I’ve heard so much about Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” that I feel as if I’ve seen the movie hundreds of times. Since the DVD claims to be the Original Director’s Version (that is, everything has been restored the way Peckinpah envisioned it), everything that supposedly made this movie one of the greats is here. It’s a little disheartening, then, that I didn’t find the film to be profoundly great, but just slightly above good.
Here’s the plot for “The Wild Bunch”: Aging outlaws, led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, live by their own sets of codes, one of which is: Your word is your bond. When one of their own is released from prison in order to lead the manhunt for them, the outlaws head south to Mexico, where they get mixed up with a Mexican General fighting a civil war. By the end of the movie, the Wild Bunch “kills half of Mexico.”
I don’t exactly remember where that “kills half of Mexico” quote came from, but it’s quite appropriate when, at the end, the Wild Bunch decides to go out in a blaze of glory and kills everyone within earshot in the process. Despite the bloodbath that opens and ends it, the film is actually not that action-packed. There is an elongated skirmish when the outlaws rob an U.S. Army train for its cargo, but that amounts to a running gunfight that fails to thrill in the same way the opening and ending gunbattles do.
Much of “The Wild Bunch” is devoted to the aging outlaws reminiscing about their life, their relationships (most notably with turncoat Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan)), and how the Wild West is all but dead, leaving no room for men such as they. To be sure, the Wild Bunch are not the best of men; for one, they kill women and children and have no compunction about using innocent people as shields. These men are outlaws in the purest sense and not romanticized versions.
But there are some big problems with “The Wild Bunch.” The Mexican characters, for one, are gross stereotypes of the greaser and bandito. They look, talk, and even swagger like cartoons rather than flesh and blood. The Mexican women fare no better. The bulk of the film, set against a civil war between the crazed Mexican General and his (unseen) nemesis, is so disjointed that I wonder why a little bit more effort wasn’t put into that part of the script, especially when it takes up so much screen time.
There is also the matter of Deke Thornton and the inbred rednecks that make up his posse. Having seen the Wild Bunch brazenly ride into a town and shoot their way out, killing about 50 people along the way, I kept asking myself why Pike and Dutch didn’t just turn their horses around and take Thornton head-on toward the end of the film. These men are rough riders, they’ve murdered and slaughtered hundreds, and yet they flee from Thornton and his 5 or so rednecks? I don’t buy it.
None of the above means I don’t appreciate “The Wild Bunch.” I liked the characters and their obsessive devotion to their code of honor. Despite the fact that these men do things that would deny them something as abstract as a code of conduct, they actually do possess such codes, and would die for them.
Is “The Wild Bunch” as good as everyone says it is? As a Western, it has some nice moments, but not nearly enough. As a straight action film, it’s lagging in the middle, but has a knockout opening and ending sequence. As a Man’s Movie, it delivers somewhat. When they say the Wild Bunch “kills half of Mexico” at the end of the film, they meant it.
Sam Peckinpah (director) / Roy N. Sickner, Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah (screenplay)
CAST: William Holden …. Pike Bishop
Ernest Borgnine …. Dutch Engstrom
Robert Ryan …. Deke Thornton
Edmond O’Brien …. Freddie Sykes
Warren Oates …. Lyle Gorch