild Bunch and haunts long after the scene is over. That the critics saw this, yet chose to continue bashing the perceived pro-violence beggars belief.

O'Brien is brilliant...

Peckinpah set about destroying the archetypal Wild West Hero. There are no heroes in The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah lays that out in the cold light of day. Outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his Bunch are after railroad cash. Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and his posse of dissolute bounty hunters are there to stop them. Both men will show no mercy to the innocent townsfolk caught in the crossfire. What do you do as an audience? Holden and Ernest Borgnine are not going to essay ‘the loveable rogue’ for you; they’re bad men. They will kill anybody who’s in their way. So, you look to Ryan, he’s the good guy, right? Uh-uh. He’s fresh out of clink, he’s only doing this to get a full pardon. Yet, there are signs that he is a man of honour. He despises the filth that railroad boss Harrigan (Albert Dekker) has saddled him with, hired mercenaries who, like vultures, squabble for the leftover scraps of a kill. But he’ll work with them all the same, just to get back at his ex-partner for splitting on him. These two men are entrenched in pride; part of Deke accepts that Pike had to run or be captured along with him, or killed even. Part of Pike knows he should have stuck by Deke and every day since, the guilt has been gnawing at him, finally spilling over when he has a go at Tector Gorch; “When you side with a man, you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal, you’re finished!” He’s keen to see his mistake never repeated. Pike and Deke should just sit down and talk it through over a Mint Chip Frappuccino.

Pike, set to wander forever between the winds...

Pike Bishop is running from a lot of things, the law being the least of them. He’s a man out of time, the world is moving on. Dutch (Borgnine), through Pike, awakens to it. The brothers Gorch (Warren Oates, Ben Johnson) and Angel (Jaime Sanchez) are just too dumb to see it. Maybe not all the way dumb; maybe they just don’t want to face a future where destiny is out of their hands. They know it deep down though and by the end of the film they will embrace the cannonball marked ‘Progress’ and ride it all the way into a Mexican General’s lair. One of the saddest sights in the film is of them marvelling at a motor car. The age of the gunslinger is at an end and only Pike recognises it; “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” But he won’t be getting a ticker-tape retirement parade, or a decent work pension. There will never be a final job; he knows it, because that’s all he knows. He’s like the bloke at the beginning, begging to be shot because he can’t keep up with the gang anymore. Pike wants to be put out of his misery. There’s no place for him in this new era, not for any of them. They can talk of one last big score to set them up for life, but do any of them really look like pipe & slippers blokes to you? It’s an unattainable reverie. They are what they shoot; take those guns away, they’re castrated.

Don't be fooled by Dutch's amiable grin

An unremitting nihilism, more than anything else, drives Pike into battle with Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), the crazy General the Bunch have agreed to steal weapons for. Of course, freeing Angel is a good enough reason but Pike wants a dust-up, he knows Angel isn’t gonna be handed over wrapped up with a ribbon on. Peckinpah’s genius is he sets the audience up for the heroic shoot-up; four men, barely washed, hung-over, swaggering into the midst of a (mostly) drunken army of, what… 200, 300 Mexicans? But you don’t get heroics; it’s chaos, there’s no plan, it’s blind fortune these men make it as far as the Browning. Once there, where else is there to go? I reckon they might find an ‘Open’ sign on Hell’s door, at least. Pike’s taking his loyal Bunch down with him and they don’t even notice; they’re indestructible in the moment, just keep shooting till you run out of targets or run out of luck. Pike gets shot in the back by a whore. “Bitch,” he snarls before capping her. It’s insanity. If Kurtz were here, he’d probably say; “The horror… the horror…”

The Wild Bunch is beautifully shot ugliness. Even the youngsters’ idea of fun is ugly, tipping a couple of scorpions into a red ant nest. They got some sting but there’re just too many ants. Then the kids burn the lot. As foreshadowing it’s not subtle, but there it is.

The not so magnificent seven...

Performances… it’s hard for me to look beyond William Holden. Maybe he too thought his time had come and gone as an actor. He brings something tangible, a connection I felt more strongly with the film this time, riding off into my autumn as I surely am, while the young bucks whoop and holler at my passing. He’s tired, cornered, desperate. When he fucks up mounting a horse in front of the Bunch, the sight of him slowly trotting away, watched by Dutch and Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) is somehow heartbreaking. On the other side, Robert Ryan is doing the same thing to a lesser degree. He starts out fuelled on revenge yet reaches a crossroads with his own motley posse to the point where he is forced to growl a painful admission; “We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them.” Sykes offers him the chance to ride out again, though concedes; “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do…” And Deke takes it. But there’s no joy in his acceptance, they’re just prolonging the inevitable.

Dead-eyed Deke

Borgnine’s Dutch is Pike’s conscience. You can sum it up in one superb exchange, as they discuss Deke Thornton flipping to the other side and we see Pike’s regret naked and a skewed sense of honour…

“He gave his word,” Pike says, countering Dutch’s disgust at Deke’s reversal.

“He gave his word to a railroad,” Dutch snaps back.

“It’s his word!”

“That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”

… I guess Dutch is just as skewed since he’s thrown in with a killer and a robber. But if you’re waiting for Dutch to rescue Pike’s soul, Hell’s more chance of hiring a snowplough. He laughs when Pike puts down Mapache. Laughs. It’s a lonely sound.

The Bunch get ready to rumble

Edmond O’Brien is a revelation as Sykes. I’ve seen O’Brien in a few films but I never thought he had this performance in him. Sykes isn’t thinking about endings; he’s a survivor. It’s a great moment when he mocks the Bunch for returning from the botched railroad robbery with bags full of washers – “Here you are with a handful of holes, a thumb up your ass and a big grin to pass the time of day with!”

Everybody else gives solid support, not least Oates and Johnson as Lyle and Tector Gorch. Strother Martin, LQ Jones, Albert Doctor Cyclops Dekker, Jaime Sanchez, Bo Hopkins (brief but memorable), plus the artistry of the crew… they all help paint a picture. I’ll give the last word to the revolutionary Don Jose (Chano Urueta); “We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all…”

Gorch + Browning = lots of dead Mexicans

Those children at the beginning, wide-eyed and afraid as the guns go off like howitzers around them… what do they dream of?




I’m giving The Wild Bunch 4 Bloody Squibs out of 5.


Cheers, folk.

ThereWolf, February 2012

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About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

23 responses to “The Wild Bunch (1970)”

  1. Continentalop says :

    If one review from this site has to be saved and placed in a time capsule so future generations can see the best we had to offer, I nominate this review.

    Outstanding review Wolf. Damn near poetic.

    • Continentalop says :

      Loved the Searchers reference, btw.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thanks very much for those words, Conti. Makes it all worthwhile.

      The movie arrived a day late from Lovefilm meaning I couldn’t get it done for Saturday as planned and then I watched it back-to-back with ‘Countess Dracula’ – not an auspicious prep. Consequently, I was rushing a bit, didn’t think I quite got what I was after. Maybe I did!

      And 10 out of 10 for getting ‘The Searchers’ ref. I threw it in there, thought it would slip by…

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Those children at the beginning, wide-eyed and afraid as the guns go off like howitzers around them… what do they dream of?

    For them to stop and that was a beautifully constructed sentence.

    Top notch work Wolf the best.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Cheers, mate.

      I resisted that sentence for awhile, believe it or not. I thought it was too melodramatic! But, it seemed to follow the quote I used and also kind of bookended the review. Glad I went with it now…

  3. tombando says :

    Still pining for those 400 foot Grasshoppers from Mars….this review rocks, as does this movie. Lq jones and bo hopkins.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thanks, man.

      Stop pining! I don’t think there are any more 400 Foot Grasshoppers From Mars movies out there to review – pining is futile!

      Darn well should be some more though… Maybe the sequel to ‘Astrodykes Vs Werewolves’ can be ‘Astrodykes Vs 400 Foot Grasshoppers From Mars’. Got a ring to it…

  4. MORBIUS says :

    Superbly rendered review Wolf.

    I commend you good sir.

    Aces across the board!!!

  5. Jarv says :

    Classic film this. This is a lovely run you’ve got up until the mid 90’s.

    Do you still want to know how to link, by the way?

    • Jarv says :

      Oh and lovely review, one of the nicest you’ve done. Conti is right, that ending is poetic.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Thank you, Jarvis.

      Quite a few up-coming I haven’t seen so I’ll have to take your word for the ‘lovely run’! ‘Countess Dracula’ is as unlovely as I remember it though…

      I’m okay on the link, Barfy’s given me the lowdown. I just haven’t tried it yet.

  6. Droid says :

    Great review, Wolfie. I like but don’t love this film, but I concede that I haven’t seen it since the 90’s and a lot of it is forgotten apart from some of the imagery of the finale and the kids with the scorpions. I may have to give it another look.

    • ThereWolf says :

      Cheers, R2.

      I’m telling yer, I just ‘liked’ it too, but for some reason it resonated this time – like a big gong going off in my head. Probably getting older did it.

  7. tombando says :

    A great movie thats been copied to death,but it doesnt dim its impact 43 years later. At least it shouldnt. Cast etc is great and Finale iconic.

  8. Just Pillow Talk says :

    This movie is a thousand shades of awesome. Some of the shots, the actors, the atmosphere…simply great. A perfect Western really.

    Great review Wolfie.

  9. koutchboom says :

    I actually just watched this for the first time this weekend. Took me off guard because the opening is so chaotic. Then we slowly build the characters, it was a much different style of western then I was expecting, sort of odd wondering how you even write a script like that. I wonder how much of Walon’s script was in the movie? Also I’d like to read his original Dinosaur script. But as the ending happened WOW, I was blown away that’s an amazing scene.

    I’m sort of catching up on Pekenpah because I’ve never seen any of his film, saw this and saw The Killer Elite last night (that….was sort of a let down). And got Convoy coming up and Alfredo Garcia’s Head to be brought to me.

    • Just Pillow Talk says :

      Yeah, this movie does that to you, and since the ending is talked about more than the beginning, it catches you off-guard.

      I watched Rusty’s 3:10 to Yuma last night, which I still like. I’ve yet to see the original though.

    • ThereWolf says :

      I envy you, Koutch, watching this for the first time – though it kind of felt like I was seeing ‘Bunch’ for the first time as well…

      Also, keep a look out for ‘Cross Of Iron’, another Peckinpah.

      • koutchboom says :

        Yeah I’m gonna get that after these next few. Also gonna hunt down Sorcerer, which was also written by Walon.

  10. Toadkillerdog says :

    Outstanding review wolf! This is truly one of the great westerns of all time.
    There is a fine line between glorification and honest examination, and i think the critics of the day may have been too liberal leaning – perhaps because of the ongoing Vietnam war protest (which i admit may be a stretch on my part), to truly appreciate the irony of showing the banality of violence in men of that era.

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