“We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”
The Wild Bunch is about turning back the clock. It’s about regret; about approaching your twilight years but having nothing to show for it. It’s about those who recognise that the earliest you can start to make a change is right now… and those who’d never change, even if they had a second chance. It’s about action and blowing people away.
In The Wild Bunch a group of ageing desperados led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) is out for that one last big score so they can finally put their guns down and do something else. Exactly what that would be, they have no idea… but it’s not as if they aren’t given any clues. They’re outlaws who don’t worry where their gold comes from… and they’ll kill anyone who gets in their way. At one point early in the film Pike states that if they turn on each other they’re no better than animals. Maybe they think they have some sort of code of honour (the film certainly thinks so) but there really isn’t much separating them from beasts.
Given its reputation, I expected more gun fights. There is a surprising amount of relative peace and tranquillity. In some of these scenes all of the things the men missed out on in life are on full display: the settled, peaceful life with a wife and kids. Beyond these there are considerable lulls in the action that are quite dull. Nothing exciting is happening and the narrative isn’t building in any worthwhile way. It’s never bad but for a significant duration it feels like you’re watching a fairly unremarkable western. When it focuses on its core themes (the cycle of violence and the fact that it’s in us all from birth – to be chosen or not) it’s at its strongest and it handles them very well. You’re not brutally beaten about the head with any message but this is a very violent film that abhors violence, while (to a lesser extent) revelling in it. The trouble is that quite a lot of the time we’re stuck in unremarkable western territory. It’s very much a mixed bag, then – a good example of a film that’s far too long and could do with a tighter edit. That edit would benefit the film not only for those who want more to chew on, but for those who want to see a shoot ’em up as well.
As it is, William Holden, Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine make The Wild Bunch worth a look. Holden can always hold your attention and he has one of those faces that can communicate quite a lot without seeming to act. The same goes for Robert Ryan, who’s also great. The action sequences, when they happen, really are something. A lot of time has passed since 1969 but you’d be hard-pushed to top this one for explosive action.