The Wild Bunch (1969)

4/5

USA; Sam Peckinpah

Mature Audiences – Strong Violence; Brief Sexuality and Nudity

 

A gang of ruthless aging gunslingers are trapped into an ambush during a bank heist that was supposed to be their final score. Many of them succumb in vain, as the robbery proves to be a huge disappointment, both for those who laid the trap and the outlaws. The bunch retires to its shed behind the Mexican border, and its leaders, Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), start to plan a new hit. They are offered the perfect occasion when a rebel Mexican general promises them a comfortable amount of gold in exchange of the latest shipment of American weapons transiting the border.

When The Wild Bunch was released, the Western was not, as many would like to think, a dying genre. The Spaghetti westerns proved that there was still commercial life in those good old stories of moral versus evil, framed by the shimmering vastness of America’s wastelands. But these stories were beginning to calcify into myths, already beyond characters, psychology or history. They took place into a perpetual past, distant and harsh enough to excuse the usage of guns as the only acceptable form of justice.

The Wild Bunch aimed to destroy the myth and present a sobering and gruesome vision of the West at the turn of the century, when time had taken its toll and a new generation of killers were eagerly waiting to the lay their hands on the guns of the old professionals. Rather than a glorification of violence, it was supposed to be a meditation on its causes and effects, albeit one carried by a heightened, desperate and lurid energy. But such is Peckinpah’s love of westerns that this demystification never convinces. Carried away by an irrepressible enthusiasm, the director, a bit of an outcast himself, delivers with an infectious gusto a terrific adventure flick. His finely calibrated sense of tension ensures that The Wild Bunch grabs its audience by the throat and keeps tightening its grip.  Peckinpah directed the violent action set-pieces with wild inventively, using multiple cameras and viewpoints, running the cameras at different speeds, from 60 to 120 frame a second; the result, obviously, is mind-blowing mayhem. In filmmaking, this is called pulling out the big guns.

But, still, the ensemble lacks a charismatic presence to hold the screen together. We are offered a multitude of interesting backstories and sleazy, outlandish sidekicks, but there is a vacuum at the heart of the story.  William Holden never embodies the cool, effortless allure of the Western tough guy the way, say, Clint Eastwood did.

The Wild Bunch is neither as cool and effortlessly mythic as The Dollar trilogy, nor as reflexive and profound as Unforgiven. Torn between these two superior models, it never truly rises above entertainment. It is still one hell of a ride. But you might just as well get more than you bargained for. The level of violence will make you see westerns differently from now on. That young preteen will most certainly find it hard to point an imaginary gun at a playmate’s head and ‘shoot” after The Wild Bunch.

 

The wild bunch poster

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