Total Pageviews


      In an early scene of "The Wild Bunch," the bunch rides into town past a 
      crowd of children who are gathered with excitement around their game. They 
      have trapped a scorpion and are watching it being tortured by ants. The 
      eyes of Pike (William Holden), leader of the bunch, briefly meet the eyes 
      of one of the children. Later in the film, a member of the bunch named 
      Angel is captured by Mexican rebels and dragged around the town square 
      behind one of the first automobiles anyone there has seen. Children run 
      after the car, laughing. Near the end of the film, Pike is shot by a 
      little boy who gets his hands on a gun. 

      The message here is not subtle, but then Sam Peckinpah was not a subtle 
      director, preferring sweeping gestures to small points. It is that the 
      mantle of violence is passing from the old professionals like Pike and his 
      bunch, who operate according to a code, into the hands of a new generation 
      that learns to kill more impersonally, as a game, or with machines. 

      The movie takes place in 1914, on the eve of World War I. "We gotta start 
      thinking beyond our guns," one of the bunch observes. "Those days are 
      closing fast." And another, looking at the newfangled auto, says, "They're 
      gonna use them in the war, they say." It is not a war that would have 
      meaning within his intensely individual frame of reference; he knows 
      loyalty to his bunch, and senses it is the end of his era. 

      This new version of "The Wild Bunch," carefully restored to its original 
      running time of 144 minutes, includes several scenes not widely seen since 
      the movie had its world premiere in 1969. Most of them fill in details 
      from the earlier life of Pike, including his guilt over betraying Thornton 
      (Robert Ryan), who was once a member of the bunch but is now leading the 
      posse of bounty hunters on their trail. Without these scenes, the movie 
      seems more empty and existential, as if Pike and his men seek death after 
      reaching the end of the trail. With them, Pike's actions are more 
      motivated: He feels unsure of himself and the role he plays. 

      I saw the original version at the world premiere in 1969, as part of a 
      week-long boondoggle during which Warner Bros. screened five of its new 
      films in the Bahamas for 450 critics and reporters. It was party time, not 
      the right venue for what became one of the most controversial films of its 
      time - praised and condemned with equal vehemence, like "Pulp Fiction." At 
      a press conference the following morning, Holden and Peckinpah hid behind 
      dark glasses and deep scowls. After a reporter from Reader's Digest got up 
      to attack them for making the film, I stood up in defense; I felt, then 
      and now, that "The Wild Bunch" is one of the great defining moments of 
      modern movies. 

      But no one saw the 144-minute version for many years. It was cut. Not 
      because of violence (only quiet scenes were removed), but because it was 
      too long to be shown three times in an evening. It was successful, but it 
      was read as a celebration of compulsive, mindless violence; see the uncut 
      version, and you get a better idea of what Peckinpah was driving at. 

      The movie is, first of all, about old and worn men. Holden and his fellow 
      actors (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Edmund O'Brien, Ben Johnson and the 
      wonderful Robert Ryan) look lined and bone-tired. They have been making a 
      living by crime for many years, and although Ryan is now hired by the law, 
      it is only under threat that he will return to jail if he doesn't capture 
      the bunch. The men provided to him by a railroad mogul are shifty and 
      unreliable; they don't understand the code of the bunch. 

      And what is that code? It's not very pleasant. It says that you stand by 
      your friends and against the world, that you wrest a criminal living from 
      the banks, the railroads and the other places where the money is, and that 
      while you don't shoot at civilians unnecessarily, it is best if they don't 
      get in the way. 

      The two great violent set-pieces in the movie involve a lot of civilians. 
      One comes through a botched bank robbery at the beginning of the film, and 
      the other comes at the end, where Pike looks at Angel's body being dragged 
      through the square, and says "God, I hate to see that," and then later 
      walks into a bordello and says, "Let's go," and everybody knows what he 
      means, and they walk out and begin the suicidal showdown with the heavily 
      armed rebels. Lots of bystanders are killed in both sequences (one of the 
      bunch picks a scrap from a woman's dress off of his boot), but there is 
      also cheap sentimentality, as when Pike gives gold to a prostitute with a 
      child, before walking out to die. 

      In between the action sequences (which also include the famous scene where 
      a bridge is bombed out from beneath mounted soldiers), there is a lot of 
      time for the male bonding that Peckinpah celebrated in most of his films. 
      His men shoot, screw, drink, and ride horses. The quiet moments, with the 
      firelight and the sad songs on the guitar and the sweet tender 
      prostitutes, are like daydreams, with no standing in the bunch's real 
      world. This is not the kind of film that would likely be made today, but 
      it represents its set of sad, empty values with real poetry. 

      The undercurrent of the action in "The Wild Bunch" is the sheer 
      meaninglessness of it all. The first bank robbery nets only a bag of iron 
      washers - "a dollar's worth of steel holes." The train robbery is 
      well-planned, but the bunch cannot hold onto their takings. And at the 
      end, after the bloodshed, when the Robert Ryan character sits for hours 
      outside the gate of the compound, just thinking, there is the payoff: A 
      new gang is getting together, to see what jobs might be left to do. With a 
      wry smile he gets up to join them. There is nothing else to do, not for a 
      man with his background. 

      The movie was photographed by Lucien Ballard, in dusty reds and golds and 
      browns and shadows. The editing, by Lou Lombardo, uses slow motion to draw 
      the violent scenes out into meditations on themselves. Every actor was 
      perfectly cast to play exactly what he could play; even the small roles 
      need no explanation. Peckinpah possibly identified with the wild bunch. 
      Like them, he was an obsolete, violent, hard-drinking misfit with his own 
      code, and did not fit easily into the new world of automobiles, and 
      Hollywood studios. 

      Seeing this restored version is like understanding the film at last. It is 
      all there: Why Pike limps, what passed between Pike and Thornton in the 
      old days, why Pike seems tortured by his thoughts and memories. Now, when 
      we watch Ryan, as Thornton, sitting outside the gate and thinking, we know 
      what he is remembering. It makes all the difference in the world. 

    Date of publication: 03/17/1995  

   Pike   William Holden
   Dutch  Ernest Borgnine
   Thornton  Robert Ryan
   The restored version of a film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Running
  time: 144 minutes. Rated R (for extensive and graphic violence).