Sabbath Reviews: The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Western is America’s genre contribution to the world. Where everything else has its roots elsewhere, the Western is an American made creation. While Italy might have produced a ton of spaghetti Westerns, the genre itself is homegrown in the United States of America. I think that plays a part in my desire to like Westerns. I think part of my would really like to, but it’s been a hard, tough road. I haven’t amassed a great collection of Westerns, but that’s because I’ve been so thoroughly un-thrilled by the ones I have seen that it takes up a certain amount of courage for me to want to go back to that well.
I might have started my experimentation into the genre on the wrong foot. I didn’t start with — and still haven’t seen — The Man With No Name Trilogy. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly might be the most popular Western out there, but damned if I’d seen it or a single Clint Eastwood Western at the time. No, I started with the lesser known Navajo Joe (1966) and Il Grande Silenzio (1968) — both spaghetti Westerns. While they weren’t without their redeeming qualities and certain charm, they were what I expected a Western to be … mostly boring with little bits and pieces of good ideas.
From there I decided that I should try ones that were most recent and popular. So, I tried Unforgiven (1992) starring the legendary Clint Eastwood and one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman. Not only that, but Unforgiven is an Oscar winner … I figured … surely I’m going to be hit with a great movie.
I was wholly disappointed. It didn’t captivate me. The climax was somewhat redeeming and there were several beautiful shots. The acting was fine … but something didn’t click. It was at this point I gave up on Westerns until about two years ago when I decided to give The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) a go. It was getting a lot of good reviews and it starred Brad Pitt, who I don’t think can be dismissed as just a good looking actor. He’s proven himself time and time again to me, so I figure, what the Hell.
Bored out of my fucking mind. I don’t know what to say. It just didn’t do it. It just didn’t do a damn thing for me.
I was growing frustrated. At some point I watched the Japanese culture mish-mash Western homage Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) by Takashi Miike, fresh after watching and loving his Ichi The Killer. Garbage. I thought it was complete garbage. I gave up on Westerns. It wasn’t going to work. The genre just wasn’t for me.
Cut to a couple of weeks ago when for some reason or another I decided it was time to get back on the saddle, pun intended. I knew The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a remake of the legendary Seven Samurai (1954), so I figured it couldn’t be all that bad. I could do an entire review on The Magnificent Seven, but I hear another reviewer is doing a take on both the Japanese Samurai film and its American counterpart, so I’ll leave it for them. I’ll just say that I loved it. Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, and the entire cast were just fantastic and the story, while more than just a love letter to the original, was still amazing.
Bolstered by my love for The Magnificent Seven, I thought it was time to go after another one of the more popular movies on the genre. Netflix provided the means and a few days ago The Wild Bunch (1969) arrived. It was the original Director’s cut and clocked in at almost 2 1/2 hours.
Out for one last score, aging outlaw Pike (William Holden) and his men (“The Wild Bunch”, aforementioned, I presumed) hits up a railroad office. Pike’s plans turn to Hell when his former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and a bunch of mercs open fire on them. Pike manages to escape the ambush with a few of his men, only to find out the silver they had just robbed were actually valueless metal washers. Meanwhile, Deke and the mercs (a group of greedy pinheads) are put on their tail. Thornton is told to bring Pike in, or he’ll be the one that gets sent back to prison.
The Wild Bunch cross over into Mexico and it’s there that they get wrapped up in a Mexican civil war, making a deal with the devil, General Mapache. Mapache hires Pike and his gang to rob an American military train on its way to deliver a shipment of guns in return for gold. Still needing that one last score, they oblige. Deke knows his former partner all too well though and makes plans to intercept that only go halfway according to plan. After the robbery, bad blood begins to emerge between The Wild Bunch and Mapache after one of their men is taken and tortured for the crime of stealing from the General. The result is something that should not be spoiled.
While the plot might sound simple enough, and its very obviously something the creators of Red Dead Redemption drew from heavily, it’s actually even better than it sounds. The relationship between Deke and Pike is excellent. Both men respect eachother a great deal, and it would seem that even though Deke has reason to resent Pike (Deke was shot and arrested while Pike escaped), he admires him and one easily assumes is only chasing him because his hand is being forced. Pike on the other hand doesn’t seem to begrudge Deke. As he put it, Deke is hunting him because “he gave his word [to the railroad]”, and that’s good enough for him.
While Pike is the robber, he is not necessarily the villain. In fact, the mercs Deke brings with him are so much worthier of scorn and loathing than any of Pike’s men, something Deke himself is very aware of. Pike himself is a brilliant tactician and incredibly charismatic, not to mention surprisingly moralistic in his own way. William Holden and Robert Ryan were both fantastic in their roles, but Holden just had something extra special about him and his character.
While I’m sure many of you have at watched, or at least heard things about this movie, I will try not to spoil too much of the ending for those of you who don’t know. What I will say is it’s a bloodbath very worthy of Tick’s Top 5 Deaths list. In my mind, I would have given the award to a single person out of the bunch for their death.
I will say that the first half hour or so despite opening with a robbery and a gun battle was sort of slow and indicative of the Westerns I have been so bored by in the past. I thought for sure that I was up for another disappointment. I’ll gladly take it all back though. Once the movie crosses the Mexican border, The Wild Bunch went from just a Western, to a God damn good piece of cinema history.
While still second in my mind to The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch is one of just two Westerns I’ve watched so far worthy of their accolades. I know there’s a ton more out there that I have yet to see that have been praised by critics and movie-goers alike, and while I’m not sure The Wild Bunch has given me the confidence to check out 3:10 To Yuma or even the most recent remake, True Grit, I at least know I will be up to revisiting the genre again. Sometime.
So for those of you like me who have been bored by Westerns, The Wild Bunch is something to check out. For those of you that love some of the Westerns I was let down by, maybe you can explain to me what I’m missing … if I’m missing something. Also curious to hear what others you’d think I’d actually like.