The Wild Bunch

AFI Rank: #80
Year Released: 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Actors: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates

In an era when westerns were often seen as the "brave, good cowboys" against the "brutish, evil Indians" The Wild Bunch stood out as a portrayal of just how nasty the violence was, and how no side was really quite good. William Holden leads his crew of robbers, and they certainly are not the pristine-clean good guys. People die in nasty ways, women are run down, and kids sit there watching and laughing. The violence is fairly extreme - but that's Peckinpah's point. Death was nasty. This was not a glory day. Even the children delight in watching animals be tortured, and when they're done, they set the animals on fire.

The outlaws are ready to shoot their own if the situation suits them - but on the other hand they are willing to risk their lives to go in and save their own as well. It's a delicate code of honor. The outlaws also see how their world is decaying around them. The arrival of a car shows them how horses will soon be a thing of the past, and the machine gun demonstrates how a mere pistol will be ancient technology soon as well.

As one might figure, this is a movie solidly about men. The only women who show up are prostitutes and withered grandmothers. I don't believe any woman ever speaks to another woman. The only women who seem to speak are a prostitute who tells her once-boyfriend to get lost, and another who complains about what she's been paid. That's it. It's not that I expect every western to have strong women characters. But for nearly every single one to have NO female characters seems to pretend that the West was only populated with men. And prostitutes. Are we so used to decades and decades of this portrayal that we've come to think it is natural?

I'm not even asking for a woman to be a main character. Just that some woman, somewhere, gets to speak once in a while.

Still, the movie is full of power. It is almost Kurosawa-esque at times. I adore the final scene where the men, having done with their prostitues, prepare for their final journey. They have been with women for the last time, and now they are going to step into the mouth of the beast and see about rescuing their friend on what they know is a suicide mission. And yet they go. Their time has come, and they will go shoulder by shoulder to do their best. There's a very powerful sense in that moment. If I had been Angel, seeing my friends coming in for me, I would have been overwhelmed by their actions.

So yes it's violent. The point isn't that the violence is "good" or being promoted. If anything Peckinpah was trying to show the audience how awful the violence was, and how the previous westerns with their sanitized images was lying to us. He was warning us. Sadly, some took his creation and decided it was a tribute to violence. Rather, it's a tribute to the people who had to live through these rough times and find a way to survie them.

Rating: 5/5

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The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100