1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

by Trey Hock on August 26, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

There are those ensemble cast films in which the main characters are a band of companions, who get along from the start and carry a love or respect for one another. They are bound by their friendship.

“The Wild Bunch” isn’t that kind of film. From the moment the film starts there’s blood in the water, and though they are surrounded on all sides, the members of this bunch have to do everything in their power to keep from turning on one another.

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, royalty of film Americana, “The Wild Bunch” focuses on a band of outlaws in a changing landscape that no longer welcomes them. The American West of “The Wild Bunch” is not the untamed wilderness that it once was, and shouldering out the criminals and thieves that once populated its boundaries. We know that these members of the bunch will probably not survive this change. Scene Stealers own Eric Melin referred to the film as an elegy, and I think he’s on to something.

The opening visual metaphor serves this film very well.

The bunch are the scorpions, and they are swarmed throughout the film by railroad and lawmen, bounty hunters, the army, federalis, and Mexican gangs. This is the opening scene, which sets the tone and the pace for the film.

It is obvious from the outset that we’re not going to get a lot of rest during “The Wild Bunch.”

The core members of the group make it out of the town. There are six in all and they are Pike (William Holden), the leader; Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Pike’s right hand man; Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), the Gorch Brothers; Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the youngest member; and Freddie (Edmond O’Brien), the oldest.

They get back to the rendezvous and begin sifting through their take.

Pike and Freddie realize that they’ve been setup by a former member of their gang.

Too often genres define viewership. Somebody might love sci-fi, or chick flicks, or bromances. Westerns seem to have a strongly defined and devoted following. These films conjure up images of dust, guns, and horses. Don’t be fooled. In a good western just as with good science fiction or good any genre, the allure should not be all about the setting or stuff, but should be about the story and characters. “The Wild Bunch” is a Western, but it’s also a heist film and a film about getting old. This aging gang of outlaws is looking for one last big score.

As you can see the level of talent onscreen is incredible. Holden, Borgnine and Johnson are truly masters of their craft, but they are matched by Robert Ryan, who plays Deke Thornton. Thornton rode with the gang until Pike betrayed him. Now Thornton pursues the bunch at the head of a group of vulgar and untrained bounty hunters.

“The Wild Bunch” has a captivating story with strong characters, but it also has a lot of incredible action and jaw-dropping stunts. In this scene, Thornton chases the bunch, but is bested by Pike and the others when they blow the bridge, while Thornton and the bounty hunters are still on it.

Amazing. This was 1969. So you know they just blew up a bridge and dropped five guys on five horses into a river, while filming. Holy crap.

As some of you know, I have been grumbling about the state of action movies, and one summer blockbuster in particular recently. My principle argument is that a film doesn’t have to sway away from strong character to give us great action or well-told story. Good story and character make up for minor flaws that may date a film. “The Wild Bunch” has story and character to spare. This is how it’s done. This is an enduring classic.

Even if you don’t think you like westerns, you should give “The Wild Bunch” a chance. It will probably surprise you.

Next up #78 “Modern Times” (1936)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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