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The Wild Bunch (1969)

by on 2011/06/28

“Come on, you lazy bastard.”

* * *

I believe I was first exposed to the name “Sam Peckinpah” by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In it his (fictional) movie Salad Days turns an English garden party into a violent bloody mess. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover Peckinpah’s widely acknowledged masterwork, The Wild Bunch, had relatively little action, as well as more nudity and talking. Far more talking . . . to the extent that its title proved disappointingly ironic.

The bunch in question is a dysfunctional group of aging outlaws led by Pike (William Holden of The Bridge on the River Kwai and Stalag 17) and his right hand man, Dutch (Escape from New York’s Ernest Borgnine). As they continue to pull “one last job” after another, they are hunted by a former comrade in arms, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan of The Dirty Dozen and The Naked Spur).

Whether pursuing or pursued, each side’s greatest enemy is less the other than itself. Thornton is saddled with an assemblage of men who know he considers them “gutter trash” but seem too unintelligent to take offense. Pike too leads a rabble apparently less interested in advancement than infighting.

Although it’s not uncommon for “men on a mission” to struggle with their ages or each other — see the contemporary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for a more successful treatment of these same themes — there are other ways in which The Wild Bunch differentiates itself. The presence and pivotal roles of children here are a strong reminder of their general absence from most westerns. Perhaps the best scene in the entire piece features some kids pitting ants against scorpions, before finally setting them ablaze.

I say it’s the best scene because it struck me as the most original. Unfortunately, it’s also the opening one, and they’re all downhill from there. Throughout I repeatedly flashed back on two other movies I’d seen (and disliked) recently. The interpersonal dynamics reminded me of The Searchers, the aesthetics of The Triplets of Belleville. Like the latter, this is an ugly work, or at least one about ugliness.

Whether grotesque in appearance or attitude, the denizens of The Wild Bunch both define its themes and deter my enthusiasm. Their unfunny humour is as pathetic and desperate as it is coarse and cruel. While their unsavoury natures might well be intended, they still have no appeal beyond the academic. Their repugnance is a sad irony. Most action flicks invest too little in their characters. This plot spends too long building up losers too lost to care . . . or care about.

In the end, it’s hard for me to connect with The Wild Bunch on either a visceral or intellectual level, thus leaving almost nothing to recommend it. Aside from the first scene, it takes fully half the feature’s running time to reach a decent second half. By that time, it’s a simple case of “too little too late”. Call me shallow, but I need my entertainment to entertain me, and this effort doesn’t do it. I find the whole to be slow, talky, boring, and inconsequential. Maybe when I’m older, I’ll understand its message but, for now, I’m not and I don’t.

* * *

Rated R

145 minutes (The Original Director’s Cut)

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