The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah, USA 1969, 145 minutes

Peckinpah is seen as probably the most important film maker of Westerns in the 1960s and The Wild Bunch is probably his finest Western, setting the standards for others to follow.

Many would cite The Wild Bunch as one of the definitive Westerns, if not the final Western. It is set in a period when codes of honour and gun fighting are being superceded by mechanisation and the machine gun. Money buys honour and the main characters feel increasingly ill suited to living in this era of changing technology.

The films starts when a raid on a town bank goes wrong, the gang finding it has been betrayed. Bounty hunters set out to ambush the gang and either capture or kill it's members. Pike Bishop (William Holden), leader of the gang, manages to escape, as do Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates who also stars in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia) and the Mexican apprentice Angel (Jaime Sanchez).

The gang is then pursued by a bunch of mostly incompetent bounty hunters but led (under duress, or he will be thrown back into jail) by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) a fiend and former partner of the gang's leader Pike Bishop.

The film deals with questions of loyalty and honour, selling out to the authorities, corruption, betrayal and racism at the end of the old frontier era, the turn of the century. The outlaws' loyalty to Angel, and Thornton's to Bishop are examined, both of whom are acting under duress and questioning their own motives for doing something they do not want to do.

In true Peckinpah style this is not exactly a walk through the rose garden and features highly stylised choreographed violence both in the initial ambush and obligatory shoot out at the end.

Peckinpah was notoriously difficult to work with and due to the degree of on-screen violence, the studio initially cut out large chunks of the film before it was released (while Peckinpah was holidaying in Hawaii). The version we have tonight is uncut.

This is a big break from the good guy Westerns of John Wayne as it takes the side of the outlaws, forced to carry out actions against their will while events drive them into oblivion. The Wild Bunch does however compare quite favourably with Westerns of other directors such as Leone with a similarly dark message and tone. One could claim though that The Wild Bunch provides much better character development than any of these.

This is much more than a Western and should be seen for what it is, a landmark in filmmaking.

Review by Stephen J Brennan
Taken from EUFS Programme 1997-98