An Appreciation – The Wild Bunch

The Bunch comes face-to-face with this kind of brutal realism as well, in the form of the harsh militia leader General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). After the failure of the post office robbery leaves them with nothing but bags of metal washers, Pike and the others make their way to Mexico, where Mapache leads a renegade group of soldiers in terrorizing the local area. This type of cruel treatment hits them personally, as Mapache’s reign of fear includes the sacking of Angel’s home village, with Angel’s former lover becoming Mapache’s personal plaything. Now, we would expect in any other situation that Pike and his men would have nothing to do with this cruel and evil warlord, and if it were any other time, that would be the case. But things are different now, and with Mapache’s power too influential and Thornton breathing down their necks, The Bunch has no choice but to work with this sadistic person. Unfortunately, this decision will lead them into some very dangerous grounds, including a daring train robbery and a suspenseful moment of realization when Mapache captures one of their own. It is during the final act that everything comes together, with The Bunch facing the fact that a peaceful retirement is something they will never reach, and that they have one last chance to do something right.

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The look and style of the film is rugged and dirty, similar to that of a spaghetti western. Every face is dirty and worn out, clothes are tattered, and the presence of the sun and the overbearing heat is a constant factor. This adds to performances that feel genuine and authentic. Peckinpah’s cast is a top-notch hybrid of great movie stars and character actors, but they all work along with one another, instead of a just few taking the lead. William Holden brings an aura of experience with him. We feel each gimpy step and wrinkle on his face has a story behind it, and the way he talks with teeth almost clenched seems as painful as the bullet wounds he sports on the rest of his body. I remember Ernest Borgnine perhaps the most from his Oscar-winning performance in Marty (1955). In that, he plays a lovable loner who wishes to have another person to share his life with. Here, his performance as Dutch tests our sympathies for the man. In a dramatic twist, Dutch goes against his better judgment and turns his back on one of their own, which makes his arc all the more interesting as he chooses to participate in the final shootout. And while actors Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Edmond O’Brien are all memorable for their work, Jamie Sanchez, to me, is the heart and soul as Angel. He still represents goodness, and never sways away from his beliefs. His actions (and the consequences of those actions) propel The Bunch to take their honorable last stand.

Sam Peckinpah was a hard-drinking, drug abusing, tough-as-nails filmmaker, and his movies represent that nature. His work is marked by brutal and unflinching violence, like in Straw Dogs (1971) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), but it is that stark realism that makes them so effective. The violence is never glorified; instead, its excess is used as a means to deter people away from its use in real life. When people are shot or killed, it is felt in a negative fashion. What I appreciate about Peckinpah’s use of violence is how it feels so real, because many times it actually was real. In the opening shootout at the post office, real squibs were used and actual stunt men performed. In the train sequence leading up to the now famous moment where Thornton and his men have a bridge blown out underneath them, real people were used to make it happen. There’s something palpable in the way Peckinpah went about shooting the action. Because we are seeing actual, tangible elements being photographed, there is a more greatly felt impact. I highly doubt that a director could get away with doing similar acts in today’s film world, where CGI and other special effects are much safer and cheaper. But audiences are keen to noticing when something is real or an illusion, which is what makes this all the more impressive.

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The most famous scene, without argument, is the final shootout that Pike, Dutch, and the Gorch brothers have with Mapache and his men. With Angel captured and with no hope for escape, it’s almost certain that when the four men walk up to the square where Mapache is, they know they are participating in a suicide mission. This is considered one of the greatest shootouts ever filmed, and rightly so. I would argue that it could stand with any comparable scene made today. It is a violent, raw, visceral example of onscreen mayhem, where four people take out as many soldiers as they possibly can while still alive. The editing should be required film school study material. There are over three hundred editorial cuts made in the span of five minutes of action, amounting to an average shot length of slightly under one second. And yet, as quickly as the edits come, the action is still discernible. We can understand how they got up on the machine gun, who they are shooting at, and who is shooting at them, even though the images spring past us almost as fast as we can blink. That fact that the scene is not jumbled is important, because of what it represents. These are the final moments where the men can still do something that they believe in, showing that they haven’t sold out to a new age and still belong in their own era, even if that era is long past.

I watched The Wild Bunch twice in preparation for this article, because I felt there were too many layers to go through in just one viewing. The first time, I experienced it on a purely visual basis, taking in the landscapes, production values, and realism of the action. When I saw it for the second time, the smaller, quieter scenes became more apparent. Moments next to the campfire, with guitars playing sad melodies, have an almost ethereal quality. Seeing the camaraderie the men had and how that was tested throughout the story became a major factors. The 1994 re-release contained a crucial twenty minutes of footage, including flashback sequences involving the friendship of Pike and Thornton. It’s hard to imagine the plot without these scenes, because without them the characters feel like mindless beings with unmotivated death wishes. In its fully restored form, we can see Peckinpah’s intended vision. We understand why Pike feels so lost and why Thornton feels so exhausted. They are of the same breed, and as Thornton sits in contemplation and finally gets up and rides off with Freddie and his men, we wonder what future lies ahead of them, if any at all.

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Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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