With William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Jamie Sanchez, L.Q. Jones with Warren Oates, Emilio Fernandez and Ben Johnson
“We’re not gonna get rid of anybody! We’re gonna stick together – just like it used to be! When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if can’t do that, you’re like some animal! You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”
Pike Bishop (William Holden)
Bold statement: “The Wild Bunch” is the best western ever made and one of the best films ever made. The film chronicles a group of men led by Pike Bishop (William Holden). These men are the last of the cowboy generation. The film’s period is during the very beginning of World War II (before the United States involvement).
The film’s opening credits are excellent (Quentin Tarantino showed much homage with his opening credits of “Reservoir Dogs”). We see these men: Pike, Dutch (Borgnine), Lyle (Oates), Angel (Sanchez) and Tector (Johnson) all dressed as US Calvary. They are riding on horseback slowly though the main drag of a small western town. They approach a bank and dismount from their horses.
While these men are about to embark into the bank Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is with a group of hillbilly bounty hunters on the rooftop of an adjacent building. Deke has much history with the group. He was a member, until he was captured and sent to Yuma prison. The railroad company struck a deal with him: they will set him free if he kills the Wild Bunch.
The bunch enters the bank, Holden walks up to the bank owner and pistol whips him. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face and Holden curtly says: “If they move – kill’em!” Freeze frame on Holden’s face and text appears: Directed by Sam Peckinpah. That is so fucking hot.
The Bunch proceeds to rob the bank, and as they collect the loot from the safe one of them spots one of the bounty hunters on the roof of the building where Deke Thornton lurks. What ensues is an ultra bloody and graphic shoot out. The Bunch tries to escape, using civilians as human shields. The bounty hunters could care less, and they proceed to shoot everything that moves. Men, women, children, horses – anything.
The Bunch escapes riding back to their camp. Once they get back to their camp, they open their loot and discover that they’ve been had and the contents of the bags are tin washers. There is a great dialogue exchange here:
“Look at them…silver rings.” – Lyle (Oates)
“Silver rings? Thems washers!” – Dutch (Borgnine)
Pike and Dutch discuss their next move; they know Deke Thornton is after them so they travel to Mexico where Angel’s hometown is. Once they reach Angel’s village, Angel discovers that his father has been killed and girlfriend taken by General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). Angel begs Pike to let him avenge the death of his father. After a discussion they travel to General Mapache’s compound.
Once the Bunch arrives they find Mapache drunk and with many women. There are three German’s with Mapache (for those of you who know your history this is a great reference to the Zimmerman Telegram). Mapache then employees the Bunch to rob a US train that is carrying military rifles. They do. It is the best train robbery scene ever filmed.
Pike allows Angel to take a case of rifles to give to his village, so they can fight back against Mapache. Mapache finds out that Angel is a thief. Pike gives him up to Mapache for his theft. What happens next is a half hour ending shoot-out that is the finest gunfight ever filmed. Pike, Dutch, Lyle and Tector walk down a street in Mapache’s compound to go save Angel. It gives me goose bumps each time I see it. The way the scene is filmed, the music – it’s frightening watching these four men walking to their death.
The ending of the film is brilliant. It’s utter chaos but Peckinpah films it with much grace and eloquence. It’s as if we’re watching a Howard Hawkes or John Ford film – it’s so beautifully bizarre. The ending is gory and bloody. It is so violent it almost makes you want to turn away from the screen – but you can’t. You’ll miss something. Watching these four men fight off an army (literally) of Mexicans is heart breaking. You know what’s going to happen. And you know the Bunch wouldn’t have had it any other way.
You know they deserve it. You know they are bad men.
You can’t help but respect their code. The one thing the Bunch believes in above all is honor and loyalty. These men will live and die by each others sides. You have to respect that.
As volatile as the film is, so was the production. The production of the film was shut down many times due to Peckinpah, Holden, Oates and Johnson disappearing for weeks in Mexico going on drinking binges. The men would disappear into a small town in Mexico and drink up all the liquor and then move to the next town.
The film went vastly over budget and the studio threatened to fire Peckinpah and the majority of the cast. That didn’t stop them – they could give a fuck – they were having the time of their life. Legend has it that all the guns on the sets were using real ammunition and only used blanks for a select few scenes. Imagine a drunken William Holden with a six shooter loaded with real bullets. I can’t believe no one was injured.
This film remains to be Peckinpah’s masterpiece. It is iconic for its blood and violence. The cast is rich with great actors of a dying breed. It’s a great film that you need to see as soon as you can. Its philosophy is something that can’t be ignored. It’s one of those rare cinematic treats. Peckinpah was so disgusted with the studios final cut of this film, he lobbied to remove his name from the film. Wow…