"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969)

I wouldn't have it any other way
We can’t do justice to this great movie in a short blogpost. It would need a whole book. And indeed books have been written on it. For example:



The Wild Bunch is a 1969 Western which told the tale of the end of the West and which managed to say something new. Amazing.

There are such towering performances by William Holden (Pike Bishop) and Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton) that, as they didn’t win Oscars, you wonder what Oscars are for. Many actors were considered for the part of Bishop: Marvin (maybe), Lancaster (no), even Stewart. Heston (uh-uh), Peck (yes, I can see that), Hayden (yes), Boone (in a way but no, not really) and Mitchum (yes, if he was firing on all cylinders. He chose to do 5 Card Stud instead. Amazing, what a waste). Richard Harris and Brian Keith were considered instead of Ryan for Thornton - thank you, Fate, that THAT didn’t happen; they would have ruined the picture. Holden and Ryan were just right. These were possibly the finest performances of their very distinguished careers.

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know in what high regard I hold Holden as a Western actor. The Man from Colorado, Streets of Laredo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, Alvarez Kelly, Wild Rovers, there wasn't a bad performance among them.

Ryan too was outstanding. The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Professionals, Hour of the Gun, grief, he could even elevate a junker like Lawman. These were two magnificent Western actors and The Wild Bunch was them at their very best.

Then you have Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom) and Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch). Borgnine never quite did it for me. He did 32 Westerns but unless you count Bad Day at Black Rock (in which he was superb) as a Western he never really quite cut it. He looked the hard man alright but for some reason never really convinced. An Easterner of Italian extraction, he was OK as a heavy in crime pictures. Maybe the Delmer Daves Badlanders which he did with Alan Ladd was his best, Ladd’s weakness favoring his strength. But mediocre or not as a cowboy, in The Wild Bunch he too is superb (they all were actually). He is the very epitome of the grizzled old gunman at the end of his career. And as for the mighty Ben Johnson, well, again we’d need a book.

I have often had cause to refer to Ben in these e-pages and his long career, from bit-part actor and stunt double in early 40s oaters through those great Ford cavalry Westerns. Superb in Shane, he rescued Brando’s turgid One-Eyed Jacks (out-acting Brando by miles) and he was towering in Cheyenne Autumn, Major Dundee, Will Penny and Junior Bonner. 74 Westerns in all. Whether the picture was good, bad or indifferent, Ben Johnson raised it. He was the archetypal Westerner, utterly convincing and a very fine actor. We definitely need a separate post on him (but then we do on so many actors. Cur tempus sic fugit?)

So anyway that’s enough on the four principals. You get the idea. They are good.

As for the lesser parts, the acting is outstanding: just follow Strother Martin (Coffer) and LQ Jones (T.C.) through the movie. For me, after Holden and Ryan, the laurels go to Edmond O’Brien (Sykes) and the larger-than-life Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache). But you can’t forget the performances of Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch, Ben Johnson’s brother). So many of these players were in 1969, appropriately, old Western troupers towards the end of their careers. But there isn’t a bad actor here.

What many people think of first when talking about The Wild Bunch is the blood. Even now, after all these years and all these viewings, the stunts and the almost cartoon violence shock. At the time it was jaw-dropping. I will never forget the moment in the movie theater (I was 21) when I first saw what Mapache did to Angel. But the violence is balletic, terrible, beautiful, abstract. Technically stunning with brilliant editing (Lou Lombardo), the (then) unprecedented blood and death scenes still have a power to awe.

The Oscar-nominated Jerry Fielding music is dark and brooding, atonal clarinets over the gushing blood. Weird but wonderful. The photography by Lucien Ballard (left) is very fine.

The climactic gun battle took 12 days to film, used 90,000 blank rounds and 10,000 squibs and the movie cost $6m, a huge sum then. The IMDb trivia page is 2,481 words long and most of it isn’t trivial at all. Check it out.

The Walon Green/Roy Sickner/Sam Peckinpah screenplay is masterly. The direction by Peckinpah is of course great, inspired: original and powerful.  This was his finest hour.

The film is elegiac, moving, stirring, exciting and beautiful by turns.

Actually, come to think about it, there’s nothing wrong with this movie. “I wouldn’t have it any other way”.



  1. Mel Gibson plans to remake this film for Warner Brothers. It better have the violence right. I hope to hell that it is not PG-13

    1. Yes, I heard that too. I'm afraid I'm rather dubious. Gibson has produced some dreadful tripe.