The Wild Bunch is regarded by many as the last great Western, although Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales has its followers too.
It’s 1913 and a group of ageing outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) rob a railroad office and then engage in a savage shootout on a dusty western town’s Main Street with a posse of lawmen who have been trailing them.
Dozens of people are killed including gunmen on both sides, but mostly innocent bystanders who happen to be in the street or who are used as human shields by the crooks.
Pike and a few of his men – including the loyal Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), a young Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and the rowdy Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) – manage to escape the shooting gallery and hide out on the Texas/Mexico border.
Pike discovers his ex-partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is leading the gang who are coming after them, so they decide to hide out in the little Mexican village Angel grew up in.
The village has been taken over by an insane Mexican general named Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) and has become a hellhole full of sex, tequila and robbery to feed his loyal troops.
When Angel spots his ex-lover in the general’s arms, he shoots and kills her, which angers Mapache. To appease him, and possibly now save Angel’s life, the gang agree to do a job for him, stealing arms from a US military train.
The middle section of the film is the train heist and its aftermath wherein they try to get a portion of the weapons to Angel’s people so they can one day overthrow their tormenters.
On delivering the arms to Mapache, the bunch know they could be walking into a death trap but decide to go out in a proverbial blaze of glory.
And what a blaze of glory it turns out to be!
When Mapache shoots Angel, Pike’s natural reaction is to shoot back, killing the general.
The four men give each other a look – almost with relief knowing they are about to die – as dozens of Mapache’s men, at first stunned, prepare to respond. And that begins maybe the greatest gunfight in movie history, highlighted by the use of a Gatling machine gun and some well-placed slow-motion editing.
The two episodes of violence in the film caused a furore because of the blood-spurting, slow-motion, repetitive detail in which they are shown.
Director Sam Peckinpah claimed the realism (and the action replays) were necessary to condemn violence. The debate went on and on.
The violence would get much worse with Soldier Blue the following year, but here it is seen as almost operatic.
José Chávez Trowe
Margarito de Luna