For me The Wild Bunch is director Sam Peckinpah’s finest film by a distance, perhaps helped due to the fact that he also wrote the screenplay. As with some of his other work there are extremely violent action sequences at both the beginning and end of the movie. Set in the late western era it follows the trials and tribulations of a band of outlaws who are well past their sell by date.
Led by Pike Bishop the gang, not having saved for their old age, is looking to make a good score before retiring. Pike was William Holden’s comeback role after many years in the doldrums, and it brought him back to his best. Peckinpah demonstrates that man is born with a predisposition to brutality as, while the gang ride in to a Texas town to rob the bank, a group of young children are placing scorpions on an ants’ nest to see which of the insects survive. When there is no winner they set fire to all of them. This sequence has nothing to do with the story but sets the mood for the wanton violence that follows.
Unbeknown to Pike and his gang there is a bunch of hapless but murderous bounty hunters on a rooftop opposite the bank ready to take the outlaws down. They are led by Deke Thornton who was once Pike’s friend and partner until he was caught literally with his pants down, well he was in a whorehouse at the time. Having spent time in a brutal prison he is offered freedom in exchange for the gang’s corpses. Although single-minded to complete the task, it is not a job he cherishes. Robert Ryan proves to be an ideal choice to play this reluctant hunter role and is just shaved by Holden in providing the movie’s best performance.
Caught in the crossfire when the shooting starts is a bible bashing temperance group who happen to be parading through the town singing that western favourite “Shall We Gather At The River?” It’s somewhat ironic as Peckinpah uses liquor throughout the movie as the glue that bonds the gang together in a spirit of camaraderie. Although both the gang and posse lose numbers in the battle it is the anti-drink brigade used as human shields that comes off worse, well they were dressed in funeral black. There are some great slow-motion shots in this and the end bloody scenes that are the Director’s trademark.
Only six of the gang manage to escape with the remnants of the posse in pursuit, and this is soon whittled down to five as Pike puts an injured man out of his misery. Dutch is Pike’s loyal lapdog and is always first in the volunteering stakes. It’s just a bread and butter role for that old favourite Ernest Borgnine. Then there are the Gorch brothers, with Lyle played by Warren Oates and Tector by Ben Johnson who seems to be in most Westerns of the last century, although normally on the other side. So new ground for cowboy Johnson.
The brothers have the same hobbies of liquor and whores, in no particular order. The last man still standing is knife specialist Angel a Mexican who is the only comparatively young member of the group, a role for Jaime Sanchez a relative unknown quantity at that time. Crossing over to Mexico they meet up with Freddie, the grandfather of the group, their quartermaster and cook. Although only in his mid-fifties Edmond O’Brian that true character actor gives Freddie that likeable cussedness manner of a man past his three score and ten. When they discover that their takings from the bank are steel washers and not gold coins the disappointment is shared with what else but a bottle of whiskey.
There’s a stopover at Angel’s village where the gang relax and make friends with the inhabitants. This human touch is necessary for the audience to accept Pike and his crew as the movie’s good guys. With the posse in pursuit they arrive at a town under the control of Mapache a Mexican general who’s a real despot. After some relaxation including a bath in a vat for the brothers while following their hobbies, which gives a new meaning to the body of wine, Pike accepts a contract from Mapache to steal weapons from a train over the border in Texas. As expected, Thornton and posse are waiting on the train but Pike outwits him, and the gang make their escape by dynamiting a border bridge when their pursuers ride onto it. Another opportunity for great slow-motion shots as horses, with riders still attached, drop into the river below.
Distrustful of Mapache, Pike splits up and hides the weapons with the location of each batch being revealed on a payment by instalment basis. The brothers ride into town and collect their pay without hassle and leave, but when Dutch and Angel repeat the process Mapache imprisons Angel as he’s been fingered a rebel supporter. This doesn’t sit well with the rest of the gang so they return to town to buy Angel’s release, other than Freddie who has been cornered by the posse. Mapache is in no mood to deal as he’s having too much fun torturing his prisoner.
Pike, Dutch and the brothers decide to have some more relaxation while they consider their next move, so it’s bring on the whiskey and whores one more time. The following morning as if by telepathy they each without a word being spoken lock and load, then march off to the General’s hacienda for a showdown. This is just like a scene from Gunfight at the OK Corral, except of course Pike and his fellow outlaws, now converted to comrades, have literally an army to confront. When Mapache slits Angel’s throat the remaining members of the Wild Bunch let loose all hell and with the help of a nearby heavy machine gun whittle away at the now deceased General’s army. The body count mounts but as ten fall there are a score to take their place and the end result is inevitable. It is without a doubt the most memorable shootout of any western ever made. Freddie joins up with the rebels and together they ambush the posse, now without Thornton who joins Freddie’s new alliance.
Whatever your views are about Peckinpah films you have to admit that they sure pack a punch, and The Wild Bunch will knock you for six.