Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Wild Bunch

Originally Written and Posted at on 7/16/06 w/ Additional Edits.

Throughout the history of the Western genre, the formula of a Western film is often filled with a duel between a sheriff and a cowboy, whether either one is good or bad. Before the 1960s, the genre was dominated by the likes of John Ford and the films he made with John Wayne. Other Western directors like Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, and Budd Boetticher were giving the genre some great visual scope and storylines that harkened to the traditional style. When the American Western started to decline in the early 60s thanks to the advent of television, the genre was being reinvented in Europe thanks to Italian directors, notably Sergio Leone. Around that same time, an American film director whose love for the Western was also trying to keep the genre alive. His name was Sam Peckinpah where by 1965, he had already created three films within the genre, 1961's The Deadly Companions, 1962's Ride the High Country, and 1965's Major Dundee. Then in 1969, Peckinpah released a film that not only reinvigorated the genre but also marked the beginning of the end of the West with his violent epic film, The Wild Bunch.

Story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner with a script by Green and Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is a story of pride, honor, and ageism about two ageing thieves with three young men in the early 1900s hoping to make one last score before retirement in Mexico. Trying to capture them is one of their former comrades as the gang make way for Mexico where an offer to make more money is upon them leaving way for betrayal and loss. Taking the Western to newer and bloodier heights, Sam Peckinpah strays away from the myths and ideology by going into a world where the West is dying in its surroundings but not to its major characters. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, and Alfonso Arau. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a bloody, uncompromising, no-holds-barred violent film that kicks the Western with a bang.

It's a nice day in a little quaint town where a funeral is held while children are watching ants kill a scorpion. Then comes a group of men wearing calvary uniform who are there for one reason once they arrive in a bank, to score some big money for their last heist. Leading the pack is the aging Pike (William Holden) with his longtime friend Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) along with some younger recruits in the brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), Mexican friend Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and a crazy newcomer in Clarence Lee (Bo Hopkins). Taking hostages in the bank, Pike proclaims "If they move, kill 'em" while outside of the bank, a group of bounty hunters led by Pike's former comrade Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) looks on to capture Pike and his men. Realizing they're trapped and by Thornton of all people, Pike and his bunch leave the bank to a wild, bloody battle that claims the life of some towns people and Clarence as they flee to Mexico.

Thornton's plan failed thanks to a couple of guncrazy hunters in Coffer (Strother Martin) and T.C. (L.Q. Jones) as they're all working for a railroad baron named Harrigan (Albert Dekker). Thornton is more conflicted since he wishes he could join Pike's bunch for one more wild ride. After nearing the border in an empty town to meet with their old friend Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), the bunch realizes the money they stole wasn't there at all as they've been set up to steal washers. Despite the disappointment, Pike hopes to go to Mexico while he and Dutch reminisce the old days as Pike flashes back about Thornton's capture that he felt is a reason for his betrayal. Going further into Mexico, they stop at the village where Angel once lived as they meet an old man named Don Jose (Chano Urueta) who is trying to protect his village from General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) who is currently at war with anyone in league with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Angel wants to lead the fight as he learns that his old love Teresa (Sonia Amelio) is with Mapache as Pike figures that they go to Mapache for something.

The bunch goes to the town to meet Mapache and his men including Major Zamorra (Jorge Russek), Lieutenant Herrera (Alfonso Arau), and a German advisor named Mohr (Fernando Wagner). Angel nearly gets them in trouble when he violently confronts Teresa as Pike makes a deal with Mapache to go back to the U.S. to steal guns and ammunition for Mapache's army. The bunch gets a break as the Gorch brothers go into debauchery with some Mexican women while Angel makes a deal with Pike to get a case of guns for his village in exchange for the share of gold the bunch will get. Thornton, meanwhile plans to capture the bunch in the U.S. by trying to protect the latest shipment of guns for Harrigan.

The bunch returns to the U.S. where they manage to succeed in their mission as Thornton and his gang try to chase them in Mexico along with a U.S. calvary. The bunch almost get into trouble when they meet Mexican Indians only to get protection since they know Angel. After hiding from Thornton, the bunch meets with Herrera as they show them the guns and a lot more including a machine gun. They make a deal with Herrera to give them the shipments through a few meetings so the individual members of the bunch can get their share of the gold. When Dutch and Angel deliver the last shipment to Mapache, it all goes wrong when Angel is taken prisoner as Dutch is forced to leave him. Things get worse when Sykes is wounded on his way back from Mapache's fort when he's spotted by Thornton's men. Pike is forced to make some decisions as they hope to retrieve Angel as the four men make way for a violent, bloody showdown.

Westerns have always lived by a code of honor, especially when it comes to loyalty. In the case for The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah takes that code right to heart. Especially at a time when honor has been in question during the late 1960s at the Vietnam War. In Peckinpah's world, the West starts to die in this film as things like cars and airplanes start to arrive. That becomes real hard for men like Pike, Dutch, Sykes, and even Thornton as the world changes, even in a more loose world like Mexico where there's a car for the General. The car reveals Pike's hatred for the new, modern world as he even reminisces the old days of the West when he wanted everything, even a family with a woman named Aurora (Aurora Clavel). In many ways, the characters and Peckinpah share that sentiment of the old world and its order as the film really represents about a group of men wanting one last taste of the old ways before they die.

Still, despite all the bloodshed and style that Peckinpah presents. He is still a storyteller since the film is really about old men wanting one last chance of excitement by robbing things and stuff yet don't want to kill people unless they have to. While the action does keep the film exciting in every way whether it's against the Mexicans or Thornton's men, Peckinpah balances his love of bloodshed for moments of regret and joy. The script by Peckinpah and Walon Green reveal the kind of camaraderie the men have despite their own individual flaws. Plus, the dialogue between the men range from mean-spirited to just pure hilarity when in one scene just as the bunch are about to cross the border, Angel says "Mexico lindo" and Lyle says "I don't see anything so lindo about it". Even the sense of debauchery when the Gorch brothers swim in a pool of wine with Mexico women is all in good fun to reveal Peckinpah's sense of comedy.

That balance of violence, humor, drama, and sentimentality presents a complex, endearing vision of Peckinpah's perspective of the West. In a genre that is dying from its old model, Peckinpah, like Sergio Leone and the Italian Spaghetti Westerns before him, chose to reinvent the genre. Even to the point that they have to kill it in what became known as the Revisionist Western. For Peckinpah, the Western becomes a brutal allegory of sorts to what was going on in the late 1960s in the age of Vietnam as he decides to let it all out with the film's violence. The violence in the film is very brutal and today, it's still is but not by much in today's violence. Peckinpah's vision of violence is very uncompromising and not for the faint of heart.

Helping Peckinpah in this take of violence are two of his best collaborators in cinematographer Lucien Ballard and editor Lou Lombardo. Ballard's photography captures the tense atmosphere of the West from its sunny, hot deserts to the quaint, blue-green colors of Angel's village with only the moon and fires as the source of light. For some of the action scenes, Ballard's camera work goes from wonderful pans to excellent zooming and close-up shots that reveal his brilliance as a camera man and photographer. His work in the film's final shootout is even great. Lombardo's editing is also genius for its slow-motion editing of bodies falling down, men getting shot, and everything to give the film a sense of style. Lombardo's cutting from sequence to sequence with the use of dissolves, jump-cuts, and perspective cutting gives the film a wonderful rhythm where it moves very leisurely and not too fast as his work is filled with brilliance.

Art director Edward Carrere and wardrobe supervisor Gordon T. Dawson go great work in giving out the film's look from the decaying world of the Mexican fort to the modernization of the cars and guns as well as the look from cowboy gears to the business suit that the German men wear. The sound work of Robert J. Miller is also great for its sense of chaos in the film's violent sequences where the layers of screams, gunplay, bullets hitting bodies, and everything else brings the film to a world that is just crashing down. Jerry Fielding gives a great film score that is filled with amazing orchestral arrangements to play to the film's intensity of its violence and sentimentality while he creates a great drum cadence piece to build momentum for some of the film's violent sequences. The soundtrack is a mix of Fielding's score and Mexican folk music that plays well to the atmosphere that is Mexico.

The film's cast couldn't have been assembled any better as Peckinpah assembled a great cast filled with actors he loved along with great character actors. While actresses Aurora Clavel and Sonia Amelio didn't get much to do, they both bring in a different presence to their film as Clavel is great as Pike's love and Amelio as Angel's indifferent lover. Fernando Wagner as German advisor Mohr and Jorge Russek as Major Zamorra are great in their small roles as the villains while noted Mexican actor/director Alfonso Arau is very memorable as the charming Lt. Herrera. Chano Urueta is great as the aging Don Jose who shares the same ideals of the aging Pike and Dutch as his wiseness brings a great, memorable performance.

Notable Western character actors L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin bring the film's funniest performance as Thornton’s guncrazy, wild bounty hunters who both manage to steal every moment whenever they're on screen. Albert Dekker is great as the greedy Harrigan whose desire is to have money while Bo Hopkins is memorable as the crazy Clarence whose antics and naivete of the world of heist leads to his demise. Emilio Fernandez is great as the power-hungry, funny General Mapache whose love for the battlefield and great weapons, including torture, reveal a fun villain that everyone can remember as Fernandez brings all kinds of fun and sleaziness to a great role.

Jaime Sanchez is great as the lone Mexican of the bunch as Angel who serves not just as the conscience of the group but the one who is as less greedy of them. Sanchez is great in his role for standing among his American actors though in reality, he's Puerto Rican. Ben Johnson is excellent as Tector Gorch with his love for debauchery while equally as good is the late, great character actor Warren Oates who plays the more crazed brother of the bunch. Edmond O'Brien is also excellent as the old yet comical Sykes whose ideology and pride is shared among the older members of the bunch as he stands out for his comical presence.

Robert Ryan is brilliant as Deke Thornton, a man of conflict in his role as a hunter working for a railroad while wishing he could join the bunch as his character is really one of the more complex individuals of the film. Ernest Borgnine is amazing in the role of Dutch as the man who keeps the bunch together whenever they’re fragmented or wanting to break apart. Borgnine is really the group's moral reminder of the code of honor as he stands out for his knowledge and sentimentality for the old ways. William Holden gives probably one of his best performances of his career that ranged to many genres including the Western. Holden is just exhilarating as a man who is starting to feel his age while trying not to be humiliated by the younger members of the bunch. Holden brings a lot of depth to a man filled with pride and honor but also guilt and regret as Holden's face, notably his eyes tells the story of a man with a lot of history. Yet when Holden holds a gun and goes for the kill, he immediately transform into a cool badass.

The Region 1 2006 2-disc Special Edition of the Original Director's Cut of The Wild Bunch from Warner Brothers is truly a DVD that fans of the film will enjoy. The first disc presents the film with a new digital transfer where the entire film, in its director's cut print gives the film the same look when it was originally presented back in 1969. The film is shown on the widescreen, letterbox format of 16x9, 2:4:1 theatrical aspect ratio, which is the only way to see this film in all of its glory to enhance Lucien Ballard's wondrous cinematography. The first disc of the DVD also the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio format while its special features includes several trailers including a film collection of the work of James Dean and trailers to the films of Sam Peckinpah including Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

The audio commentary feature of the director's cut is by several of Peckinpah biographers, documentarians, and scholars of his work like Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. The commentary from the four men are wonderful to hear since they're having a lot of fun watching the film as they also recall the way Peckinpah worked and his collaboration with screenwriter Walon Green. They also go into detail on the technical aspects as well as many of the interpretations of the scenes in the film. A lot of Peckinpah trivia is there while they reveal what got cut from Peckinpah's original cut which included several flashback sequences and a very important scene involving Mapache fighting against Pancho Villa's men which were all cut for length reasons to Peckinpah's dismay. Overall, it's one of the more enjoyable commentaries of a Western film.

The second disc of the 2-DVD disc set features more special features starting with a nine-minute feature of outtakes of scenes from the film like extended takes and alternate angles of scenes like the desert scene, river border scene, the bridge scene, and the train robbery sequence. Three documentaries are the big features for this 2-DVD disc set starting with the 1996 Oscar nominated documentary short, The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage. The 33-minute doc short by Paul Seydor reveals black-and-white footage of the film behind the scenes as its being made with producer Nick Redman serving as narrator. The footage reveals the making of the film as well as two important sequences like the final battle and the bridge scene with several people including screenwriter Walon Green and the late Edmond O'Brien commenting on the making of the film through their voices as well as Peckinpah's daughter Sharon.

Actors do the voices of the other actors through interview excerpts with Ed Harris playing the role of Peckinpah reading his interviews and excerpts from his journal. The documentary overall is brilliant for its sheer look into Peckinpah's personality and work ethics while showing some great footage including a short of Ernest Borgnine doing extra work as a safety man helping out the stunt man for the bridge scene.

The second documentary feature is an excerpt of Nick Redman’s documentary A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico, and The Wild Bunch. The 24-minute doc is really a locations doc as Redman plus Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle join Peckinpah family friend Jesse Graham and Peckinpah's Mexican daughter Lupita on a journey through the film's locations where most of it was shot in a little town in the middle of Mexico. The doc covers the journey as they reach the little town and explore the abandoned, aging ruins that was the hacienda for General Mapache and see all of its areas in its desolated yet beautiful glory. A few miles away from that location is the camp where the bunch reunite with Sykes while nearby is the location of the town in the opening scene.

With the film's wardrobe supervisor Gordon T. Dawson interviewed about the locations and look of the film, the people in the doc realize that not much has changed except that some places are either looked a bit newer while others are just on the brink of extinction. It's an excellent documentary that reveals the locations from the men who loved Peckinpah's work and the daughter who never really knew her father.

The final documentary is from Starz/Encore movie channels called Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade. Featuring interviews with Peckinpah’s people like his biographers, family members, collaborators, actors including Kris Kristofferson, Stella Stevens, L.Q. Jones, and the late James Coburn. Also interviewed are several admirers like actors Billy Bob Thornton and Benicio del Toro plus film director Paul Schrader and critics like Elvis Mitchell, David Thomson, and Roger Ebert. Directed and produced by Tom Thurman with narration by Kris Kristofferson, the one-hour, 23-minute doc revealed the difficulties and excess of Peckinpah on and off the set which pertains to his legend.

The doc reveals his work in the Westerns which he loved since he was a kid as he started his career as a director working on Western TV shows before helming his feature, 1961's Western The Deadly Companions. Then in 1962, Peckinpah scored his first hit with Ride the High Country which revealed Peckinpah's love for heterosexual male bonding and old Western morals that starred aging Western actors Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. 1965's Major Dundee proved to be difficult due to fight with studio people and producers and got into squabbles over the final cut as he was dissatisfied with the final result of the film. Then in 1969, he hit pay dirt with The Wild Bunch where once it was first screened during a press screening for new films by Warner Brothers, the film received a lot of controversy.

Roger Ebert recalled that screening and the press conference where Peckinpah and William Holden came to the conference hung over as a woman from The Reader's Digest asked why this film was made. Ebert was there and defended the film by proclaiming it to be a masterpiece while the film divided critics and audiences over its violent content. The film made Peckinpah a big time director while he had certain expectations on what to expect from him. 1970's Western drama The Ballad of Cable Hogue starring Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, and David Warner was well-received and is considered to be Peckinpah's favorite film that he did though it was criticized for its lack of violence. 1972's Junior Bonner also suffered the same criticism in a family drama starring Steve McQueen in a contemporary setting of the West where Peckinpah felt that whenever he brings violence to his films, he gets criticized and when he doesn't put violence, no one will see them.

The doc had brief mentions of the films Peckinpah made between 1969-1974 like Straw Dogs and The Getaway which weren't Westerns but had all of the elements of a Peckinpah film. 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in what some say to many of Peckinpah's biographers and collaborators to be the beginning of the end for him. Peckinpah was notorious for his drinking at the time. Thornton and del Toro talked about some favorite scenes as del Toro thought it was cool seeing Bob Dylan throw a knife while Kris Kristofferson talked about his fond memories of making that film. 1974's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was another contemporary Western set in the present where Elvis Mitchell said the film was really called Bring Me the Diseased Soul of Sam Peckinpah with longtime character actor Warren Oates playing the lead role. The film was panned by critics as Roger Ebert recalled who gave the film a four-star review and put in his best films list. The documentary winds down to Peckinpah's decline as his own children don't have anything bad to say about him even though he wasn't around them all the time yet he was there for them. Overall, it's a great doc.

More than 35 years since its release, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a quintessential, no-holds-barred, bloody, in-your-face film. Thanks to Peckinpah's wielding, uncompromising vision, and a superb cast, this film is no doubt one of the best movies ever as well as one of the great Westerns. Anyone who isn't into violent imagery or crass language and behaviors should stay away from this because they don't have the guts or cajones to watch this masterpiece. In many ways, this is a guy's movie since it has everything a guy wants. Lots of violence, sexy ladies, great codes of honor, some laughs, and realistic heterosexual male bonding. So in the end, if there's a film that delivers all of those things and gets an audience all riled up, it's The Wild Bunch by the legendary Sam Peckinpah.

© thevoid99 2011

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