Title: The Wild Bunch (1969)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Stars: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Strother Martin and Edmond O’Brien.
The story begins with Pyke Bishop’s (Holden’s) gang robbing a bank, which leads to a massive, bloody massacre, that involves the shooting of several innocent bystanders. The gang are being pursued by a posse, led by Deke Thornton (Ryan), who is an old friend of Bishop’s and is only doing the job to evade prison. Bishop’s gang then enters an uneasy alliance with a Mexican dictator named Mapache, who needs guns in order to fight. In order to get the guns the outlaws must steal them from the U.S Army, which proves rather troublesome. All the while they are being tailed by the posse, who are getting closer and closer every time. After falling out with Mapache, the gang must decide whether to flee or to face overwhelming odds and perhaps death.
The wealth of talent on display in this film is a sight to behold, as many of them were huge stars at the time especially William Holden who leads the film with a commanding performance and is completely believable as the grizzled veteran. Robert Ryan is sublime as Bishop’s former best friend. His sense of reluctance for the job and the distrust/disgust he shows to his fellow posse members is brilliantly conveyed. Ernest Borgnine enters a typically physical performance playing ‘Dutch’ as a second lead. The supporting cast is stuffed to the hilt with talent, with Strother Martin and Edmond O’ Brien stealing the show. O’Brien in particular is fantastic with his crazy old coot routine.
The Wild Bunch is an odd western in that it is not set in the mid to late nineteenth century, as the majority of others are. It takes place in 1913, right before the advent of World War One, which explains the inclusion of the U.S Army. It also features cars and 1911 pistols, which look rather incongruous in a western, at least initially. This is a revisionist western without doubt and this is presented clearly in several scenes, especially when Thornton picks up Bishop’s obsolete six-shooter at the end of the picture.
The Wild Bunch is book-ended by two incredibly violent shootouts that completely raised the bar for what could be shown in a movie. Bonnie and Clyde had set the ball rolling with its uber shocking death scene, but this film definitely took the ball and dunked it. The final gun-fest in particular is jam-packed with endless shooting, blood and squib effects. As the film was directed by boundary pusher Sam Peckinpah, it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
You simply must see this film. It isn’t just one of the greatest westerns, it is also one of the finest movies ever made. A truly historic picture, it certainly changed the landscape of Hollywood forever. It was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score and the DVD comes with a marvellous documentary. Feast your eyes on it now.