“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 you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!” says Pike Bishop.
Academy Award winner William Holden suffered from alcoholism for many, many years. It cost him relationships and eventually affected his career as well. He had a good run in the 1950s, especially his collaborations with Billy Wilder (1953’s Stalag 17 brought him a Best Actor Oscar trophy). After appearing in 1962’s The Counterfeit Traitor, his career began to stall as he appeared in forgettable films for the next few years (including the notoriously awful James Bond spoof Casino Royale in 1967). Andrew McLaglen’s 1968 film The Devil’s Brigade started to help Holden get out of his rut, and the following year saw a big comeback for him with Sam Peckinpah’s violent but innovative The Wild Bunch. Hailed by many as Peckinpah’s best film, it was a movie I had wanted to see for a long time. I finally got a chance to see the director’s cut version of The Wild Bunch on the big screen at the Museum of the Moving Image 13 years ago, and it surely lived up to its reputation. This review of The Wild Bunch is my entry in the Golden Boy Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema.
1969’s The Wild Bunch follows a gang of aging outlaws in 1913 as they seek out one final score in Texas while trying to dodge a former comrade and a group of bounty hunters. Peckinpah brought together a terrific ensemble that includes William Holden (as Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (as Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (as Deke Thornton), Edmond O’Brien (as Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (as Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (as Tector Gorch), Jaime Sanchez (as Angel), Emilio Fernandez (as General Mapache), Strother Martin (as Coffer), L.Q. Jones (as TC), Albert Dekker (as Pat Harrigan), Bo Hopkins (as Clarence “Crazy” Lee), Jorge Russek (as Major Zamorra), and Alfonso Arau (as Lieutenant Herrera). Holden gives a magnificent performance as the aging leader of the outlaws and Ryan is also excellent as his former partner-turned-bounty hunter. The rest of the cast, including Borgnine and O’Brien, also shines
The screenplay by Peckinpah, Roy N. Sickner, and Waylon Green explores how a gang of aging outlaws responds to the end of the gunfighter era (a requiem of sorts for the Old West), earning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nod in the process. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography reflects the tone of the film while also making great use of telephoto lenses in certain shots that allowed the background and foreground to be sharp in focus. Lou Lombardo’s editing utilizes multiple angles, regular and slow motion images, and quick cutting, which emphasized the chaos of the gunfights (combining these techniques was new at the time and should have earned Lombardo an Oscar nod for Best Film Editing). The sound design regarding the weapons are also remarkable, with Peckinpah insisting that each weapon have its own specific sound (as opposed to different weapons having identical sounds). Jerry Fielding delivers an Oscar-nominated score that reflects the drama and the film’s locations. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest Westerns ever made; a brutal film with gun violence that was allegoric of the Vietnam War and innovative editing techniques that showcased the chaos and realism of gun violence.