I’m so close now. I’m so, so close.
Sadly, out of the eleven westerns I’ve watched thus far, The Wild Bunch was definitely not one of my favorites.
An old group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are forced into working with an evil Mexican general while running from a group of mostly incompetent bounty hunters.
1. Once again, this movie has something of a likable characters problem for me. I just didn’t care about anybody. Well, almost anybody — I’ve always had a thing for loyal, right-hand-man types, so I did grow to like Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) well enough.
But everyone else — I don’t know. It took me forever to warm up even a little to our fearless leader, Pike.
Cause, you know. He’s kind of an ass. And that’s fitting enough — he is an outlaw — but it also means that when he’s struggling to get on his horse twenty minutes into the movie, I’m like, Am I supposed to feel sorry for you, old man? Cause that’s not the emotion that’s springing to mind. PLEASE say I don’t have to watch you vying for control of your own gang for the next two hours.
Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but we were probably at least forty-five minutes into the film before I found Pike even mildly interesting. Which is more than I can say for the Gorch brothers, I suppose.
I suspect they were supposed to be funny, but mostly I just found them incredibly annoying. It’s never a good sign when you’re irritated by the comic reliefs. And as for our last member of the gang, Angel (Jaime Sánchez) —
Well, he was okay, I guess. Which isn’t to suggest that I liked him, exactly, but he helped move the plot along, and I guess I was grateful enough for that. I couldn’t say I found him particularly sympathetic, either, though. Not that I have to sympathize with all the characters in a film, but it does help sometimes, and I get the feeling I was supposed to achieve a level of empathy for Angel — and maybe even all the guys — that I never really did.
As for characters outside the gang . . .
Well, Thornton actually starts out okay, but I quickly grew tired of listening to him bitch out his terrible cohorts.
Admittedly, Thornton has some cause to be irritated. See, he’s stuck with those incompetent bounty hunters I mentioned in the plot summary, and they are every bit as obnoxious as they are totally worthless. So I get his frustration — I, too, hated every moment I was forced to spend with these inept jackasses. But throughout the film, Thornton has almost nothing else to do but complain about these guys, and it gets tedious pretty fast. Thornton has serious history with the Wild Bunch, and he ought to be a major player in this story. Instead, he feels almost weirdly irrelevant, and I found that incredibly frustrating.
2. On a positive note, there are some pretty decent shootouts in this movie. The opening scene is quite good, I think, and the last, say, fifteen minutes or so are pretty awesome. Apparently, the violence in this film was somewhat controversial at the time it was released. I can’t say it bothered me very much (shocking, I know), but I can see how a few scenes could be described as brutal. Said scenes seem fairly appropriate to the story, though, so it’s not something I would ever suggest to change.
3. What would I change? Oh, characterization, I suppose. Which I know I already hit on and can’t really expand upon in full until the Spoiler Section, but . . . there are these glimmers of ideas in The Wild Bunch that I really like, glimpses of relationships and themes that I find interesting, but I just don’t feel like they’re fully developed. If there were a few more scenes focusing on the dynamics between certain characters, I think the whole story would be stronger for it.
Here’s one small example where I think characterization particularly fails: all the constant laughter.
You see, the Wild Bunch is supposedly one jokey group of motherfuckers. They crack themselves up at least four different times over the stupidest shit, which should be totally fine — it’s absolutely the kind of thing real friends and/or co-workers do. The problem here is that these moments rarely, if ever, feel spontaneous to me. Only one time did I buy the guys laughing at each other — every other time, it felt completely artificial. It’s just like this one scene where Hermoine starts laughing in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I thought, Jeez, Harry, I wonder if you’ll think about this moment when things are dark, and you need to remember who and what you’re fighting for. Guess which shot they used in flashback later during Harry’s big struggle with Voldemort? Exactly.
These guys aren’t exactly the kind of men that exchange friendship bracelets, I get that, but I think this movie wanted me to at least buy into the very special kind of camaraderie that comes from being on the run and killing people together, and unfortunately, I think it fails at that quite a bit.
4. I might also get rid of the scene where a bazillion ants devour a scorpion, but not for any real reason. Just cause it made me twitch.
5. Hey, here’s something important: why don’t half of these guys wear their chin strap, you know, under the chin?
I mean, this is just maddening. How can that be comfortable? It certainly looks uncomfortable and, also, quite ridiculous. I love all manner of hats and the various ways you can wear them, but I do not approve of the ‘Chin Strap Just Under Your Lower Lip’ look. It’s just wrong.
5. Also, I know this guy!
This guy is Alfonso Arau, and he’s from Romancing the Stone. He’s not hugely important in this movie, but I had to bring it up because, you know, Romancing the Stone. (“This guy who’s following you, he’s very persistent!” God, I love that movie.)
6. I wouldn’t say The Wild Bunch has a bad score, but I can’t say it did much for me one way or the other. Maybe halfway through the film, I took notice of a song playing in the background, right, and I distinctly remember thinking, Eh. This is okay, but it’s certainly not making the shortlist for Best Movie Score of the year or anything.
Of course, it’s only after the movie’s over that I discover this score garnered an Academy Award nomination.
7. Before we move on to the Spoiler Section of this review, let me just tell you this one last thing: I’m not the only person who didn’t love this movie. Oh yeah. Sure, The Wild Bunch might be #6 on AFI’s list of Best Westerns — and curse you, AFI, and your continued defiance of what I know to be accurate and true — but you know who I have on my side? The Duke himself. Yeah, except he apparently didn’t like this movie because it destroyed the myth of the Old West, or something.
Oh, John Wayne, you miserable whiner. Get off my side and stop hating on westerns you don’t personally star in. Besides, I think we can all agree that Blazing Saddles was the movie that destroyed the myth of the Old West, right?
Let’s move on.
So we start our story with the Wild Bunch and a massively botched heist.
See, the whole thing’s a setup — not only has Thornton replaced the supposed loot with some useless junk, he’s also set up an ambush at the railroad office. Unfortunately there’s a temperance parade in town that day, and since neither Thorton’s boss nor his goons bothered to warn anybody, the parade gets caught in the middle, and a shit ton of innocent people die in the very literal crossfire.
Pike escapes with a few of his men: Dutch, Angel, and the Gorch brothers. (I’m sure the Gorch brothers have actual first names, but I never bothered to learn them or even attempt to distinguish the two characters from one another. I do know that Joss Whedon named two cowboy vampires after them in an episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, though.) Most of the crew doesn’t survive, though, including Crazy Lee.
Crazy Lee’s death can probably be blamed on both Pike and Crazy Lee himself. See, Pike tells Crazy Lee to stay behind in the railroad office with the hostages until the shooting starts, and considering Pike’s notoriously bad history with leaving people behind — we’ll get to that in a sec — I think we’re supposed to hold Pike responsible for Crazy Lee’s death. (Or, possibly, give him a gift basket. I’m saying, Crazy Lee’s not exactly a winner. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he died early on — both Mekaela and I got strange Richie Gecko vibes from him.)
Then again, Crazy Lee never really appears to try and leave the station. He’s still there long after the shooting is over, presumably because he’s having too much fun tormenting the hostages to bother escaping. So I’m kind of inclined to say that his death is really on his own head and be done with it — although it’s fair to say, too, that Pike certainly uses him to make his own getaway and clearly never has any intention of going back or helping the sadistic bastard.
This is really only relevant because Crazy Lee happens to be Freddie Sykes’s grandson.
Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) is this crazy old coot that runs with the Wild Bunch and meets up with them after their spectacularly failed job. Pike didn’t know that Crazy Lee was related to Sykes at all and probably would have picked someone else to be a dead man walking if he’d known.
But Crazy Lee isn’t Pike’s only heavy burden of conscience to bear. Thornton, too, used to be one of the Wild Bunch gang, but things didn’t turn out well for him. He tried to convince Pike they needed to keep a lower profile. Pike was all like, “You worry too much, man! Here, have a hooker!” And then the law promptly busted in, capturing Thornton while Pike escaped.
It turns out that Thornton has only been released from prison to try and capture Pike and his men for the railroad. And like I said before, I did initially feel a little bad for Thornton, mostly because I didn’t like Pike and wanted to root for somebody, but also because the guys he’s being forced to work with are such a bunch of useless asshats that it’s hard not to feel a little bad for the guy. But that kind of sympathy only works for so long, and after the Great Temperance Parade Massacre, Thornton has virtually nothing to do for the whole movie but repeatedly bitch at his moronic lackeys for being moronic lackeys. Sure, he’s chasing Pike down the whole time, but really, he’s doing such a terrible job at it that it’s hard to ever take him even remotely seriously as a threat. And I don’t mind, exactly, that he totally fails to catch up to Pike and his men at the end, that everyone in the gang dies before he can even cross the finish line, but I do feel like he should affect the plot in some meaningful way during the second act.
What I really want, I think, is a scene or two between Pike and Thornton in the middle of the movie. And not just a flashback scene, either, or a generic action scene where their men are shooting at one another — I want a scene where they’re actually talking to one another. Mind you, there could be action involved. Maybe they’re yelling at each other in the middle of a gunfight, or maybe they’ve somehow ended up in a room together and are having a tense discussion before Pike’s men, inevitably, get him out of there. But I think a scene or two between these two characters would be beneficial on multiple levels: it would flesh out their relationship, it would give Thornton something to do, it would strengthen the second act of the film, and it would give the ending even that much more punch.
Cause, you know, betrayal is such a big theme in this movie — Pike talks big about sticking together, but his actions through most of the story don’t back up those claims. He abandons Thornton and Crazy Lee, and he also ends up leaving Freddie Sykes behind to die. (Although Sykes, actually, is the only one in the gang who makes it out alive.) So while I like the reversal at the end of the film with Pike deciding to go back for Angel, I can’t help but feel like this moment would play even better if we had a moment earlier where Pike was forced to confront one of the many people that he’s betrayed.
But enough of all that. Let’s talk a little about Angel, shall we?
Turns out, this evil Mexican general Mapache has been ransacking various villages all over for supplies, and in the course of doing so, he’s murdered Angel’s father and taken Angel’s woman. Well, kind of — Angel’s girlfriend actually seems pretty pleased with where she is, so I assume she ran off with him of her own volition, and yeah, that doesn’t speak too highly of her character. Getting shot in the chest, though, does seem like a steep price to pay for infidelity.
Yeah. Everyone’s eating their lunch, and Angel just ups and shoots his ex while she’s sitting in Mapache’s lap. Mapache and his guards don’t take kindly to this, as you might imagine. Thankfully, Pike is around to defuse the situation:
Mapache’s Men: “Dude, why did you try and kill our boss? Now we have to kill you.”
Pike: “Oh, no, no, no. Angel didn’t want to kill the General. No, he just wanted to kill the insignificant woman. You know, she was an ex-girlfriend of his, and he was in kind of a bad place. It’s no big deal, right?”
Mapache: “Oh, ha ha ha! Killing a woman is such fun! Let’s go back to celebrating!”
Well. That’s just charming.
The gang ends up stealing a bunch of American military weapons for Mapache. Angel is understandably conflicted about that, but he gets past it by stealing a single crate for his people to use in revolt. Everyone in the gang knows about it — hell, it was Dutch’s idea — so when it’s time to deliver the guns, a few crates at a time, Angel stays behind at their hideout and doesn’t go anywhere near Mapache.
Or wait, no. That’s what would have happened if anyone in this movie had any godamned sense.
Instead, Pike decides that Dutch and Angel will deliver the last shipment of guns for no damn reason at all, and it’s such an immensely stupid plan that I just . . . I don’t even have words, for how dumb this is. Even if Mapache hadn’t found out Angel was stealing guns, the guy still murdered Angel’s father, and Angel still murdered Mapache’s — well, if not love, exactly, then at least his flavor of the week. I am shocked that this didn’t turn out well.
Anyway, Dutch and Angel deliver the guns. Mapache reveals that he knows about the stolen shipment. (I believe it was the dead girlfriend’s mom who told him, so ha-ha, Angel. That’s what you get, you little shit.) Angel tries to run, is quickly caught, and Dutch leaves him behind, as well he should. I told you earlier, my sympathy for Angel is extremely limited. I think maybe I’m supposed to feel sorry for him, and I might have, too — his revolutionary cause is kind of noble, and having to work with your dad’s murderer, yeah, that’s gotta suck — but the fact that he just killed his cheating girlfriend and apparently never had a second thought about it makes me less inclined to weep over the guy.
Besides, I just can’t get past this: how DUMB do you have to be to steal a murderer’s weapons and then just waltz back into his compound when you don’t have to? You are all idiots, Wild Bunch. ALL of you.
Pike tries to buy Angel back, but Mapache — having fun dragging Angel from the back of his car — isn’t very interested in selling. So our Wild Bunch tries sleeping with a few prostitutes to get their mind off things, but eventually Pike decides that fuck it, they’re going back for Angel, no matter what. The gang’s eager to do so, and I actually really like the scene where they near-silently decide what they’re going to do, realize what it’s likely to cost to them, and go ahead and do it anyway.
I also like The Walk.
Cause, you know. Birth of an iconic moment and all.
The whole scene’s really good, actually. Pike demands Angel’s release. Mapache’s like, “Okay, sure” and then just slits Angel’s throat. The guys shoot the shit out of Mapache, and at first, Mapache’s men do nothing, apparently too shocked to even react. Then Pike kills another guy (this German advisor dude) and it’s ON.
The whole thing’s pretty brutal. Tons of people die, including basically everyone we know. The best moment is when Pike goes down, and Dutch tries to reach him, calling his name over and over until he’s shot to shit himself. It’s sad, but it’s also pretty great stuff.
(Less great: the moment at the very end, where we fucking flashback to everyone in the gang laughing. See, what did I tell you? It’s Hermoine all over again. Oh, those artificial good times.)
Finally, finally, Thornton shows up. His goons gather up the bodies of the Wild Bunch and head back home, but Thornton refuses to go with them, saying he’s done all he promised to do. The guys depart, only to get picked off by Sykes and these dudes he’s ended up with. Thornton’s like, yeah, that’s basically what I thought would happen. Sykes offers him a spot on the old gang again. Thornton takes it, and they ride off into the sunset, as men in westerns will do.
Pike: “I’d like to make one good score and back off . . . ”
Dutch: “Back off to what?”
Pike: “What would you do in his place? He gave his word.”
Dutch: “He gave his word to the railroad.”
Pike: “It’s his word.”
Dutch: “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to.”
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: “Would you give guns to someone who killed your father or your mother or your brother?”
Pike: “Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties.”
Paymaster: “I don’t care what you meant to do. It’s what you did that I don’t like.”
I do like moments in here. The first ten minutes and last ten minutes are especially strong, but I feel like the second act is kind of weak, and that Thornton is underused to the detriment of both his character and the story in general.
Passionate young men killing unfaithful young women? HA! That’s HILARIOUS!
Also, perhaps if our plan includes sending in a hot-tempered orphan thief into the lair of the evil general who murdered his father . . . maybe we should rethink the plan.