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Peckinpah's Wild Bunch affects with brutal style

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine are The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Written by Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green; based on a story by Roy N. Sickner and Walon Green.

Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmund O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, and Emilio Fernandez.

Sony Harvard Square.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

The re-release of Sam Peckinpah's western epic, The Wild Bunch, 25 years after it was first shown in 1969, may be a puzzling sight. Aside from Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Hollywood seems to have fallen out of the tradition of making westerns that aren't either locked into the tragic hero motif (Wyatt Earp) or lightweight entertainment (Maverick). Looking at Peckinpah's film today, I gain an appreciation for the western as a viable cinematic canvas. The Wild Bunch was released in the same year as Oscar-winner Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but its dark shades of death, betrayal, and retribution make it a much more satisfying experience.

The film opens with four men wearing U.S. Army uniforms riding into a south Texas border town; the year is 1913. They spy a group of children by the side of the tracks and ride on as the giggling young tykes pour a pile of ravenous red ants onto a couple of scorpions. The men casually stroll into the town railway office, with guns in tow, and reveal themselves as thieves: The gravity of the situation is compounded when the leader of the bunch, Pike Bishop (William Holden) tells the others, "If they move, kill 'em." As we learn later, this is to be the his last big score, as hired guns working for the railroad wait outside for an imminent ambush of the robbers. While a local temperance union parades down the street, the massacre that occurs is both shocking and poetically beautiful: innocent and guilty parties alike are either shot or trampled to death in the street as the men escape to Mexico.

Hot in pursuit of the bunch is former member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), one of Pike's old buddies who's been sprung from jail by the railroad company especially for this seek-and-destroy mission. Thornton leads a ragtag group of scumbag bounty hunters as he follows Pike's trail. You can tell by looking in both men's eyes that they know their time is short, and that their days of fast living and kicking ass in the wild frontier are almost up - partly because the frontier is disappearing. You wouldn't know it by the desert locales and the simple Mexican villages that the men ride through, but they all sense that their freewheeling way of life is in danger. Pike and his companions - reliable Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), the notorious Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates), and the idealistic Angel (Jaime Sanchez) - are all wary about the future.

Their trip down to Mexico doesn't supply them with much comfort. Out of a need for cash, they hire their services out to Generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a warlord out to crush Pancho Villa's rebel forces. In between the robbing and the gunrunning, the men drink and flaunt their promiscuity; yet, there is an uneasiness to the agreement they make with Mapache. Worst of all, when rebel-supporting Angel finds out his former love has become one of Mapache's personal whores, his conscience nearly collapses when framed against the motives of the other members of the bunch.

By the end of the film, the men must put their collective code of honor to the test when they come to aid of Angel, who finds himself in the malevolent hands of Mapache. In one of the most celebrated displays of violence in cinematic history, the men are forced into a standoff against Mexican soldiers within the enemy fortress. The men are face-to-face with death; yet, instead of succumbing to the enemy with the blithe, smart-ass ignorance of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they go down fighting. Bullets rip through bodies with frightening intensity, but the men keep on shooting and fight through their pain. The camera angle changes back and forth at different speeds: Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard create a beautifully choreographed dance of death.

But I care about every one of the characters beyond their moral flaws and vices. Holden, as Pike, brings his bold and weary charisma to the part (reportedly modeled after the infamous director) - perhaps his most common line is "Let's go," a signal for the rest of his gang to move on. Emilio Fernandez is an evil foil for the gang whose actions are manifest through his drunken, childish fits of sadism. Some people may object to Peckinpah's grotesque characterizations - Mexican military officers smiling with depraved glee, or women betraying their lovers/customers after sex. In fact, the men can't trust anyone, which is why Pike warns his gang to stick together and not turn on each other like a pack of wild animals. It's the savagery of the outside world that will destroy the bunch first.

The indelible images from the violent confrontations in the film nicely bookend the enjoyable action sequences in between. Some viewers may be bored if they aren't exhilarated in the same way that the thematically incoherent Natural Born Killers impresses its audience. Instead, The Wild Bunch is a bold, poignant, and stunning tribute to the time-honored western tradition that doesn't desecrate its source material.