Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Robert Ryan, Jaime Sánchez, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Emilio Fernández
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Mood: If you’re mad at your significant other but don’t want to have to explain why so you want to put on a movie that effectively communicates a hostile yet thoroughly disappointing vibe.
I have a wildly unpopular opinion about The Wild Bunch: This Western is not worth the hype.
Insert shocked-face emoji. I know, right? How dare she say that!
It was nominated for the best screenplay and best original score Oscars when it was released. It’s #80 in the American Film Institute’s best 100 American films in 100 years, and earned #6 on their top 10 Westerns of all time. It’s also gathered awards or noms for directing, cinematography, and score, and in 1999 the Library of Congress added it to the United States National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”.
But none of that matters to me. What matters is whether or not it was ENTERTAINING, and I was not entertained.
In 2002, Roger Ebert compared The Wild Bunch to Pulp Fiction, saying that it was “praised and condemned with equal vehemence.” Um, okay. I don’t buy into the reasons on either side of that argument.
Most of the people who hated on this movie were against the brutal, unrelenting violence. I thought that part was great! You have endless shootouts using every kind of gun, horseback chases, a train heist (who doesn’t love a good train heist?!), and so much delicious Western action.
Yes, civilians get killed in the movie, but literally all of the characters on all sides are bad guys. From the get-go, you don’t have any feelings of concern or compassion. You don’t form attachments to anyone, so your heart is in ‘meh’ mode as it digests all the violence. It’s just stuff on the screen.
Plenty of Westerns have made me look away from their graphic violence, but not this one.
Director Sam Peckinpah said the point was an allegory of the Vietnam War while also counteracting the saccharine Westerns of the ‘50s, with brutal violence so real that it made you feel sick instead of excited.
Again, if you cared even slightly about the characters that might have worked. But all I did was appreciate how well they shot hundreds of deaths, and then go to bed unfazed.
TIME magazine commented that the flashback sequences were clumsy, which is true. They’re kind of jarring from the style of the rest of the movie. They do this echo effect that repeats an important comment from the character’s past over and over, which feels cheesy.
On the other side of the argument, The Wild Bunch was – and still is – praised for its strong themes:
- The end of an era: It does show a group of outlaws failing repeatedly to go on their last hurrah before retirement, but Unforgiven dances circles around it on that theme, and even Buffalo Girls (the book) does a better job of making you give a shit about the Wild West being phased out
- Betrayal: It definitely depicts that through multiple story arcs, but this isn’t the first or best film that shows a man being hunted by a former partner, or letting down someone in his posse
Does it really deserve to be hailed as “beautiful”, “poetic”, one of the best movies ever made, and full of “performance of his career” moments? That’s a hard NOPE from me.
The problem for me is that none of the characters are likeable. I get it, it’s a Revisionist Western and that’s the point – turning the genre on its head. And you can totally make a great movie about the miserable descent of despicable people. But to do so AND run at two and a half hours, you really need to deliver on story.
I felt the plot was so completely meandering, inflated, and self-indulgent that it dragged down the film’s shining points. Period. End of story (and it didn’t take me a whole evening to get there).
I don’t actually hate The Wild Bunch, I just don’t like it – but there were parts of it that were great.
The cinematography in this movie absolutely f*cking brilliant. They used this fascinating technique that interlaces slow-motion sequences with real-time action, so you’re watching two things happen at once but darting back and forth between them. I was captivated.
The only thing that even slightly detracted at all from the action was the obviously fake blood. I don’t know how people could freak out about the effects of movie violence when in several scenes, you can actually see orange stains and paint separating on the ‘wounds’ where the attempts to mix orange and red didn’t blend. The effect is more like iodine than gore.
The other upside to The Wild Bunch is the acting from a handful of the stars.
- William Holden stands out by far as the strongest performance, and one of the only ones who comes close to making you feel for him
- Ben Johnson is outstanding; as much as I’ve enjoyed him in Western comedies, seeing him mow down an entire crowd with a machine gun after a few crude lows (prolonged honking of boobies in a hot tub?) was really something
- Ernest Borgnine is kind of funny and over-the-top, making him a welcome change of pace in most scenes
Edmond O’Brien delivers one of the most memorable characters as the crustiest of the old men
But seriously, Ben Johnson and that machine gun. Watch the clip of the showdown, which is the best part of the whole movie.
Because I love bullet lists AND trivia, here are some final tidbits that are more entertaining than this entire movie:
- The prostitutes in one of the scenes were actually local sex workers from the Mexican village where the movie was shot; according to an interview with Ben Johnson, Peckinpah hired them because he wanted to be able to say Warner Bros. paid for prostitutes
- Peckinpah also insisted on each of the firearms having a different sound effect, which was a first in Warner Bros. movie history
- The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series had two vampires named Lyle and Tector Gorch, after two of the outlaws
- Six cameras shot the final, bloody showdown, and it took an entire month to film (and was worth it!)
- In the opening credits, after showing closeups of Holden and Borgnine in character with their names on screen, it then shows Robert Ryan’s name alongside a bunch of horses’ butts – this is apparently because he complained too much about not getting top billing, so Peckinpah placed his name over an ass
- ‘The Wild Bunch’ was what the press once dubbed The Hole in the Wall gang, the real outlaws led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; that movie changed its name from the screenplay because The Wild Bunch had come out a few years earlier – but both end in a blaze of glory
- More blank rounds were apparently fired off during shooting than actual live rounds fired during the Mexican Revolution of 1916 (which this movie references)
That’s all I have to say about The Wild Bunch. It’s not my mug of beer. Also, I think I need a serious break from Revisionist Westerns…