Why I Finally Watched The Wild Bunch

So I finally watched The Wild Bunch (1969) from beginning to end. I did this because of all the references I’ve read that make this out to be the “perfect Western” in an era of Western’s demise in the movies. In addition, the movie is celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The stars are many in The Wild Bunch: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien to name a few.

The Wild Bunch emerged at the end of a major decade of change in the direction and experimentation in filmmaking, and in society and mores in America. It subjects us to blunt reality – the blood-spurting, noise and dirt of the wild West, where people got in the way of gunfire and gunman didn’t care who they killed just so they got their man.

One might say it mirrors the news of its day, straight from the war zones of Vietnam and the horrific images of death and destruction.

The story begins with a fight during the opening credits – a scorpion slowly being eaten alive by hundreds of ants, its struggle bringing giggles of delight from village children watching the carnage. At the end of its struggle, the scorpion is then covered with pine needles and set aflame by the children – a final horror before its death. How can young children enjoy such a spectacle? A question for the rest of the story.

The symbolism of this is fairly obvious. There’s the mighty scorpion – feared by all who have felt its sting; the outlaw, who roars into town looting and robbing and raping its women – a dead shot, hardly ever outgunned. This time the feared one is outnumbered and defeated by silly little ants.

The first scene has the Wild Bunch come riding into town on Army horses, stolen, of course. Each member is memorialized as a drawing as the names William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Jamie Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Bo Hopkins appear in the credits. Already you know they are riders to be remembered. Heroes from another time.

The Wild Bunch is famous for robberies of payrolls from trains and banks. We first witness them riding in calm as you please, sidling into the institution and calmly ransacking its stores. The leader is Pike Bishop, played by William Holden.

Unbeknownst to them a gang of bounty hunters, hired by railroad baron Harrigan, is waiting for them in ambush. They seem not to care who they kill, just as long as they get the wild bunch they’re hunting. This gang is headed by Pike Bishop’s former partner, Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan.

Pike spots the ambush from inside the bank and uses a parade by a village temperance organization to shield their escape. Soon bodies are everywhere, both wild bunch and villagers alike. Afterwards only 5 remain of Pike’s gang. When the wild bunch regroups out of town, they discover that the “silver” they escaped with turned out to be useless lead washers, the final insult.

Deke Thornton (center) played by Robert Ryan, and the gang hired by railroad magnate Harrigan to bring down the Wild Bunch

What makes this movie unique is the film editing. Director Sam Peckinpah and the film editor created the movie after shooting – showing the audience images chosen to get the story and the atmosphere across.

In many cases, scenes are presented from upward and downward angles, not straight on – the gunfights are played in slow-motion so you almost feel the bullets hit. Bodies splay out in a sickening slo-mo dance in so you can almost hear them hit the ground.

The sounds of the gunfire are unique for each weapon instead of all the same sound. The squibs they used for blood gave out huge spurts of red at each wound – nothing camouflaged here. Horses went down in the gunfights as well – each neighing its death knell and hitting the ground hard.

Following the failed robbery, Pike Bishop offers his gang to work for a corrupt general in the Mexican army named Mapache. Pike agrees to steal a weapons shipment from a US Army train in exchange for a cache of gold coins.

This job is supposed to be the last job for the Wild Bunch; it’s getting too hard to execute robberies with law enforcement and bounty hunters ready to hunt them down. They’re going to take the gold and disappear into Mexico.

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine walk to the final fight.

The train robbery is executed magnificently. Remember, there are only 5 men against a train filled with Army recruits and Deke Thornton’s men. They use a water stop to silently gain control of the engine and the car carrying the armaments and unhook the rest of the train. No shots are fired so no one is aware of what’s happening. Later, after offloading the weapons, Pike slams the engine into reverse and rams the train left helpless on the tracks miles behind.

After delivering the arms, a celebration takes place with a lot of eating, drinking and whoring going on on all sides.

One of the Bunch, Angel, played by Jaime Sanchez, was taken prisoner by Mapache because Mapache found out Angel took a crate of weapons for himself. After torturing Angel, Mapache agrees to turn him over to Pike, but at the last minute slits Angel’s throat instead. Pike kills Mapache, and there’s an eerie shocked silence over the village.

Pike Bishop (William Holden) in a last attempt at escape

Then all hell breaks loose. Bullets flying everywhere with the army against the Bunch – all shooting each other and getting each other killed in the crossfire. It was the ants against the scorpion once again, everyone seemed to have a gun. We see who actually shoots Pike dead – it’s a child with a rifle who shoots him in the back.

Deke Thornton and his bounty hunting gang finally catch up with Pike but it’s too late – they’re all dead. Dead as the Western was before this movie came on the scene.

Since The Wild Bunch we’ve been regaled with copious westerns thanks to Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Blazing Saddles (a fantastic spoof on western genre), The Shootist – John Wayne’s last movie, Breakheart Pass, and Big Jake.

Westerns will always be with us as we explore what it was like in the early days of the United States, where the law of the gun ruled the day.

On Dangerous Ground – Saving Robert Ryan

I’ve never known what to make of Robert Ryan. His performances never look like acting. He IS the character on the screen. One thing’s for certain, you can never take your eyes off that rugged face displaying the myriad emotions experienced by the character he’s playing. And, if he’s not on the screen, you want to know where he is and where he’ll show up next.

Ryan has been quoted that he’s played types that are diametrically opposed to everything he stood for – bigotry, intolerance, corruption, greed and brutality. He was the man who had to make the hard decisions as a general in Battle of the Bulge; the man with screaming paranoia when a stranger comes to town asking questions in Bad Day in Black Rock; the western gunslinger with nothing left to lose in The Naked Spur, the bigoted Army sergeant who terrorizes a Jewish man in Crossfire.

I’m going to go into depth on the film On Dangerous Ground, directed by Nicholas Ray and an uncredited Ida Lupino. In it, Ryan plays Detective Jim Wilson whose relentless days of encountering predators, sleazy backroom bosses, gamblers and murderers takes its toll on an otherwise good detective. He resorts to “getting the job done” by beating up his suspects until they confessed, resulting in charges brought against the department for police brutality. He explains his actions saying that no one likes cops, not the good guys or bad guys. You can see he’s begun to hate himself.

His partners on the squad see the writing on the wall and try to get Wilson to calm down, relax, take up activities outside the force so as not to bring the work home with him. The final blow comes when his superior officer, played by Ed Begley Sr., sends him on assignment upstate to help a local sheriff solve the murder of a young girl. Wilson calls it Siberia, a place of exile. And it is.

The Search

This is when you realize we’re not looking at Robert Ryan anymore. It’s Jim Wilson the detective driving out of the city – out of the familiar environment that’s been poisoning him. It’s a long way to his destination. As Wilson’s car travels the long, narrow dark ribbon of road, there’s no sound, no partners, no radio, no sirens or flashing lights. Wilson comes upon some road construction and, as he waits, we see his piercing dark eyes reflecting the lonely and empty life he’s been living. It’s as if Wilson is traveling back in time, out of the city to a rural isolated environment.

A young girl has been stabbed to death and the killer still at large. As Wilson begins to question the victim’s family members, the angry father, played by Ward Bond, adamantly objects. He wants action, not questions; he wants revenge, not justice. Wilson is not welcomed as a savior, but finds himself confronted by the same anger, distrust and hate that he had for the criminals he’d arrested, only now it’s directed at him. He’s treated as an interloper, someone letting the killer get away.

The suspect steals a car and Wilson has no choice but to follow him with the girl’s father. The camera is focused on the road, which is black and wet, then gray and slushy, then pure white with snow, making driving hazardous. The father is beside himself, shouting at Wilson to go faster, waving his loaded shotgun that will “get the job done.” But Wilson is out of his element and crashes the car after skidding on the icy road as the father pounds the dashboard yelling about the killer getting away. The killer had already crashed his stolen car, and they start following the killer’s footprints through the snowy forests and rocky hills.

Mary and Jim Wilson

The tracks lead them to an isolated farmhouse where they find Mary Malden, a blind woman (Ida Lupino) alone in the house. Wilson and the father find men’s clothes upstairs which Mary says belong to her brother who is away for a few days. The father goes back outside to search the outbuildings. Alone with Wilson, Mary says you can tell a lot about a person from his name. Wilson asks her whether she’s lonely and she senses his loneliness, saying one can be lonely in a room full of people.

Wilson becomes protective of Mary, making sure the furniture is where it should be and the fire rebuilt. This emotion is new for him. Mary thanks him, then, in confidence, she tells Wilson that her younger brother has mental issues and is in hiding nearby. She realizes that he’s done something terrible and asks Wilson to promise to protect him from harm and get him the help he needs.

Wilson struggles with this and has a hard time promising such a thing It’s an unfamiliar position for him:  “protecting” the suspect – but because of his feelings for Mary, he willingly changes his modus operandi in order to do the right thing.

Nicholas Ray uses the stark landscape to play another character in this film. Filmed in black and white, the contrasts are even more stark – white snow, black road and black rocky hills. Wilson’s trek through the snow after the suspect contrasts with fast driving through New York in a police car. Speed is not possible here, and Wilson has time to think about what he’ll do when he catches the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Mary’s home, with its comfortable fire and lantern light is a welcome respite from the harsh outdoors.

Wilson finds that the world is not black and white as he’s looked at it in the past. You see this realization on his face. People are not all bad or all good. Even murder victim’s father’s furious anger melts away when he sees the suspect is “just a kid.” And Mary, who was concealing the suspect, cannot be blamed for protecting him.

The contrast is quite obvious when Wilson heads back to New York and the road turns from a snowy ribbon to a rainy highway filled with cars and buildings, people and crime. No wonder he wants to turn the car around.

This gem of a movie is also enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s music score. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of North By Northwest, scored by Herrmann eight years later.