The Wild West Just Got Wilder
- The Wild Bunch review by Count Otto Black
This movie really was a game-changer. No previous western had been so unflinchingly gory, apart from "Django" and its even more outrageous quasi-sequel "Django Kill!", both of which were banned throughout the English-speaking world, and in most other places too. But this film has none of the bizarre stylistic flourishes and impossible gunplay that divorce spaghetti westerns from reality. In a tale based very loosely on the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose gang really was called the Wild Bunch, middle-aged outlaws living in the last days when the west was truly wild have to accept the fact that they're obsolete. Unfortunately, the final bank job that was meant to provide for their retirement doesn't go entirely according to plan, and we're very soon treated to our first sight of technology that truly shocked audiences in 1969 - the squib and blood-bag that allow bullet-wounds to spurt copious amounts of gore. In the course of the movie we shall see a great deal of this, often in slow motion.
If that's all there was to "The Wild Bunch", those critics who at the time dismissed it as cowboy torture porn would have been right. But that's not really the point of it at all. The violence has to be realistically ugly to remind us that killing other people isn't glamorous or fun, and is very seldom heroic; right from the start, innocent bystanders tend to get fatally caught up in shoot-outs. The "heroes" are selfish, ruthless villains who are all to some degree evil, or at least willing to do evil things. And some are more willing than others. Yet they have a strange kind of decency, and there are lines they won't cross. In particular, their sometimes fragile but in the end absolute loyalty to each other is, as William Holden at one point states explicitly, what separates them from animals.
It's also what separates them from their less honorable counterparts, the barely human bounty hunters who pursue them throughout the film. This ugly mob are the movie's biggest flaw; comical grotesques like these belong in a far less serious and realistic western. But otherwise, the acting is almost universally excellent, as is the characterization. Even the repulsive megalomaniac "General" Mapache is given a scene where we see him at his best, and understand why hundreds of men are willing to fight and perhaps die for this alcoholic buffoon. What matters is that the film passes the acid test of good fiction about bad people; you don't like them, but you care what happens to them. That's not an easy thing for either a writer or an actor to achieve. Neither is making Django look like a wimp, but the apocalyptic final showdown manages that too. It's ultra-violent and extremely macho, so it isn't for everybody, but it's one of the most important westerns ever made, and in any genre a truly great film.
2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.
A classic, violent Western on the Mexican frontier
- The Wild Bunch review by PJ
This is a classic in the Western genre, with a twist. For a start, most of the action takes place along the US/ Mexico border or in Mexico itself. A group of ageing outlaws are trying to achieve one last 'score' before retiring, and find that there are more options on Mexican soil than in Texas: the story takes place against the backdrop of the Mexican civil war (involving Pancho Villa).
The film was a sensation, when it came out, because of the level of graphic violence and the pile-up of dead bodies -- something we are used to today. The lead characters are actually depicted in some detail, so that they are not cardboard caricatures, with good acting, sharp dialogues and humour. The story is dark and the characters are cynical: there is no idealism here and the old West is dead...
What you will remember, ultimately, are the shoot-outs and action scenes, which are amazing, more particularly the attack on the military train, along the US/ Mexico border, which is remarkably well shot. The last piece of mayhem, at the end of the movie, is distinctly over the top and requires a certain suspension of disbelief, however.
2 out of 2 members found this review helpful.