Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)

>> Saturday, March 28, 2009

SA/C-145m./Dir: Sam Peckinpah/Wr: Walon Green & Sam Peckinpah/Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmund O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Jamie Sanchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache)

The Wild Bunch is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Forty years after its original release, Sam Peckinpah’s violent, revisionist Western still has the power to thrill, shock, disturb, provoke thought, and entertain. All of the best films reward repeated viewings, and no matter how many times I re-watch The Wild Bunch (and it has to have been at least a dozen viewings), the movie never grows tiresome. The Wild Bunch is so multilayered that one sees something new in the characters, themes, dialogue or performances with each screening.

Peckinpah once said of the film that it was “simply what happens when killers go to Mexico,” and on the surface, The Wild Bunch is a story about outlaws on the run. After a botched bank robbery turned massacre, Pike Bishop (William Holden) and the surviving members of his gang (Borgnine, Oates, Johnson, Sanchez, and O’Brien) hightail it across the Mexican border with bounty hunters on their tail. The pursuers are headed by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of Bishop’s gang, who has the unappealing choice between hunting his past companions and rotting in prison. While on the run, Pike’s band agrees to take a job stealing ammunition from a train for a corrupt Mexican General (Emilio Fernandez). It is unclear whether the greatest threat to Pike and his gang comes from their Mexican allies, the bounty hunters, or from fissures within their own group.

Of course, The Wild Bunch is about a lot more than “what happens when killers go to Mexico.” Pike’s bunch isn’t just running from men with guns. They’re trying to escape so-called civilized society, modernization, advancing age, their past mistakes, and pangs of conscience. It’s a multifaceted film that is open to many interpretations; and it has been viewed as everything from a treatise against violence to a metaphor for America’s intervention in Vietnam. No matter how you want to look at it, The Wild Bunch is a damn good film, perhaps the best Western ever made.

The use of violence, slow motion, and editing were revolutionary at the time, but none of that would matter if not for the fact that The Wild Bunch is a well-written story brilliantly told. The characters are captivating, and the dialogue is spare but perfect. Never has more meaning been conveyed through the lines “Let’s go,” and “Why not?” The actors are as good as the material, and the film is perfectly cast from the leads on down. And while there is great acting on display from everyone in the ensemble, the film really belongs to William Holden. He never played a more fascinating character than Pike Bishop, and he never gave a better performance in his career.

Of course, as good as it is, The Wild Bunch wouldn’t be included here if it didn’t have a pretty strong liquor content. While booze is not the main focus of the film, it is present throughout. Whether on the run on horseback or camping in the desert, one of Pike’s company always manages to produce a whiskey bottle; and General Mapache, for whom they rob the train, is persistently plastered when not on the battlefield. From the opening, in which the bunch bloodily interrupts a temperance march to the wine-drenched debaucheries in Mapache’s camp, the film is full of memorable alcohol-related scenes. However, the most iconic is one in which Pike’s gang passes a whiskey bottle from man to man as a sign of camaraderie and respect.

As you can probably tell, I love this movie. For devotees of Westerns, soused cinema, and motion pictures in general, The Wild Bunch is essential viewing.

Drinks Consumed--Whiskey, tequila, wine, beer, and champagne

Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech, staggering, soused sex, and physical violence

Potent Quotables--ANGEL: Don’t you see, this is their land, and no one is gonna drive them away.
FREDDIE: I’ll drink to that sentiment… and to love. But most of all, I’ll drink to gold!
DUTCH: Salute! Salute!

Video Availability--On DVD as The Wild Bunch - The Original Director's Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition) or as part of Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection (Warner Brothers). An ultra-sharp The Wild Bunch [Blu-ray] disc is also available.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The whiskey flows liberally in many of Peckinpah’s other weird, wonderful, artistic flicks, including Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)


Johanna Markus April 2, 2009 at 1:50 AM  

I've been looking for this for a long time, glad to find it here.

Serpen Phlox April 7, 2009 at 12:33 PM  

Proudly filmed at my beloved small town. Parras del la Fuente, Coahuila. México

garv April 7, 2009 at 7:09 PM  

Peckinpah's love of Mexico is evident in every frame.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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