Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus didn’t bowl me over when I saw it for the first time in a theater (with the old man, actually, as part of a western series), but I had a feeling I would like it more now, and I did. I think one of the reasons is that the series started in the ’30s, when good guys were good and bad guys were bad, and Wild Bunch‘s anti-heroes rubbed me a bit the wrong way. Whatever the reason…
William Holden plays the hard-bitten leader of an outlaw gang, to whom we’re introduced as they’re robbing a bank during a parade, while the murderous law enforcement mercenaries (probably railroad men) are ready to unleash hell outside, regardless of the innocent casualties. (L.Q. Jones has a nice, over-the-top scene as an outlaw who probably serves best by getting himself shot early on.)
We’re then treated to one of the gang being killed by (I think) Holden because he’s injured, and then left to be eaten on the rocks, because hey, we’re outlaws, no niceties for us, no sir.
The gang gets a hot job lead, for that One Last Job, stealing arms from the U.S. to sell to Mexican rebels, or maybe the Federales or, hell, I don’t know. In the morality play of this movie, the bad guys are the big governments, and the closest thing you get to good guys are the humble peasants being pushed around. Our heroes are good guys only in that they recognize that the poor are getting the short end of the stick regardless of who gets the guns.
Great performances from Holden (of course), Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Strother Martin, amongst others. Robert Ryan (Flying Leathernecks, Bad Day At Black Rock) apparently pitched a fit ’cause he didn’t get top billing, and they returned the favor by—rather than placing his name next to his face—placing his name next to a horse’s ass.
There are some insanely intense moments, made all the more insane by the director’s well known willingness to pay those scenes off in a violent and bloody fashion. There’s also just straight-up solid western action tropes, like horses bounding out of a train car in hot pursuit, a bridge being blown up, and so on.
Still disturbing is an opening scene where young peasant children cheer on a bunch of ants taking down a pair of much larger beetles. A metaphor, presumably, but I’m not sure for what.
It has a kind of epic feel, even though it’s actually pretty intimate overall, and it doesn’t waste any of its 2:15 runtime. The kids really liked it, too.