The Wild Bunch

In the old west, a gang of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) attempt to pull one last job and rob a bank. However, things do not go according to plan (when do they ever?) and a bloody shootout ensues, during which some of Pike’s men are injured or killed, and the loot they obtain is found to be worthless. The guys set out to make another big score, but find themselves hampered by one of their former members, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) being forced to chase them down.WB08
If you’re like me, and often find yourself permeated with pop culture, then chances are you may think you’ve seen some films when in reality you haven’t. I could have sworn I’d seen The Wild Bunch before, even including its climax in my Top 5 Shootouts list from a few years ago, but as it turns out this was a joyous first viewing as part of the LAMB’s Movie of the Month for February 2014. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, this is a retort to the otherwise relatively sweet-natured and idealistic John Wayne westerns, where here the giant dustbowl that was the wild west comes splattered with blood, where the ‘heroes’ aren’t afraid to shoot innocent people or use them as human shields. No, it turns out it probably wasn’t a grand old time to be alive.
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I’ll be blunt; I absolutely loved this film. The western genre is one I’d like to become more acquainted with – I picked this film up in a 5-pack BluRay boxset a few months ago, so that’ll help – and if there’s any more films like this in there then I’m onto a winner. What we have here is an unbeatable cast at the top of their game in a story that’s both refreshingly simple yet layered. William Holden is phenomenal as Pike, a man who is beginning to realise his way of living is on the way out, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s a ruthless son of a bitch forced to deal with mistakes he made in the past, and with no qualms over shooting one of his men when they are injured. By his side is Dutch, played by one of my all time favourite actors, Ernest Borgnine. He’s the most moral of the group – though that’s not exactly saying much – and is something of a loyal dog to Pike’s master. The rest of the gang is made up of Sykes (Edmund O’Brien), a cackling old man with hideous teeth, Angel (Jaime Sanchez) a young Mexican guy with a strong relationship to his family, and the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), who aren’t terribly smart, or loyal, or anything really; they’re just kind of along for the ride. Warren Oates’ Lyle Gorch looked distractingly like Diedrich Bader (Office Space, Napoleon Dynamite), but I can hardly blame the filmfor that.BaderOates
The real draw for me though is Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton. His character is what really sets this film apart from the other westerns I’ve seen, as he is a man who was once a member of Pike’s company but, through no fault of his own, he was shot, arrested and sent to jail. In fact, it was Pike’s fault he got caught, and Thornton was doing his best to prevent anyone getting caught at the time. Thornton has been brought out of prison and  given 30 days to catch the gang, or else he’ll be tracked down and thrown back in jail, yet all the while he makes no effort to conceal the fact that he’d much rather be out there with the gang themselves, regardless of how they turn out. Throughout the film you get the feeling that Deke would surely succeed with his mission, were he not hampered by the “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter-trash” he’s been provided to assist him on his quest. If it was just him versus Pike, well I reckon Deke would win that four times out of five.WB05
Something I always enjoy seeing is a decent heist, and this film has two very different ones to entertain me. The initial bank robbery is fast, messy and, once things get underway, not at all synchronised or well planned, so it appeals to me less. However, we are introduced to Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins), one of the younger members of Pike’s gang who isn’t too long for this world. His name is very apt, although Psycho Lee may have been a better fit, as he can be found licking a hostage’s ear for no apparent reason, and as dying words go, “How’d you like to kiss my sister’s black cat’s anus?” may well be the best I’ve ever heard.
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The second heist is executed much more fluidly – and it takes place on a train too, so double win for me! It brought back memories of the heist in Rififi; a 20+ minute silent sequence with no dialogue, shot in real time. That’s very similar to here, with the only sound coming from the train engine and occasional grunts of effort. Angel loosing the carriage bolt is unbearably tense, as is Dutch dangling between the carriages. This all gives way to one heck of a chase, too, and some of the film’s best comic relief in the army troops on the train, and their less than successful attempts to head out after the thieves.WB01
The movie culminates in an epic shootout that may have influenced every action movie climax since. It’s inconic, from the slow stroll into town to the utter hell that breaks lose afterwards, and it really is the only way the film could end. All in all, this is a pretty damn perfect film; one that I can now justifiably look forward to watching again, because now I’ve definitely seen it.
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7 thoughts on “The Wild Bunch

  1. Pingback: LAMBCAST #205 THE WILD BUNCH MOTM | The Large Association of Movie Blogs

  2. Whew. When I saw you were reviewing this film, I got a little nervous. It’s such a great movie and one of my all-time top westerns. If you liked Robert Ryan, I’d definitely suggest you check out The Naked Spur. He has a tense battle of wills with Jimmy Stewart, and it’s quite a gem.

    • The Naked Spur is on the 1001 List, so I’ll be getting to that one, but thanks for the recommendation nonetheless. You don’t need to worry about when I review films you like Dan, after my review of Before Sunrise/Sunset I think the rest of the movie blogging community has disowned me and my opinions. Either way, I loved this film. Glad you do too.

  3. A great movie and a great post. There are indeed films that I’m sure I saw that I later discovered I was really seeing for the first time. That sounds like an idea for a series of posts, I’ll have to remember that. There are great characters in the movie and the story works so much better because the gutter trash is funny or the Gorch brothers are morons. The shootout at the beginning is almost as great as the one at the end.

    • The problem with writing about films you can’t remember is that you can’t remember them! I found something like this with The Terminator recently. I’d seen it many times before, but the guy I watched it with thought he had, but hadn’t. It’s such an iconic film that has managed to permeate popular culture that I think a lot of people probably think they’ve already seen it, yet haven’t.

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