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USA 1969
Directed by
Sam Peckinpah
144 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Wild Bunch, The (Director's Cut)

Sam Peckinpah's best-known film, one rightly recognized as his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch defined a visual style which has been both imitated and parodied innumerable times since, something which, ironically, leaves it feeling slightly dated

Set in the early 20th century as cars and planes were making their advent in the West, William Holden plays Pike Bishop, a career criminal who leads a gang of moth-eaten outlaws (played by Ernest Borgnine. Warren Oates. Ben Johnson and screen veteran Edmond O'Brien in a stand-out performance as Sykes, an ol'-timer) looking to pull one last job in order to set themselves up for retirement. Meanwhile in exchange for release from jail Pike's former partner in crime, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) leads a rag-tag band of hyena-like bounty hunters (Strother Martin and L.O Jones excel) in pursuit of them. The plot is straightforward and opens and closes on two kinetic gun battles (the second remains iconic) and is imbued with a sense of romantically elegaic regret for the fiercely independent outlaw way of life.  

There are two principal aspects of interest. One is Peckinpah's regular thematic preoccupation with the self-sustaining code of honour that characterizes the outsider hero (a common figure in American film especially the Western) and which is contrasted to the anonymous conformity of conventional society. Whilst providing the emotional core of the film, this tends to be laboured, particularly with respect to establishing the camaraderie amongst the outlaws, with over-extended scenes of the doomed gang laughing heartily together as they down whiskey and reminisce over the whores they've shared (a camaraderie which, as the scene where Thornton takes the dead Pike's pistol from its holster unequivocally indicates, was in fact displaced eroticism).

The other is his depiction of violence. Facing criticism that he was indulging an appetite for violence with his extended set-pieces, Peckinpah claimed to be showing violence as it was. This is not really a defensible argument. True, the film did show innocent people getting killed indiscriminately (the film was released at the height of the Vietnam War) and there is one shocking scene in which Pike executes a badly wounded gang member but essentially there is nothing particularly realistic in the depiction of violence.  On the contrary the ease with which the gang kill and are killed is well within the tradition of gun-happy bang-you're-dead Hollywood depictions but is endowed with a hyperbolic style which remains a bench-mark for action movies today. As a genre film The Wild Bunch is a classic.

FYI: The original version was shortened by its studio Warner Brothers and the film appears in various versions at 135 and 121 mins. This is understandable as it tends to the reiterative in places, though if you are going to essay it the restored "Director's Cut version at 144 mins is the only one to watch.




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