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DVD Review

The Wild Bunch
Dan Schneider

Director Sam Peckinpah’s two hour and twenty-five minute long 1969 Western classic, The Wild Bunch, is certainly an influential and important film, but, compared to the other great Western released that year, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, it has not held up nearly as well.

There are several reasons for this fact, and by making that statement I am not stating that Peckinpah’s film is in any way a bad film. No. It’s merely a good film that has been passed by later films, and lacks the depth Leone’s film still does. Part of the reason is that Leone’s film is far more stylized and revolutionary. No, that film is not nearly as violent as Peckinpah’s, and it is the violence of The Wild Bunch (and occasionally claims of its mainstreaming slow motion cinematography mixed with quick cutting) that is usually the lynchpin to arguments for its revolutionary status, not its more straightforward and derivative storytelling; although the earlier Bonnie And Clyde, by director Arthur Penn, deserves more of the credit (or blame) for mainstreaming over the top and slow motion violence.

Compare the openings of the two films. In Peckinpah’s film there is the great opening montage where the heroes/villains are introduced, and then the action is frozen into a black and white image. We see children sadistically dropping scorpions on to red anthills, then setting the wee creatures ablaze. Then we see the heroes, dressed as good guy American soldiers become vicious killers as they rob a bank, then get in a shootout with bounty hunters during a Temperance March. Leone’s film shows almost nothing happen for the same amount of time. We see a train station captured, and wait. This is visual poesy. Peckinpah’s is prose, albeit with tweaks.

Now consider the two leading men used as psychopathic killers. In Peckinpah’s film it’s William Holden, a second level leading man. But in Leone’s film it’s Henry Fonda - one of Hollywood’s towering filmic giants of American decency. Leone’s choice is far more fundamentally disturbing. Then there is the actual storylines of the films. For all the claims of upsetting the apple cart, Peckinpah’s tale is punctuated with numerous poorly scripted scenes. There are numerous moments where the characters in the gang simply do not speak realistically, and where they force laughter, like at the end of a bad TV sitcom- there’s the scene with the sauna, with the whores, the scene where Angel’s villagers steal weapons from the gang, and others. Leone has no such moments, and although there is less actual violence in Leone’s films, there is nothing within Peckinpah’s film as primally shocking nor disconcerting as watching Fonda’s character murder the whole McBain clan.

Again, don’t get me wrong, there is much to recommend in Peckinpah’s film- individual moments, terrific performances by Holden and his rival, Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan, but claims of its cinematic greatness are overwrought and misplaced. Part of the problem comes from the hit and miss screenplay by Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner, and Peckinpah. For example, only the last four gang members are sharpshooters - who can kill with ease and not be killed. Then there is the fact that the Mexicans depicted are all criminally stereotyped. They cannot even put together and shoot a machine gun. They need their German advisor to help them. They are simpleminded greasers and banditos, and the Mexican women are all faithless whores- even the Mexican gang member’s mother betrays him. Another problem is why the straight shooting gang is even running from Thornton and his idiotic bounty hunters. They could ambush and slaughter them with ease. Also, much of the film, between the bravura start and ending, excluding the famed train and bridge scenes, is far too long and pointless, as well as dull. Once Upon A Time In The West, by contrast, does not have a trivial moment in it.

The film is set in 1913, during the Mexican Revolution. After the initial shootout we follow the surviving members of the Wild Bunch - Pike Bishop (Holden), Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), being pursued by a bunch of ragtag bounty hunters formed by railroad honcho Patrick Harrigan (Albert Dekker). The top bounty hunter is an ex-con named Deke Thornton (Ryan) who’s gained his freedom on the condition that he hunt down Bishop, a former colleague who we learn betrayed him. The rest of Thornton’s seriocomic band are a bunch of cowards and liars.
Despite the initial imagery and carnage, it is when Bishop shoots one of the wounded gang members, so that he won’t slow them down, that we realize what a heartless killer he is. Yet, this still does not have the shock of Fonda’s murdering a family of innocents in Once Upon A Time In The West. They meet up with an older gang member, Freddy Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), and nearly all go their own ways. It is Dutch who keeps the gang together, even after they discover that the bags of loot they made off with were merely steel washers, not coins. Through shared flashbacks of Bishop and Thornton we learn some of their history- that Bishop abandoned Thornton to be captured and sent to jail, and that Bishop was shot by a jealous husband whose wife he was screwing.

The gang hits the native town of Angel, and we learn of the depredations of a rebel Mexican general named Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), who is a lesser rival to Pancho Villa. Mapache has killed Angel’s father and cuckolded him with his woman. At a town called Agua Verde, Angel kills his faithless girlfriend while in the arms of the General, and the gang is almost obliterated by the soldiers. Instead, they are hired by the General and his German advisors to steal an American arms shipment arriving by train, just over the border in Texas. This leads to two of the film’s most famed sequences: the first being the silent stealing of the train car with the ammo, and then its being sent backwards along the rails to smash into the train with the green Army recruits on it. The bounty hunters, however, are in hot pursuit, but end up derailed when the gang blows up the bridge crossing the Rio Grande to Mexico, the second famed sequence.  Mapache’s men are beaten in a battle by Villa’s forces, and are forced to negotiate for the arms from the gang. However, when the last shipment is to be uncovered, as Angel and Dutch ride in for their cuts, Mapache reveals that he knows about Angel’s stealing a shipment of guns and ammunition for his villagers. Angel is caught, and Dutch cannot do anything but ride off, as Angel is beaten, and dragged along the ground behind Mapache’s newfangled automobile. Waiting for Sykes to join them, they see him ambushed by Thornton’s bounty hunters.

The bounty hunters, too, are now outlaws, for the Army thought it was them who stole the arms, and when they rode after the bounty hunters, who were after the gang, there was a shootout in which the bounty hunters killed several soldiers. More than ever, they need to come back with Bishop and company.  Bishop decides to try and rescue, or buy back Angel, from Mapache. He refuses to release his prisoner, and the gang beds down with whores for the afternoon. Later, Bishop, Dutch, and the Gorches take a classic (or is it trite?) long Western walk into the center of town to have a showdown with Mapache and demand Angel’s release. Mapache has a flunky slash Angel’s throat. The gang shoots the flunky and there is a standoff, as everyone is stunned at the turn of events. Then, egged on by Dutch, Bishop guns down the German advisor to Mapache, and the famed climactic shootout takes place. The gang is killed, but not before slaughtering dozens of Mexican soldiers and innocents. Watching this from a nearby hillside, Thornton and the bounty hunters wait awhile, then swoop in to get the dead bodies. Thornton only takes Bishop’s revolver (classic Western phallic symbolism), and sends the others back to the States. He realizes he may be re-jailed by the duplicitous Harrigan anyway. As he just sits outside the town, a few hours pass, and we see Sykes ride up to him. The bounty hunters were ambushed and killed, and Sykes invites him to join him in a new band of outlaws. Thornton reluctantly assents, and heads back in to his old life, one he enjoyed more than what we’ve seen him engaged in during this film. 

Many critics have tried to decode all sorts of meaning into and out of the film, such as its being a metaphor for the death of the Old West, but it is not as resonant as that employed in Leone’s film, made by a non-American, where capitalism and consumerism move in like vultures by film’s end. In this film, we get a sentimentalized portrait of the Old West, even down to the last shots where the gang’s visages reappear, all in moments of forced laughter. A good technique that Peckinpah used, however, was having the Mexicans speak much Spanish, and without subtitles. This means that closer attention must be paid to body language and intonation.  Yet, the film also indulges many classic Western stereotypes. as mentioned, the gang members seem to be the only expert marksmen. Time and again they survive against overwhelming odds, as their opponents cannot seem to shoot straight, while they pick off bounty hunters and Mexicans with ease, until only the sheer numbers against them eventually do them in. Also, we get the trite trope of the gang somehow being noble killers, even though they gun down innocents left and right- merely if they get in the gang’s way, while Mapache and the bounty hunters are ‘bad’ killers because they are simply not part of the gang- the film’s focus. There is a famed scene where Bishop and Dutch debate the value of a man’s word. Dutch argues that it matters whom a word is given to, not just that it’s given. This is the sort of bizarre pseudo-ethics that all sorts of films that glorify killers- be they outlaws, gangsters, or serial killers, indulge in. There are other little points like this that litter the film, such as Bishop and Pike refusing to kill each other when they have the chance, the melodramatic final march of the superheroic white killers into Mapache’s den of iniquity, and on and on. Yet, we’ve already seen that the hypocritical Bishop does not even live up to his own ethos. Earlier in the film he gunned down a wounded gang member who would slow them down, then later rails against the disgruntled Gorches that, ‘When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re some kind of animal, you’re finished. We’re finished. All of us.’ Boy, there’s an honorable killer, right?

Some critics mislabeled this a ‘tone poem’ or an ‘epic,’ two relentlessly overused words that do not apply. This film is too prosaic for the former claim and too small in scope for the latter. It was beautifully shot by cinematographer Lucien Ballard in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the Warner Brothers two disk DVD version of the film - The Original Director’s Cut, as advertised- is transferred and restored to flawlessness. It looks like it was lensed last week. The score by Jerry Fielding is not nearly as memorable, and not nearly as bold as the character driven theme songs used in Leone’s superior film, even though it was nominated for an Academy Award for original score. The screenplay, another weak spot, was also nominated for an Oscar. The first disk has the film and a commentary track by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. It is not a good one, despite its participanys’ love and passion for the film. They simply are not objective about many of the film’s narrative and other flaws. It is simply a lovefest praising Peckinpah’s unflagging genius. Too much time is wasted in critical fellatio and not enough is made on how many of the film’s aspects have dated, nor how simplistic and shallow a film this is compared to Leone’s film, or even another work where tensions between Americans and Latin Americans is at a crux- the brilliant The Wages Of Fear, by Henri-Georges Clouzot. This disk also has a trailer gallery of Peckinpah films.

The second disk has additional scenes, outtakes, and three documentaries. The first is Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy Of A Hollywood Renegade, which is a biography. Then there is The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage, which was nominated for a 1996 documentary Oscar, and then an excerpt from Redman’s documentary on the film, called A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico And The Wild Bunch. These are all solid extras, but none are standouts that give great insight into either Peckinpah or the film.

The same is true with The Wild Bunch. Despite its reputation, this overrated film gives no real insight into either the Old West nor the human condition, and certainly nothing new. Too much of it, especially in interior stage shots, and in some of the dialogue and forced laughter between the gang members, feels like refried Bonanza, or other banal TV Westerns of the era, whereas Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West was wholly original. Peckinpah’s film is a good, but not great, film, even if it is an enjoyable diversion for an afternoon, and was certainly influential - just look at the final shot of Lyle Gorch at the machine gun and there is an almost identical pose struck by James Franciscus at the end of Beneath The Planet Of the Apes, released a year later. If one goes into this film fresh, it will be an enjoyable film, a cut above the simpleminded John Wayne tripe that dominated the silver screen for the three decades prior, but if one expects a true masterpiece, disappointment is bound to follow. Choose ignorance….you know how the rest of that saying goes. --
© Dan Schneider May 2007
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