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  Wild Bunch, The How The West Was Lost
Year: 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Stars: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor
Genre: WesternBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 3 votes)
Review: In the dying West of 1913, a gang of ageing outlaws decide to make one last score before retiring. Led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) the group hold up a bank, but are tricked by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) and escape only with bags of steel washers. Thornton has been charged with capturing Pike and his men after he was himself caught – unless he can bring him in within 30 days, he’ll go back to jail. So the gang plan another, even more dangerous final mission, stealing a containment of guns and ammunition from an army train for corrupt Mexican general Mapache, while Thornton and his gang of redneck buffoons get ever closer to his quarry.

Sam Peckinpah’s seminal Western quickly became one of the most notorious films of the late sixties, as together with Bonnie & Clyde it ushered in a new level of screen violence. Viewed today, the film doesn’t really seem any more graphic than most modern action films, although the intensity of the famous final massacre still startles. What is striking about the film is how much heart it has – for all its reputation, it’s one of the director’s most moving pictures.

From the earliest scenes, it’s clear these are men on their way out. Pike and his partner Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) look weary, Pike struggles to get on his horse, and their taste for the outlaw lifestyle has gone; the other members of the gang, brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson) may mock Pike and hint at taking over the gang, but he still commands respect. There some beautifully acted scenes of camaraderie, and the gang’s final decision to face certain death together as they set out to rescue their fifth member Angel (Jaime Sánchez) from the clutches of General Mapache remains one of the cinema’s most stirring scenes of macho pride. Throughout the film the 20th Century intrudes upon the Old West – alongside the horses, railroads and Stetsons we have machine guns, cars and references to aeroplanes and the First World War.

The Wild Bunch is beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard, but unlike John Ford, Peckinpah isn’t interested in spectacular landscapes (although there are some here). He captures a dirty, chaotic time in gritty detail, from the opening shots of a scorpion consumed by a mountain of ants to Angel’s impoverished village and the debauched, besieged town from which Mapache runs his military campaign against insurgent rebels.

But for all the film’s dark, melancholy edge, it also remains a cracking action film. There are some incredibly exciting, tautly edited sequences, including the opening bank heist and the white-knuckle train robbery than culminates in a spectacular bridge demolition. And the blood-and-bullets climax remains a thunderous, era-defining moment that applied the word ‘balletic’ to gunfights for the first time and influenced a whole generation of action directors.
Reviewer: Daniel Auty

 

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Sam Peckinpah  (1925 - 1984)

American writer and director, a hard-drinking, producer-hating maverick who was as much reviled as he was admired. After a spell in the armed forces, he moved into television with a succession of westerns, and graduated to film with The Deadly Companions and cult classic Ride the High Country. When he worked on Major Dundee, the problems started, and, as would happen many times subsequently, the film was recut against his wishes.

In 1969, Peckinpah won huge respect for The Wild Bunch, which saw him employ the vivid, bloody violence that would become his trademark. He spent the seventies crafting a series of notable thrillers and westerns, such as the humorous Ballad of Cable Hogue, the reflective Junior Bonner, controversial Straw Dogs, hit Steve McQueen vehicle The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the intense, one-of-a-kind Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Killer Elite, WWII story Cross of Iron, and comparitively light hearted Convoy.

Throughout this decade, Peckinpah's reputation amongst studios dropped to such an extent that he could barely find work by the eighties, and his last film, The Osterman Weekend, represented an attempt to reclaim past glories. Sadly, he died shortly after it was completed, while planning to bring an original Stephen King script to the screen. As an actor, he can be seen in friend Don Siegel's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Monte Hellman's China 9 Liberty 37.

 
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