Review: The Wild Bunch

In the early 1900s, aging outlaws dressed in Confederate uniforms (led by craggy William Holden, and also featuring Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Jaime Sanchez) are staging one last bank robbery before calling it quits. The robbery seems to go fairly smoothly, though they do lose dumb-arse Bo Hopkins (perfect casting) along the way. Unfortunately, the robbery was a set-up, loot they steal is just a bunch of washers, and one of their own (Robert Ryan) is now in league with bounty hunters (along with scummy, bottom-feeding Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones) on their trail. Ryan used to be Holden’s best friend, until a past screw-up saw Ryan feeling betrayed by Holden, though he starts to hate his current job as bounty hunter as well, especially considering the company he now keeps. Edmond O’Brien hams it up to eleven as a grizzled, cantankerous associate of the Bunch (and Hopkins’ father). Albert Dekker plays the railroad boss behind the whole set-up.

Uber-macho, ‘ugly-pretty’ 1969 Sam Peckinpah (“Cross of Iron”, “Straw Dogs”) western is a favourite of many critics and audiences (it helped usher in a new era of dour, violent, complex westerns very different to the more simplistic films John Wayne and his ilk had been making for decades), but I think it’s a bit overrated. Far too long (in a way overlong film) is spent with very little going on in the mid-section (especially the tedious bordello scene, or scenes dealing with Sanchez’s idealism, and Civil War), it’s like the film is trying for a spaghetti western, but not quite getting it right. Spaghetti westerns, especially Sergio Leone’s, tended to be long, but the best ones were rarely dull, and certainly not mopey like this one often is.

But look, there are some interestingly ‘ugly’ characters, and when the film does focus on the action, it’s pretty terrific (especially the infamous bridge explosion, and some of the much lauded ‘beautiful bloodletting’ that has influenced countless films since). Performances are all tops (notably sadistically smiling but loyal Borgnine, scene-stealing O’Brien, and scummy Martin), but Ryan isn’t afforded enough screen time for my liking. He’s playing a much more interesting character than Holden, if you ask me. Holden’s solid enough, but Lee Marvin (who turned it down) would’ve been even better. Hell, there’s a lot of guys offered the part who would’ve been better- Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Richard Boone (who could’ve played almost any role in the film), Robert Mitchum etc. Not too sure how Gregory Peck or Jimmy Stewart would’ve gone in the role, and Sterling Hayden, another name thrown around, would’ve been a disaster.

The best thing here is the cinematography by Lucien Ballard (“The Desert Rats”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”, “Will Penny”). So far as ‘guy movie’ entertainment goes, The Holy Trinity (“The Great Escape”, “The Dirty Dozen”, and “The Magnificent Seven”) still reign supreme, but you could do a lot worse than this. Mine appears to be the only lukewarm review of the film in existence- a seeming trend with me. It’s definitely one of Peckinpah’s better films, especially in the Director’s Cut. Overlong as it is, I cannot in good faith recommend any cut version.

Rating: B-


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