A collection of aging outlaws under the leadership of Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the most wanted group of men in the West in 1913. When they try to score what they think will be a simple bank robbery, they find themselves surrounded and outnumbered by mercenaries employed by the railroad companies that have suffered from the gang's robberies. One of the former members of the gang and a friend of Pike's, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), decides to help capture or kill the gang because otherwise he has to serve a prison sentence at Yuma. Escaping the ambush at the bank a few men short, but with bags from the bank, they quickly discover nothing but metal washers as their reward.
The men in the gang know their time as gunslingers is quickly approaching an ending point, but they need one last, lucrative score before they can retire from crime. They decide to leave for Mexico, where they hope they will be able to avoid the men chasing them. When they arrive in the country, they soon meet with Generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a Mexican general with German ties who is fighting against Poncho Villa. Wanting to find men from the United States who do not care for their government, German advisor and Commander Frederick Mohr (Fernando Wagner) and Mapache's Lieutenant Zamorra (Jorge Russek) hire the gang to steal a shipment of guns and ammunition from an American Army munitions train. For the successful completion of the mission, they offer $10,000 in gold to the Wild Bunch.
Director Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest Westerns ever made, coming at the end of a decade loaded with classic Western films, especially spaghetti Westerns from director Sergio Leone starring Clint Eastwood. Leone made '60s Western classics such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1967). Additionally, a much more light-hearted, less controversial classic Western came to theaters in 1969, namely Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Both films, however, end with their characters dying in a climactic final gunfight.
The Wild Bunch both begins and ends with massacres, both involving members of the gang, but the final battle is especially brutal. As a condition of helping the group steal the guns and ammo from the United States Army munitions train, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), the Mexican member of the group, has asked for one of the sixteen crates to arm his people, forgoing his payment of gold in exchange for the favor. General Mapache does not believe the excuse that one crate simply disappeared on the trail; he knows Angel stole it. Mapache takes Angel captive, even torturing him, though the Wild Bunch, hopelessly outnumbered, cannot idly watch their friend suffer. In the final showdown, Pike, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) kill most of the essential leaders in the camp, including Mapache, but they are facing several hundred Mexican soldiers. Their last stand is valiant, yet foolhardy.
The final showdown is one of the most bloody, violent, fantastic sequences ever filmed. It is simply brilliant, stunning, and a great ending to an undeniably masterful Western. The four men, aging gunfighters in a new era, show a courage and loyalty that the supposed "good guys" of the movie, the bounty hunters, entirely lack. The members of the Wild Bunch are not great, noble men, but audiences cannot help but feel sympathy for their plight in the movie nonetheless. The sheer complexity and number of shots in the movie's final shootout is breathtaking, doubtlessly inspiring future directors such as Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) and John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer, Face/Off).
A theme common in many Westerns, if not most of them, is the end of the Old West and the changing times in the country. The shrinking wilderness, continued settlement of the West, and technological progress of the twentieth century threaten the gunslinger way of life. Dutch says when seeing a car once, "Now what in the hell is that?" Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), and Unforgiven (1992) all have similar themes. The Wild Bunch seems especially appropriate for the time of its release, however, when the Western film largely faded from popularity by the end of the '60s. Although, Peckinpah directed a number of less popular Westerns in the coming years, such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972).
The Wild Bunch capitalizes on another trend of the late 1960s, which is the popularity of the anti-hero. Perhaps during no other time in American film history has the anti-hero dominated the most popular and memorable films to such a heavy extent. The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Midnight Cowboy (1969) are basically the essential movies from the time period and all focus on anti-hero protagonists. A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976) followed not too far afterwards, though the late '60s deserve the attention for such a trend, especially because the long-lived Production Code (1934-1968) was just coming to an end.
The violence in The Wild Bunch shocked audiences of the time, almost earning the film an X-rating from the newly formed MPAA before its release. To imagine the effect the film had on audiences, people more familiar with '90s film should think about the controversy of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) or Natural Born Killers (1994), to which he only wrote the story. The Wild Bunch is blatantly and intentionally violent throughout, showing violence not as a war-time activity or a habit of only outlaws, but rather as part of human nature itself.
Early scenes in the movie with the Wild Bunch riding into town to rob the bank show children delighting at the sight of scorpions trapped in the middle of a swarm of red fire ants. The scene is also excellent foreshadowing to the massacre that is soon to occur when bounty hunters ambush the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah also uses an interesting technique during the opening scenes of freezing frames numerous times to display the cast and the credits for the movie. When frozen, the frames appear as black and white sketches of the color film frames, then the movie continues normally. It is a memorable introduction accompanied by excellent music. The film's score, by Jerry Fielding, is great throughout the movie and earned the composer an Academy Award nomination.
The Wild Bunch won no Academy Awards, but had one additional nomination aside from the recognition of Fielding's score. The screenplay by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, also received a nomination and is full of great dialogue. When Dutch tells Pike, speaking of the United States army, which they intend to rob, "They'll be waitin' for us," Pike responds, "I wouldn't have it any other way." Angel objects to robbing the munitions train because he does not want to supply Mapache with guns to kill his people. He says to Pike, "Would you give guns to someone to kill your father or your mother or your brother?" Pike responds, "Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties."
The group of outlaws has their own moral code, even though they have no problems stealing from others and killing them. Pike says to them, "We're not gonna get rid of anybody. We're gonna stick together, just like it used to be. 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! We're finished! All of us!" Nonetheless, in the past, Pike has repeatedly abandoned members of his group, so the final act of the film, which has him losing his life for Angel, is really his redemption and his atonement for a lack of loyalty in the past.
Before its 1969 release, Phil Feldman cut twenty minutes from the movie without Peckinpah's permission or supervision. The scenes cut, actually, are not violent whatsoever. Rather, they delve into the backstory of the characters in greater depth, as explained in the DVD Notes section of the review. With its 3,643 shot-to-shot edits by one count, at least, The Wild Bunch established a new record for the most edits of any Technicolor film. The film also uses a lot of slow motion shots in its violent shootouts. Peckinpah used Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) as an inspiration and a model for his movie, although his group of characters is not idealized like the samurai. Peckinpah forever established himself as an important and brilliant director with The Wild Bunch, which remains the pinnacle of his career.
The Wild Bunch is #80 on the AFI's Top 100 Greatest Movies List.
DVD Notes: The Wild Bunch is curiously split over two sides of its DVD, even though the film is only about 140 minutes in length. Side A contains 28 chapters while Side B has the remaining 13 chapters. The division of the film is distracting and poorly arranged. If Titanic (1997) can fit onto a single side of a DVD, so can The Wild Bunch, which is much shorter. The extra features mostly make up for the poor division of the film, though. The DVD has a cast section with more information on William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernandez, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones, and Director Sam Peckinpah.
A production notes section has three sub-sections, which include "Violence and Death," "The Restoration," and "About the Production." The "Violence and Death" section mentions how The Wild Bunch brought a "new veracity to America's view of its criminal past and a new way of seeing violence and death," along with such other films as Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Although some audiences did not appreciate the violence, critics saw the need for a realistic portrayal of Western outlaws.
"The Restoration" section explains the ten minutes of added footage in the Director's Cut of the film. For instance, the first part added back is 2:02 in length and is a flashback of Ryan being shot in the shoulder and captured as Holden escapes. The next scene, 1:32, takes place in the desert and has O'Brien telling Holden that the kid (Bo Hopkins) they left in town during the opening robbery was his grandson. A 1:04 minute scene shows scenes from the Mexican village with Borgnine dancing with a woman. A 1:26 scene shows how Holden was shot in the leg and his wife killed. A 3:10 shows an attack by rebel leader Pancho Villa's forces on Mapache's army. A very short, sixth re-added scene (just seventeen seconds) shows Mapache attending to his wounded men.
The "About the Production" section explains how director Peckinpah's work usually focused on the idea of honor in a dishonest world. Even in The Wild Bunch, each of the shady characters has his own unusual code of honor. Of particular interest to film buffs, the section mentions that The Wild Bunch is the first feature film ever to use varying speeds of slow-motion images intercut with regular-speed footage. Future editors and filmmakers drew from the style that The Wild Bunch employed. The production notes are well written and informative.
Side B of the DVD has an original theatrical trailer and even a documentary. The documentary is rather dated looking, but informative and shows many behind-the-scenes looks at the film's making. It is apparently a British documentary, judging by the odd pronunciation of the word "scheduled." Anyhow, the film was budgeted at just $3.5 million and scheduled for 70 days of shooting. The Wild Bunch was Peckinpah's first film in three years, but it changed cinema with its revolutionary editing and violent, realistic portrayal of Old West outlaws. The final shootout in the film had virtually no description in the script, but Peckinpah's improvisation created the masterful final sequence. He labored almost every waking hour of very long days to create the film.
Creating a story where a group of guys rob, steal, and murder, yet still return to save a man and give guns to the peasants was a great challenge. Who would really believe such a story? Why would such men die for a comrade, even though they seem, at times, dishonorable and selfish? They called the final battle "The Battle of Bloody Porch" and it took twelve days to film. The filmmakers saw the final battle as a sort of ballet, which is perhaps much like Hong Kong action director John Woo manages to make his gun fights beautiful in a chaotic and violent way.
Peckinpah expected great professionalism from his actors. When they arrived for rehearsals and many of them could not recite their lines, he told them he expected them to know their lines and if they did not, he would find other actors. He gave them twenty minutes to memorize the lines, which they did. The explosion that occurs on the bridge after the train robbery was the last scene Peckinpah filmed. The crew built parts of the bridge out of balsa wood so that it would blow up very easily.
The footage of the bridge explosion is impressive, as is most all of the documentary footage included, even though it is in black and white, unlike the beautiful color of the film. The crew exploded the bridge at 1:55 p.m. on Sunday, June 30. Peckinpah had shot for 81 days, 330,000 feet of film, with 1,288 camera setups. The movie had more than 3,600 shot-to-shot edits, which was more than any other color film up to the time and perhaps ever. Peckinpah said, "The end of a picture is always the end of a life." The documentary is remarkably high quality and lasts just more than 33 minutes.