Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wild Bunch (1969) -- Sam Peckinpah

The wild west is dying fast. Automobiles will soon replace horses and there is no place for the Wild Bunch, a group of aging outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), as tired looking a man as you're likely to see. Pike and the gang target a bank with its supposed railroad payroll, but former gang member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is onto the scheme. Thornton heads an amateur posse of bounty hunters and has arranged an ambush. The threat of a return to Yuma prison hangs over his head unless he can stop the Wild Bunch.

Part of the Opening Credit Sequence.
Director Peckinpah produced a landmark film. His West is brutally violent. When a man is shot here, he doesn't just drop to the ground; instead, multiple wounds send blood and pieces of flesh exploding in the air as the victim does a slow motion balletic pirouette. From the freeze framed introduction of the actors in the opening credits to the two chaotic and bloody shootouts that bookend the film, it is a spectacular Western.

As the outlaws arrive, the camera pans to a group of dirty Mexican children torturing a scorpion, trapping it with a horde of hungry ants. A few minutes later the bandits ride by in desperate flight, and the scorpion is being burned alive. The symbolism is obvious; you can expect a similar ugly end for the Wild Bunch. The assault goes horribly wrong but the Wild Bunch escapes empty-handed, a few of their members killed, and the posse hot on its trail. Later, they high-jack an arms shipment in a well-executed train robbery with plans to sell the rifles to Mexican regulars under General Mapache. They escape Thornton again when Pike dynamites the bridge over the Rio Grande. In a great achievement of stunt work, Thornton's men drop into the river.

Mapache is not to be trusted. He pays for the guns, but aware that gang member Angel diverted one crate of rifles for the peasant villagers that his troops routinely terrorize, Mapache holds him for torture. For a man like Pike, who values a man's word and comradeship more than anything, the way is clear. He could get away scot-free, rich, but he knows Thornton is out there; he is tired of being hunted. He and the gang come to Aqua Verde to rescue Angel.     

Peckinpah helped write the terrific scrip. He clearly defines the characters without slowing down the action. He's drawn Pike as an anti-hero who holds the group together, at one point saying, "When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished! We're finished! All of us!" As he attempts to mount his horse, the stirrup breaks and he falls. It's a poignant moment, one that shows a man past his prime, yet trying desperately to hold onto the only thing he knows. At another point he tries to kid himself, telling Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) he'd like to make one more good score and back off, Dutch scoffs, "Back off to what?" Against Pike is Thornton, who hates pursuing his old friend. At one point, disgusted with his undisciplined posse, he exclaims that he wishes he were still riding with men. 
Deke Thorton's rag-tag outfit.

All aspects of the film work together. The film editing of the two shootouts is superbly quick, jarring,  and effective. At the time, nothing like it had ever been done. Peckinpah uses multiple cuts, often focusing on an actor's face to capture reactions, and he juxtaposes a temperance parade in the midst of the opening battle.

The full orchestral score by Jerry Fielding works wonderfully with a generous use of drums and trumpets to give it a military flare in the action sequences  and quiet strings in periods of lament. The set design, particularly Mapache's headquarters, the ruins of the old Spanish church yard, seems perfect, and renowned cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, produced one of his most magnificent visual films. Ballard knew how to make Westerns look gorgeous. Some of his other films include Ride the High Country, True Grit, and Will Penny.   

What Makes The Wild Bunch Special:

William Holden gives one of the best performances of his career. His is the perfect weathered face for the role. You feel his tiredness, and ultimately his sad acceptance that life as he knows it is over. Holden can convey more emotion with a simple look than most actors. He conveys deep loneliness in a look at a prostitute near the end. You know his life is empty. 
The long walk to save Angel (Johnson, Oats, Holden, and Borgnine.)
Another great moment takes place between Holden and his band just before the final four-minute massacre. The crisis appears to be averted; they can safely walk away. They all glance at one another and smile. One of them laughs. The scene erupts in gunfire.

The rest of the cast is one of the finest ensemble of supporting actors ever assembled. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson are members of the Bunch, along with a grizzled Edmund O'Brien, and Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones are psychotic bounty hunters. Albert Decker is the railroad boss. Peckinpah gives each his moment to shine in this wistful but violent film.  

It is also one of the last fine performances by Ryan, an actor who never got his due. He died just five years after the film was released. Starting with Crossfire in 1947, for which he received an Oscar nomination, Ryan always brought a certain weight to a film, often as a character of barely controlled menace, but vulnerable and stoic. Here he is a man trapped. He'd rather be riding with the Wild Bunch than chasing them, and you sense that he holds affection for Pike, or at least deep admiration. He understands that the way of the outlaw is past, and that his old friend, Pike, is not going to accept it. Ryan captures his character's dilemma in a gritty performance.
The script has plenty of memorable lines, always delivered perfectly in character. Here are just a few, which if heard or thought of later, will immediately bring to mind the respective scenes:

                 Pike: "If they move, kill 'em."

                 Sikes: "Ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."

                 Coffer: "It's covered, you two-bit redneck peckerwood."
Inside Story:

The film has a high body count. Critic Pauline Kael noted, "Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle." He would forever after be known as "Bloody Sam." Peckinpah lived his life to the fullest, prompting actor James Coburn to eulogize him as a man "who pushed me over the abyss and then jumped in after me. He took me on some great adventures." Peckinpah first explored the theme of the mythologized West in another great film: Ride the High Country, seven years earlier. It features Western star Randolph Scott in his final screen performance.

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for Best Original Score (Jerry Fielding)
  • Nominated for Best Writing (Peckinpah and Walon Green). 
Other Films by Peckinpah:
  • Ride the High Country 1962
  • Major Dundee 1965
  • The Ballad of Cable Hogue 1970
  • Straw Dogs 1971
  • The Getaway 1972
  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid 1973
  • Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia 1974 

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