Retro Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)

PCA reminds you that the world’s best movies are not in the new release section at Blockbuster.

The Wild Bunch (1969) – Director Sam Peckinpah’s hard knuckled western The Wild Bunch has been called the film that changed American Westerns.  Perhaps it was, but only because Peckinpah looked towards the great Italian western directors – Leone, Corbucci and Bava – for new inspiration.  As a result he put together one of the toughest Westerns of the decade, not to mention one of his finest films. 

The Wild Bunch features William Holden like you’ve never seen him before.  Known primarily as a leading man in romantic comedies of the 50′s and 60’s, Holden throws away the smooth and sophisticated characters of his past and plays aging desperado Pike Bishop.  In 1913 the old West is no more.  The railroad crosses the entire country, the buffalo is gone, the motor car is replacing the horse and law has come to the West.  However Pike Bishop and his gang, including Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien and Jaime Sanchez resist the new West and continue their lives as outlaws.  When Pike’s old partner Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan, is hired by the railroad company to track down Pike and his gang in exchange for his freedom, Pike and his men cross into Mexico where they  are hired by a corrupt Mexican general to steal a shipment of guns from a US Army train in exchange for ten thousand dollars in gold.  However, as Pike and his men prepare for what is to be their final heist, the gang begins to divide over political loyalties.  Eventually they are forced to choose between their lust for gold and their loyalty to each other resulting in a slow walk through a dusty Mexican village followed by death and mayhem.

William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oats and Ben Johnson take their final "walk" in the climax of Sam Peckinpah's classic "The Wild Bunch" (1969)

At the time of its release The Wild Bunch proved to be controversial for its violent portrayal of the old West.  While the Italian westerns were full of seedy anti-heroes and greed and corruption, the American western was still a fairytale land of gunslingers in white hats and outlaws in black ones.  However, what Sam Peckinpah did was not original as much as it was the first time an American director had made a western like The Wild Bunch.  The film was praised by critics and fans alike and was nominated for two Oscars, including best picture.

In the same vein of “tough guy” ensembles including The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch has some interesting casting.  Peckinpah originally cast Lee Marvin in the role of Pike Bishop, but Marvin left the film to do the embarrassingly bad Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood.  The choice to replace Marvin with William Holden is peculiar.  Never a Hollywood tough guy, William Holden was considered washed up when he was cast in The Wild Bunch.  However, Holden grits his teeth with the best of them, making you believe that he could go toe to toe with the toughest outlaws.  Pike Bishop is easily his greatest role, leading him to harder edged roles in the later part of his life.  The rest of The Wild Bunch are made up of third string tough guys, but each prove to be capable in their roles, especially Jaime Sanchez as passionate Mexican outlaw Angel, and a surprisingly slim Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s right hand man Dutch Engstrom.

The Wild Bunch may not be the greatest western ever made, but it changed the way that the genre was filmed in America forever, much to the chagrin of traditionalists but to the delight of the new breed of film fans.  The Wild Bunch is a true American classic, and remains to be a hard hitting story of loyalty and comradeship.

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