Monday, June 29, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Wild Bunch"

The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, 1969

The Wild Bunch is a movie that begins with a spectacular orgy of violence, has quite a bit of violence in the middle, and ends with a spectacular orgy of violence. It's the Kill Bill of 1969, I thought while watching it, and then found that Ebert makes the Tarantino comparison as well in his review. It was apparently quite controversial after its initial release, and no wonder -- I didn't even know they HAD this much violence in the 1960s.

If you have the stomach to watch gunmen and innocent bystanders die in agony as bullets rip through their innards, The Wild Bunch is a spectacularly well-made Western. Like most Westerns, it works the clich├ęd theme of personal codes of honor, but it mixes things up a bit by thinking about the differences between individual and institutional control of the means of violence. Which is to say, it contrasts an old-fashioned band of armed thieves with the sanctioned and semi-sanctioned armed men of a railroad company, the U.S. army, and a splinter faction in the Mexican Civil War. In so doing, the film keeps an admirably neutral tone; we are concerned with the thieves, because they are the point of view characters, but we are not necessarily led to admire them.

The action takes place in and around the Mexican Civil War, which is treated with more subtlety and sympathy than I would have expected in 1969. The militia band we see the most of is, to be sure, a corrupt and poorly led outfit, but in my limited knowledge of the Mexican Civil War, that would have been pretty much par for the course.

A creepy motif that runs through the film is the violence of children. The film opens with an image of a happy bunch of loveable ragamuffins torturing bugs, and throughout the movie kids are often shown participating in violence, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground.

Plot: A wild bunch of thieves want to steal some weapons and sell them to a wild bunch of Mexican soldiers. Meanwhile, another wild bunch of mercenaries in the employ of a railroad want to catch the thieves. The main characters are frequently torn between exigencies and their Code of Loyalty to the men in their own wild bunch and/or their respect for the leaders of the other wild bunches. And then the shooting starts, except the shooting started about five minutes into the movie.

Visuals: Beautifully filmed in vivid color! Early 20th Century towns and encampments in the border deserts are rendered with impressive verisimilitude (excepting only a city park early in the film whose trees and landscaping are WAY more mature than the town that supposedly planted them). People falling off of roofs and cliffs in slow motion as they writhe in terror and in agony from their gunshot wounds have seldom been portrayed so beautifully.

Dialog: Terse and macho, but well-delivered in the service of building relatively well-rounded characters. The film would not suffer from having fewer scenes that end with a bunch of men laughing heartily.

Prognosis: If you like Westerns, there's a lot of The Wild Bunch to like -- it clocks in at about two and a half hours. If you don't like Westerns, and particularly if you don't like cinematic violence, this would be a good one to skip.


Elaine said...

What? NObody is going to comment?
Well, I saw this when it was newly released. My recollection? It was boring. Eli Wallach, even if you did not know his name, was not believable. The whole thing was dumb, and the violence was not very imaginative. Ho hum.

I have always been surprised by the homage given to this film as a so-called ground-breaker. The worst violence is always emotional (as in, "The Subject was Roses,") so this was....thus: ho hum.

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: It is not traditional to even READ the movie reviews, let alone to comment on them. But we respect your iconoclysm.

Elaine said...

What? I'm out of step AGAIN?

sister jen said...

Well, as is often the case, I'm commenting quite late in the game...

<<"I didn't even know they HAD this much violence in the 1960s.">>

--They sort of didn't, until Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and Peckinpah came along--then it became commonplace. The Vietnam parallels are important of course, too, and--like the violence--probably were more striking at the time. I'm not sure what is the "worst" kind of violence, but the violence in these films of the 60s seems "important" or ground-breaking in its self-conscious commentary on the immediate cultural experience. Still, seen one film full of slow-motion bullet impacts, sort of seen 'em all--which may be why Tarantino movies sort of put me to sleep. (That probably says something really bad about me.)

Re: reading the movie reviews: they are my faves, of course.