The Wild Bunch

Year 1969

William Holden as  Bishop Pike
Ernest Borgnine as Dutch
Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton
Edmond O'Brien  as Sykes
Ben Johnson as Tector Gorch
Warren Oates as Lyle Gorch
Jaime Sanchez as Angel
Emilio Fernández  as General Mapache  
Strother Martin as Coffer
L.Q. Jones as T.C.
Bo Hopkins as Crazy Lee
Dub Taylor as Wainscoat
Director - Sam Peckinpaw
Screenwriter - Sam Peckinpaw  


This bloody western is essentially an allegory for outliving your usefulness.  A gang of aging bank robbers finds that the world of the 1890s has left them in the dust.  Once they were hell on horseback and now they're running for their lives with the ubiquitous "railroad" out to get them.

Above all else, this movie champions a primeval need for fraternity.  Everybody needs to belong to something and in this movie that something takes on a life and responsibility of its own.  The men of the wild bunch don't necessarily like each other, but they respect each other and, more importantly, they trust each other with their lives and souls.  The problem is that this bunch is flawed.  Even with these archetype macho men, the two main characters Bishop Pike and Deke Thornton are wracked with guilt over past decisions.  That they are burdened by guilt can be felt with every action they perform and every word that they utter.  Only when they need to fight for their lives, which happens often, does something else take them into the present.  It's not that they fear losing their lives; it's that they want to choose when to give them up.

The movie was once touted as the bloodiest ever up to that time.  And although I doubt the claim, I'm sure that the body count is in the hundreds.  What matters is thanks to Peckinpaw's direction each death is a separate event and each adds to the continually swelling well of guilt.

Through it all, the philosophy of Sam Peckinpaw comes through.  These are paraphrases from memory, so the quotes might not be exact.  It's the thought behind the words that's important.

Pike But we gave our word.
Dutch: It not your word that counts.  It's who you give it to.

Watching the cutthroats guilessly playing children's games.
Don Jose:
We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.

Pike: We're not gonna get rid of anybody! We're gonna stick together just like it used to be.  When you side with a man, you stay with him.  And if you can't do that, you're like some animal.  You're finished!  We're finished.  All of us!

Angel: Méjico lindo!
Lyle: I don't see nothin' 'lindo' about it.
Tector: Just looks like more Texas far as I'm concerned.
Angel: Ah, you have no eyes!

It's been said that William Holden's no nonsense character interpretation of Bishop Pike was based on director Sam Peckinpaw.

Then there are the "bit" players who all shine like major stars.  Even Dub Taylor, who has about two minutes at the start of the movie, is memorable as the temperance preacher.  And the Accountant for the Mexican Army under Mapache has a look and a delivery when he begs, "Please cut the fuse?" that I still think of and smile about.

In the end, all characters get what they want.  So, there's a feeling that even "the worst" can gain redemption.

And throughout it all there is symbolism.  From a background scene of ants versus a scorpion while children sadistically look on, to the departure from the Mexican village where they receive a heroes' farewell, the movie is packed with scenes that may not add to plot but pile up points for style.

According to some interviews, a lot of these style scenes came about through serendipity. They weren't planned, but when people around the movie did something interesting, Sam Peckinpaw found a way to include it in the film.

And you've got to watch the "Director's Cut".  Without it, it's a shell of a movie.  For example, the back story between Pike and Thornton isn't explained in the mainstream release.  As a viewer, you need to know their relationship.  I also think Mapache's stand against Zapata's forces at the train station can only be found on the long version.  It doesn't add much to the plot, but adds insight as to why Mapache is a leader that men follow.

The movie isn't perfect.  Some of the dialogue is stilted and some of the situations are forced.  But, the power of the movie makes these few instances forgivable. 

If you haven't seen it, you should.  It should be on every man's "must watch" list.  Watching it is one of the first things I do every year.  On New Years Eve, after most guests leave my house (everyone is welcome to stay rather than drive home), I make strong coffee (and spice it up with Amaretto, Grand Marnier, Kailua or Tia Maria, and whipped cream) and pop in the DVD.  Even after it's over the final song is so haunting it stays with me.  For me, this movie is good food for thought to begin every year.

I've got to add a bit here. I'm not sure that I conveyed the sense of completeness in the movie. I don't mean if the ending is satisfying or not, I mean the attention to detail that makes every scene special on its own yet is part of the fabric of the whole.

I've heard that this movie has more edits, more short pieces of film spliced together, than any movie before or since. Here's an example of why that's worthwhile.

A man is shot on a rooftop and he falls in slow motion to the dusty street below. There's a scene of him beginning to fall, then in real time the movie shows what is going on elsewhere. In the time it takes the man to fall six feet, there are scenes of someone being shot, two children hugging in the mayhem, an innocent bystander shot as he flees, other men from rooftops firing, and men in the street returning fire. Then, the edit shows the falling man as he's halfway between the roof and the street. All those little slices of action took place in the time it took for the man to fall six feet. Thanks to the edits, the audience didn't miss a thing.

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