Friday, February 5, 2016

At the Movies: The Wild Bunch

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Wild Bunch
Sam Peckinpah, 1969.

imbd: 8.0
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Fresh

Mrs.5000 and Patrick and myself met at the Hollywood Theater on Monday to watch The Seven Samurai on the big screen. Alas, it was sold out -- and isn't it cool that The Seven Samurai can sell out a movie theater in 2016?   We ended up having to settle for pizza and, you know, conversation.

So instead of revisiting my old review of The Seven Samurai today, I'll revisit my old review of The Wild Bunch, which we watched on the Hollywood's big screen more successfully a few months back with Jennifer, this blog's Shakespearean scholar in residence.

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 "Great Movies" 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 -- and let's face it, you probably do, you've watched your share of killings in filmed entertainment just like the rest of us -- The Wild Bunch is a very 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.  We visit a Mexican village which has perhaps a hint of a late-sixties commune about it, but is also the only inhabited place in the movie that is not awash in violence and corruption.  The village headman is probably the only character you would really want to meet for coffee.

A creepy motif that runs through the film is the violence of children. The film opens with an image of a happy bunch of lovable ragamuffins torturing bugs, and throughout the movie kids are often shown participating in violence, sometimes in the background and sometimes in the foreground, and most memorably chasing along merrily behind a car that is torturing a man to death by dragging him slowly around the town.  This is not, I might mention, a particularly optimistic movie.

Much is made of this movie being about men who have trouble adjusting to changing times, and how it reflects director Sam Peckinpah's own trouble adjusting to his own changing times.  Well, maybe.  I frankly don't feel like the film supports this interpretation very well.  Its occasional references to the march of technology or the possibility of war in Europe (the latter somewhat psychic, as the movie is set a full year before the events that precipitated World War I) do not really seem much like much more than bits of period window-dressing, in my own viewing of the film.

Plot: A wild bunch of thieves want to steal some weapons and sell them to a wild bunch of Mexican soldiers. Meanwhile, a wild bunch of mercenaries in the employ of a railroad company 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 sometimes 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 with trees and landscaping that 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.

When we watched it at the Hollywood, we got to see the 70mm print, which might have been visually dazzling had it not been kind of a beat-up and I think slightly discolored 70mm print, which pretty much left us back where we started.  But, it was fun to see with lots of other people on a big screen.

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.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 7.

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