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.