Monday, 30 December 2019

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Den vilde bande
The last movie of 2019 is Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”. It has taken me a while to get through this movie, partly because of Christmas craziness, but also because I am uncertain about what I think of this movie. The blu-ray copy I got came with a lengthy biography on Sam Peckinpah which goes a long way to explain the elements of the movie and indeed his entire career, but it did not make me feel much better about the movie.

What we get here is a gang of outlaws, Pike’s gang or The Wild Bunch. They have specialized in robbing railroads and are looking for that final strike before they, or rather Pike (William Holden), can retire. This is not a group of charming Robin Hood outlaws, but a bunch of brutal, dirty scum, with no scruples at killing innocent bystanders, or indeed each other and a general behavior so uncivilized that barbarians is a honorific. The Book mentions a code of honor, but with the possible exception of Pike himself I could not see it. They are as low as it gets.

Except that the pose chasing them may be even lower. Deke Thornton is a former member of the bunch who is forced by the railroad company to chase The Wild Bunch. To this end the railroad has assigned him a group of absolute lowlifes, who are not only crude barbarians but also incredibly stupid. This group, supposedly upholding the law, has even less scruples killing innocent bystanders in order to collect the bounties on the Bunch members.

When the “last” hit on the railroad turned out to be a setup, costing them half their number, The Bunch seeks shelter in Mexico with the warlord Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) who’s army is fighting, and losing to, Pancho Villa and brutalizing the local population. This general and his army are even worse scum and makes Pike’s gang look like boy scouts. Mapache has a job for Pike, to get him a load of US arms to fight his little war.

And so, we have a three-way setup with bad guys against bad guys against bad guys.

Who do you root for in the ensuing battle? The movie wants us to root for The Wild Bunch but can only do that by setting them up against people who are even worse. Frankly, I disliked every one in this movie with the possible exception of Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and he is betrayed and tortured to death. Early on I decided that the only good outcome was if they all killed each other. Lo and behold, that is exactly what happened. So, was that a happy ending? I just felt disgusted.

For a movie in 1969 this is an incredibly violent movie. Even by today’s standard it reminded me of Tarantino on one of his killing sprees. In fact, I would hazard a guess that this is the movie Tarantino wished that he had made. I assume that this raw violence is a large part of its fame, but it does very little for me. Not that I am a prude, but this kind of mass slaughter and insane brutality only leaves me disgusted. I recently finished watching “Breaking Bad” where the violence worked as an adrenaline kick (and what a kick!). In “The Wild Bunch” it just made me want to puke.

If I look beyond the violence and the fact that I disliked everybody in it, I can see how it is intended as a swan song on the Wild West. The Wild Bunch would then be representing the freedom and anarchy of the West, being squeezed by the cruelty of corporate capitalism (the railroad’s pose) and whatever it is Mapache is representing (the devil?). Live free or die…

Production-wise “The Wild Bunch” is top notch. There is nothing wrong with the colors or the sound. Everything is beautifully shot and dusty like the desert. Only problem here is that no matter how well Peckinpah tried to frame his picture to get that special cinematography, Sergio Leone had already been there and done it better. Killing a hundred people with blood flying everywhere is no improvement.

I came into “The Wild Bunch” wanting to like this movie and felt satisfied with the production quality I met, but ultimately it left me empty and disgusted. If this was The Wild West, I am happy I am not there.

Speaking of “Breaking Bad” there are actually a lot of parallels to “The Wild Bunch”, but I think I will write a separate post on that one of these days.




  1. I have put off watching this from then to now because of the violence. We'll see if I can stomach it a couple of "years"from now.

    1. I suppose if you know what you are going into it is manageable. This kind of movie is a lot more common today than it was back then.