They ain't plays, they ain't books, they certainly ain't movies, they're films. And do you know what films are? They're for people who don't like movies. "Mad Max", that's a movie. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", that's a movie. "Rio Bravo", that's a movie. "Rumble Fish", that's a fuckin' movie"
Clarence Worley in True Romance
I was describing The Wild Bunch to a friend and being the hyperbole monster that I am I went into such detail and got so carried away that my e-mails started becoming a little long-winded, so I thought I'd take the best of them and share them with a wider audience. I fucking love The Wild Bunch. Convention may state that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made by an American director, but if one were to argue that The Wild Bunch is superior to it in every respect I'd certainly second that motion. Like Kane, it is a film for people who love film. The technique, particularly in regards to editing, is so breathtaking you'll find yourself reaching for the DVD case to check that this film was really made in 1969. It's painful to watch modern action movies after you've seen this, as director Sam Peckinpah took Arthur Penn's mantle (Bonnie And Clyde, made two years earlier, is very much a spiritual cousin to the Bunch) of using the French New Wave's rapid cutting style and combining it with ultra-realistic violence and raised it to a whole new level. Peckinpah famously fired his special effects technician on the first day of shooting. The man in question, a Hollywood veteran had worked on countless Westerns and brought along what he considered more than enough dynamite and squibs (small explosive charges mounted with fake blood which are used to replicate bullet hits) to last the entire production. Peckinpah got through them all in one day, which tells you every thing you need to know about The Wild Bunch and it's relation to prior Westerns.
The plot is incredibly, and even deceptively simple. An ageing gang of outlaws, situated on the Texas-Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution (the film is set in 1913, the revolution began in 1910) plot one last heist, a bank robbery that begins the film. And what a beginning it is, as the leader of the Bunch Pike Bishop is ambushed by his former partner Thornton and a gang of bounty hunters, resulting in a bloody shootout that even today is shocking to watch. Pike's first line of dialogue, "If they move, kill em!" sets the scene perfectly, but even that doesn't prepare you for the sheer horror of seeing women and children mown down in the street by indiscriminate bullets. The brutal violence, coupled with the intricate editing and use of slow motion was completely revolutionary at the time. The Hays code was a set of censorship guidelines that Hollywood had adhered to since 1938 designed to prevent explicit violent or sexual content being depicted onscreen, but had been abolished in 68 to make way for the MPAA ratings system that remains to this day (G, M, NC-17, R, X etc). Peckinpah, like many of his contemporaries, used this period of uncertainty to push the limits of acceptability as far as possible, and it is safe to say that no film before hand, American or otherwise, had produced such violent and disturbing imagery (during the one and only test screening of the film allegedly more than 30 people fled the theatre in disgust, some even stopping to vomit in the alley behind the cinema.) To quote the great man himself, he wanted to give audiences "some idea of what it is to be gunned down" so much so that at one point during filming he got so exasperated and fired a revolver into a nearby wall, screaming at his crew "That's the effect I want!" Sadly, the controversy surrounding the films violence (and I'm sorry, but anyone who doesn't see the merit in destroying the previously existing façade of sanitised and bloodless gun fights and replacing it with something more representative of what the West was really like, bloody, brutal and sickening is a moron) would overshadow the rest of the film, as beneath the surface lies a surprisingly tender and powerful film about friendship, love, guilt and betrayal.
Thornton you see, had been a member of Pike's gang back in the day, but in one of a number of flashbacks that gives the characters a wealth of back-story we learn that when the law finally caught them Pike abandoned him, fleeing a whorehouse through an open window and betraying his partner who has now been told he must capture Pike or return to prison. Pike is a man apparently without morals, but events of the film, particularly once the Bunch travel to Mexico and witness the debauchery and corruption the Revolution has allowed to conspire, and it's profound effect on one member of the Bunch, the Mexican Angel in particular, changes him forever. The Bunch make an uneasy alliance with the dishonest warlord Mapache, but after Angel is captured and tortured for trying to steal some guns to return to his village (Mapache has been stealing food and money from the people and giving it to his troops) they decide to do the right thing for once ("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!") and face Mapache down in the films glorious final battle, one of the most outstanding sequences in the history of cinema. The moment when Pike makes his fatal decision (a wordless encounter with a young Mexican prostitute in which Pike's self-disgust and shame almost leaps off the screen at you) and the Bunch's "last walk" as they leave for Aqua Verde to reclaim Angel from Mapache, a sequence entirely improvised on location, will stun you with their tragic grandeur. These are men who know they are facing insurmountable odds and certain death, but take them on anyway. They know there is no place left for them in society, and that their way of life is almost over ("We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast."). The question that will haunt you throughout the film is not if these characters who you have grown to love so much will die, but how they will die. This certainty is obvious to those onscreen as well, who become aware of the fact that they can still find some final vestige of honour before their inevitable demise.
Peckinpah, who hadn't made a film in three years after being fired from his previous production, seems painfully aware that, like the Bunch, he needs to make "one good score and then back off", as the entire film has the intensity and determination of a man who knows that this may be his final opportunity to get it right. This is undoubtedly his masterpiece, and tragically instead of opening up all the doors that were previously denied to him it merely narrowed his options further, as the remainder of his career was confined to violent genre movies with very few exceptions. Like the Bunch themselves he is a relic, a walking contradiction, a brutal and violent mercenary who could be truly horrifying to those closest to him (his lifelong alcoholism frequently led to incidents of him beating up his wifes and girlfriends) yet he was a charming and tender man who won humanitarian awards for his charity work and as a child was mocked by his relatives and friends for his love of poetry and the theatre. Though this desciption may make it sound bleak, it is full of warmth and camaraderie and is much an ode to friendship as anything else. The acting throughout is truly stunning. William Holden, playing Pike, Peckinpah's alter-ego right down to the moustahce, deserves mention in the same breath as De Niro in Raging Bull as one of the greatest performances in cinematic history. So much angst and pain is expressed, sometimes without words (a casual glance, a toss away of an empty whiskey bottle) that his tortured expression will stay with you for days. The rest of the cast all give career-defining performances, particularly Ernest Borgnine (one moment in particular, his anguished cry of "Pike!" during the final bloody massacre contians more emotion in that single word that some actors can fit into 2 hours of screen time) but this is Peckinpah's movie, and even if he was never able to scale these heights again let us at least be grateful he managed it once. The Wild Bunch, to papraphrase Clarence, is a fuckin' movie, and one of the greatest ever at that.