The Wild Bunch (1969) – Directed by Sam Peckinpah – Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Jaime Sánchez, and Strother Martin.
Do you live life for yourself or for others?
That question lies at the heart of Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH, a fantastically violent movie about masculine relationships. There are actual brothers, like Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), spiritual brothers like Pike Bishop and Dutch Engstrom (William Holden and Ernest Borgnine), and disenfranchised brothers like Bishop and his old running mate-in-crime, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). It’s the fifth member of the Bunch, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), who doesn’t have a matching brother, but is treated like the youngest sibling by the group: Pike is the father who keeps him in line, Duke is the mother who watches over him, and Lyle and Tector are the older brothers who make his life miserable. The whole unit operates on this principle, but with the intensity of a wolfpack always jockeying for their place in the group.
Heck, Peckinpah even gives them a crazy uncle in Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), an old-timer who used to be a more active member of Pike’s gang.
Women are all but inconsequential in THE WILD BUNCH as characters. They’re either mothers, whores, or potential mothering whores. In the opening gunfight, women in the street are caught between Bishop’s group robbing the bank and Deke Thornton’s group of mercenaries hired by the railroad company to stop Pike, and they’re gunned down without thought or consequence. Both sides either fire into women or use them as shields; they are treated no different than the men milling about the street. Women do allow us to see something about the individual men; Angel is betrayed by his former love, who has left behind their village to ensconce herself with the Federales. When Angel sees his lover in the arms of the much older and, to Angel, politically repugnant General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), he rises up from his table and shoots her. Mapache and his army goons are instantly rifles-up, but Pike calms them by telling the general that Angel wasn’t shooting at him, but the woman.
Mapache’s response? He laughs and arrests Angel instead of immediately killing him and the rest of the Bunch.
Of course, it should be noted that Pike’s group doesn’t continually refer to themselves as “the Wild Bunch,” a popular tag for outlaws in the Old West. Of course #2, we’re not really in the Old West anymore, as we’re in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, and pre-World War I. Peckinpah taps into that sense of loss that’s so popular among Western filmmakers, with the run into Mexico also doubling as a run to the lawlessness of the Old West.
It’s also possible to apply the “wild bunch” moniker to Deke’s mercenaries; Pike’s group is just more “bunch” and Deke’s mercs are more “wild.” Deke makes it clear to the railroad man in charge of getting him out of jail that these guns for hire are not capable of tracking and taking down Pike’s group, and that he needs real men to do the job. At each insistence, Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the railroad exec rebuffs him, telling him he’s got 30 days to bring in Pike or it’s back to Yuma for him. In the post-opening gunfight confrontation between these two men, Thornton lets him have it, accusing him of hiding behind the law, which gives him the legal justification to be in the right. Deke thunders at him: “Tell me, Mr. Harrigan…how does it feel, getting paid for it? How does it feel to sit back and hire your killin’, with the law’s arms around you? How does it feel to be so god damn right?”
Harrigan’s response is one word: “Good.”
“You dirty son of a bitch!”
“You’ve got thirty days to get Pike, or thirty days back to Yuma. You’re my Judas goat, Mr. Thornton. I want all of them back here, head down over a saddle.”
Thornton is a wonderful character and Robert Ryan delivers the film’s best performance, giving us a Thornton caught between working for the railroad to capture/kill his old partner and not working for the railroad and going back to jail in Yuma, where we see in a brief flashback that Deke is tortured. Peckinpah resists easy solutions for his characters in WILD BUNCH and Deke does the job because his motivation for staying free is stronger than his motivation for going back to prison. He doesn’t want to kill Pike, as we see in that initial gunfight when he was Pike sighted and doesn’t pull the trigger – something Harrigan sees and uses to keep Deke motivated – but if this is what he has to do to get his freedom back, this is what he’s going to do.
We see in another flashback that Deke was the cautious partner to Pike’s “live in the moment” counterpart, but Deke isn’t driven by revenge; instead, he simply laments what has come to pass, even ripping into his bounty hunters at one point with this thunderous admonition: “You think Pike and old Sykes haven’t been watchin’ us? They know what this is all about – and what do I have? Nothin’ but you egg-suckin’, chicken-stealing gutter trash, with not even sixty rounds between you. We’re after men, and I wish to God I was with them. The next time you make a mistake, I’m gonna ride off and let you die.”
Peckinpah uses dialogue in such a way that it’s like a bonus gunfight, punctuating his quiet scenes with red-hot lines that speak mostly to the meaning of manhood. When the Bunch is tense after Sykes leads their horses tumbling down a sand dune, Pike gets right in their faces: “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody. We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal – you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!”
After Angel shoots his ex-lover, Pike agrees to go to work for Mapache and steal a U.S. army train of its weapons and ammunition. They pull off the theft in quiet at a refueling station, with Thornton’s bounty hunters and a group of Army soldiers that look so young they should be in Boy Scouts instead of fighting for Uncle Sam down on the border. It’s a fantastic sequence, proving that Peckinpah knows ACTION, not just VIOLENCE. They get the drop on the workers and soldiers at the front of the train, Angel disconnects the cars, and then they pull away with the booty in hand. Deke figures it out just a bit too late, and his group are off after the train, but they’re horses are no match for the power of iron and steam. When they get to the pre-arranged meeting point, they unload the train and then send it hurtling back towards Deke and the army. When Deke’s men eventually catch up to them, Pike has Angel rig a bridge to blow, which it does with Deke’s men and their horses right in the middle of it. It’s a great scene, made even better by Pike’s knowing tip of his hat toward Deke right before it blows.
Pike understands the situation they both find themselves in, but Dutch doesn’t. When he laments about what Deke is doing, Pike tells him that Deke gave his word. “To the railroad!” Dutch exclaims. “It’s his word,” Pike insists. “That ain’t what counts!” Dutch argues back. “It’s who you give it to!”
THE WILD BUNCH is a story of bad men being chased by even worse men; one side are criminals, the other side is bounty hunters, but there’s not a white hat among them. Peckinpah uses the bounty hunters to allow us to see the better aspects of Pike’s men, and while Peckinpah never turns them into heroes, though he does let them die with a bit of honor.
When they deliver the guns, Mapache knows that Angel stole one of the cases to give to his pro-Revolution village (his share for participating) and captures him for a second time. Angel went in with Dutch, and the older criminal is forced to watch as Mapache’s men take Angel. Borgnine’s acting here is understated and phenomenal; without saying anything you can see that he doesn’t want to leave Angel here, but also that he knows there’s nothing he can do. “I guess I better get going,” he says nervously. “And Angel?” the Mexicans ask him. “If he pulls his gun, he dies, and so Dutch keeps his gun holstered. “He’s a thief,” he answers with clear misgiving. “Let the general handle him,” he finishes and rides off. When he gets back to the Bunch, however, he’s pouty about leaving Angel behind. Thornton’s men shoot Sykes and Pike realizes they’re in a bad spot with their water running out. They decide to go back to Mapache’s compound for safety. When they get there they see Mapache dragging Angel behind his car, as everyone revels in the treatment of the would-be Revolutionary, and Pike tries to buy him back, but Mapache dismisses the idea by telling Pike he’s already got guns and he doesn’t need gold.
The Bunch is encouraged to partake of the wine and women, and the four remaining men slink off. We cut to the next morning to find all of them in a foul mood at their situation. Dutch is sitting outside, whittling some wood and looking miserable. Lyle and Tector are arguing with a whore over her payment, and Pike is dressing after a night with his young whore. He hears her baby crying and you can see all of Pike’s bad choices coalesce in Holden’s face at that moment. He pays her a few extra pieces of gold, then goes to the next room to collect Lyle and Tec. “Let’s go,” he says, standing in the doorway. The brothers know what he means and know what the price will likely be; they accept anyway. “Why the hell not?” Lyle responds, and they go to collect Dutch.
The four men walk through town in one of those Western money shots with the bad-asses strolling purposefully with their guns in hand. They demand Angel’s return; Mapache gives him to them, but then slices Angel’s throat. The Bunch instantly kills the general and the ultimate quiet-before-the-storm moment descends as the Federales don’t know what to do. The Bunch starts grinning, happier about the kill than angered at Mapache’s death, but the Mexicans are brought back to life when Pike shoots and kills one of Mapache’s German military advisors.
Violence erupts in a bloody, visceral final act. A machine gun gets used several times and Peckinpah lets the shooting and killing play out for several long minutes. Characters are shot multiple times and a whole horde of nameless Mexican soldiers are slaughtered by machine gun. At the end, though, all four remaining members of the Bunch are killed. It’s really the only honest end to the film; earlier Pike had told Dutch he wanted to make on final score and then back off.
“Back off to what?” Dutch asks him, knowing full well there’s nothing for them to back off to. They’re committed to this lifestyle, reveling in it on good days and trapped by it on bad ones. At another point, Pike tells them they have to “start thinking ahead of their guns” because this life can’t last forever.
THE WILD BUNCH has rightfully earned its designation as a cinematic classic. Peckinpah expertly balances violence and the consequence of violence. When Deke and the bounty hunters arrive to find everybody dead, he takes no joy in his not-quite-earned freedom, allowing his mercs to take the bodies back to Harrington to collect their money. (They don’t make it.) Sitting against the wall and looking depressed, Deke is greeted by Sykes, who’s gunshot wound from Deke’s men proved not to be fatal. Sykes is riding with a new gang, and offers Deke a place. “Me and the boys got some work to do,” he tells his old mate. “You want to come with us? It ain’t like it used to be; but it’ll do.”
Deke accepts and Robert Ryan’s face tells us all we need to know: Of course he accepts. What else is there for an aging gunfighter to do?