January 21, 2015 by smumcounty
It’s 1913. A band of outlaws in Texas headed by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are looking to make one more big score so they can retire. To that end they plan the robbery of a railroad office which reportedly has a safe full of silver coins. They manage to ride into town and approach the station dressed as soldiers but once inside things go bad. They spot rifles on the rooftops of the buildings across the street and they realize they’ve stepped into a trap. They decide to grab the silver and shoot their way out. They burst through the doors and start exchanging fire with the railroad agents, just as a temperance march has reached the middle of the street. The scene that follows is what Roger Ebert in 1969 called the most violent he’d ever seen on the screen. But of course, that was before he’d seen the end of “The Wild Bunch”.
Words and still photos are a poor substitute for seeing this sequence in action so here’s a YouTube clip of the railroad office shootout:
During the railroad office massacre, Pike recognizes his old partner in crime, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), as one of the men heading the posse that has lain in wait. We learn later that Deke has agreed to help the railroad agents so that he can stay out of Yuma prison which we understand to be a fate worse than death. By the time the gang has met up with old timer Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) who’s been waiting with fresh horses, their gang has been reduced to only five men: Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Angel (Jaime Sanchez), brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) and Bishop. It’s bad enough that they lost half their men battling their way out of the railroad office but when they examine the bags of silver they were able to make away with, they realize that they’re only bags of washers.
Now their dreams of retiring in luxury are dashed and they need some other way to make that last big score. They cross the border into Mexico and spend the night in the small village where Angel was born. The following day they make their way to the nearest town, Agua Verde, which is ruled by Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a general in the Mexican army. They get off on the wrong foot with Mapache when Angel, mad with jealously, shoots and kills an old lover who has become the consort of Mapache. To defuse the situation, Bishop agrees to work with Mapache and steal a load of American rifles from a train North of the border. Officers in the German army, who are consultants to Mapache, are eager to get their hands on the guns and get some idea of the American military’s firepower. Angel at first refuses to take part in the heist arguing that Mapache will only use the guns to suppress his people but when Bishop offers to give him a box of the rifles for his help, Angel agrees, knowing that he can give the guns to the rebel villagers battling the Federales.
The heist goes well, despite the fact that Thornton and his ragtag band of bounty hunters are on the train. Thornton and his men follow the gang as they make their escape but they’re stopped when a bridge they’re on is blown right out from under them by Bishop’s men. Angel’s rebel friends surprise the gang the next morning and take the box of rifles that was promised to Angel. To deliver the rifles to Mapache, the gang takes turns riding into town to reveal to Mapache the location of a hidden cache of guns in exchange for their payment of gold. This all goes well until Dutch and Angel take their turn. Mapache then reveals that he knows that Angel has stolen a box of the guns. He asks Dutch what he should do about it. Having no other alternative, Dutch abandons Angel to his fate at the hands of Mapache. “He’s a thief. You take care of him.”
Dutch rejoins the gang outside of town while Sykes is sent to retrieve the horses that had hauled the last of the guns into town. While returning with the horses, Sykes is wounded by Thornton and his gang of bounty hunters but manages to conceal himself in the hills.
Losing Angel doesn’t sit well with Bishop so he and the gang ride into town to bargain with Mapache for Angel’s life. There they witness Mapache torturing Angel by dragging him behind Mapache’s shiny new car. Angel is half dead already. Bishop offers to return some of the gold that Mapache has given them if he will release Angel but Mapache has no use for gold and he refuses. Powerless to intercede, the gang rides away to the outskirts of town where they take refuge in a brothel. After a brief period of reflection, Bishop wordlessly signals to the others that it’s time to get Angel back and they make the long walk back to Mapache’s camp where they insist on his releasing Angel. Mapache appears to comply but at the last moment he slits Angel’s throat and pushes his body to the ground before Bishop. Bishop and the gang gun Mapache down. They turn to the soldiers expecting them to fire back but nothing happens. Bishop then takes aim at a German officer and kills him too at which time the soldiers are roused out of their shock and start returning fire. A massacre ensues dominated by a machine gun which the gang quickly takes possession of. But it’s not enough to save any of them and they all die in a hail of bullets while managing to take most of the soldiers with them.
Here again words are a poor substitute:
After the slaughter, Thornton rides into town and his bounty hunters take possession of the bodies of the gang and ride off. Thornton declines to go with them; he’s kept his word in securing the gang and he’s had enough. Sykes rides into town with the villagers that Angel delivered the guns to. He tells Thornton he’s planning on staying in Mexico and has sided with the rebels in the civil war. He asks Thornton if he’d like to join them. “Me and the boys got some work to do. You want to come with us? It ain’t like it used to be; but it’ll do.” Thornton agrees.
“The Wild Bunch” began as a story idea by actor and stuntman Roy N. Sickner which was then developed into a screenplay by screenwriter Walon Green. At the time, Warner Brothers was looking for a film which Sam Peckinpah could direct and they became interested in “The Wild Bunch” because they knew that William Goldman’s screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had been purchased by Paramount and they were hoping to beat them to the box office with similar fare. The script caught Peckinpah’s eye because he was inspired by the violence he had seen in “Bonnie and Clyde” two years earlier and he hated the perceived lack of reality in Westerns. He wanted to create a film which showed the violence of the era and of the men who inhabited it. “We wanted to show violence in real terms. Dying is not fun and games. Movies make it look so detached.” Peckinpah hoped to make the violence explicit enough that it would turn people off. He was aided in this end by the end of the restrictive Hollywood production code and the adoption in November 1968 of the rating system that we’re familiar with today. This allowed “The Wild Bunch” to go much further with screen violence than any film before.
Peckinpah was also inspired by the slow motion ballet of bullets at the end of “Bonnie and Clyde” to incorporate slow motion shots into “The Wild Bunch”. He had first tried this technique in “Major Dundee” in 1965 but with this film he took it to a whole new level never before seen. Major shootouts in the film were shot with six cameras at once operating at different speeds. When edited together by editor Lou Lombardo, the scenes would cut from regular speed to slow speed and then back again. This editing together of different speeds gave the film an elastic quality never before seen. The ending shootout contains roughly 325 edits in five minutes for an average shot length of just under one second. This method of editing makes the bloodbath disturbing but at the same time beautiful. The groundbreaking bloodletting in the film may seem clichéd today but only because it has so strongly influenced today’s filmmakers who often employ the same techniques but without the artistry.
While the violence of “The Wild Bunch” is most often referred to when discussing the film, I really like the theme of men who have outlived their times. The world has moved on but they have remained stuck in their old ways. Bishop expresses this very clearly at the beginning of the film. “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” This feeling of being out of step is most jarringly seen in Agua Verde when Mapache shows off his new toy, a beautiful new automobile. Up until this point, we’ve seen the usual Western tropes: horses, shootouts, desert. We could still be in the late 1800’s. But this illusion is broken when this car drives around the corner and we really feel how out of step these men are and realize that World War I will break out in Europe the following year.
The casting of the film also helps this feeling of a dying world. Holden, O’Brien, Johnson, and Ryan were veterans of the Westerns of the 40’s and 50’s. One could almost imagine that these are the same characters from those films from twenty years before. Holden is an especial standout in this regard. Lee Marvin was the first choice to play Pike Bishop until he dropped out for a part in “Paint Your Wagon” (1969). Marvin is the more obvious choice to play Bishop but Holden brings a certain gone-to-seed feel to the role that I like. We remember his earlier work in films like Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), and Born Yesterday (1951) in which he played much more conventional heroes. It’s like the years have turned him into a much darker, nuanced character.
I also have to take a moment to mention Edmond O’Brien’s performance. As Sykes he is virtually unrecognizable, playing a character that would have been played by Gabby Hayes thirty years earlier. I think it may be the best performance if his career. I especially like the scene where he laughs at Lyle Gorch’s shock at finding the bags of washers. “Here you are with a handful of holes, a thumb up your ass, and a big grin to pass the time of day with.”
With this passing of a world, the film also seems to lament the passing of a certain code of honor among men, whether real or imagined. Themes of honor and betrayal permeate the film. Bishop, Dutch, Thornton, and to a lesser extent the Gorch brothers live by a personal code of conduct which is best summed up by Bishop’s pronouncement after the failed attempt on the railroad office. “When you side with a man, you stay with him. If you can’t do that, you’re like some animal.” Although Thornton could easily kill the bounty hunters he’s riding with and join the gang, something he would dearly like to do, he doesn’t because he’s given his word to the railroad man Harrigan. Although Dutch doesn’t completely understand this motivation, it makes complete sense to Bishop and he feels no ill will towards his former partner.
Dutch: He gave his word to a railroad.
Bishop: It’s his word.
Dutch: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!
This code of honor is strong. It’s what causes the gang to take that final walk into Mapache’s camp and serves as the impetus to the final slaughter.
I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about pre-code movies, the films that were made before the introduction of the motion picture production code in 1934 but this is the first time I’ve blogged about a movie made after the demise of the code. After 1968, every Hollywood film was no longer considered appropriate for the entire family. Filmmakers were free to explore more adult topics and include sex and violence to the extent that they could still get an R rating. Peckinpah used this new found freedom to present a vision of violence that had never before been seen on screen. He had hoped to bring a realism to violence that would turn viewers off but Peckinpah later admitted to having misjudged the audience’s enjoyment of on-screen violence and found that the violence of “The Wild Bunch” excited rather than horrified them.