A good old-fashioned violent western about a band of outlaws trying to survive by any means necessary. Sam Peckinpah reinvents the genre by focusing on the bad guys and as they’re gunning for one last score in a world that is pushing them out. It’s 1913 and the age of the cowboy is over and with the railroad company putting lucrative bounties on their heads and being hunted by the military and by bounty hunters, the Bunch need to disappear.
The job goes wrong however in a bloody shootout to start the film as three of the Bunch are killed and other civilians collateral damage to a disastrous ambush. Only five getting away, they discover that their great robbery wasn’t gold but washers, they have nothing and have bounty hunters on their trail. Escaping over the border the Bunch finds themselves being hired by a corrupt Mexican general who wants them to rob a train of American weapons and the Bunch take the job.
The Bunch themselves are greatly portrayed, William Holden commands as the leader Pike Bishop. He’s weathered down but is still a force to be reckoned with as well as the rest of the Bunch. Ernest Borgnine is Pike’s right hand man and two of them have been outlaws for the longest, they understand the dangers they find themselves against than their younger members. The cast all have a complicated rapport with each other, the Bunch is said to survive on honour but they as outlaws they always have to look out with themselves. Especially since Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton is the one hunting them, it shows how the outlaws are dying out – they get killed or sell out. The old life is fading and Pike wants his retirement before he fades with it.
Peckinpah directs this film more like an action film than a western. It never loses its character driven moments and grand western epic cinematography but when the bullets start firing damn does it get violent. The editing incorporates quick cuts covering all angles and multiple characters, Peckinpah’s vision of madness and violence conveyed brilliantly. The film never loses it heart however you really connect to Pike and the Bunch even Thronton, the conflict having an emotional connection is greater than a typical “bad” vs “good” scenario.
Thoroughly entertaining and dramatic, it’s a great portrait of America evolving. We look to westerns as grand adventures but we don’t really think what it was like when it was going to be taken away. Trains and automobiles are coming, rifles replaced by machine guns – the cowboy can’t keep up and the old ways are dying out. It’s a film about outlaws and lawmen, soldiers and civilians but it shows that despite those titles no one is truly innocent and that people will do whatever they can to survive.
A western you won’t forget, The Wild Bunch never bores you for a second with its incredible visuals, strong performances and gripping violence. I can’t remember a western that has gotten this bloody, The Wild Bunch earn their name as they take on the law, the railroad, the Apache and the Mexican Army themselves. Peckinpah makes them so formidable as characters that you know they while their outnumbered every time, its their opponents who are going to need reinforcements.