'The Wild Bunch' Review: The Ballad of Pike Bishop
This month's Salute to Westerns has yielded some of the best films I've ever seen, and The Wild Bunch is right up on that list. It features not only a talented ensemble cast of some of Hollywood's finest, but also subverts the expectations of the western genre. It's a film that is classic Peckinpah, and one that I'm glad our resident western fanatic John picked for me.
The film follows the exploits of Pike Bishop, played by the always charismatic William Holden, as he and his gang of past-their-prime outlaws look to secure their financial futures with one last score. However, this score goes awry due to the intrusion of Pike's former partner Deke Thornton and his crew of bounty hunters, deputized by the railroad. With their heist going south, Pike and his men make a run for Mexico, where they get mixed up in the Mexican revolution due to their dealing with Mapache, a general in the Federal Army. They are then tasked with stealing guns from a US train so that the general can squash the ongoing revolution. The film climaxes in a bloody shoot out at the general's base in Aqua Verde, complete with Browning M1917 machine gun as the weapon of choice for the outlaws.
The cast of the film is the absolute best I've seen all month, with William Holden and Ernest Borgnine being the real standouts. Holden's Pike is old, grizzled, and disenchanted with the ways of the past, primarily utilizing the gun over everything else. He knows that the time of the outlaw is swiftly coming to an end, and that they will need to change their ways if they want to survive. He also struggles with an internal conflict of having betrayed his former partner Deke by running when they were about to be captured. Pike is a deep, complex character that could have easily been a caricature, but due to Peckinpah's deft writing and Holden's acting prowess, he is fully realized.
Ernest Borgnine is also fantastic as Dutch Engstrom, Pike's right hand man. He is loyal to a fault, and there is little that he won't do to support the gang. At one point he shoots down the idea of giving some of the men who died a proper burial. He does so in a snarky manner that shows how little his character cares about anything other than the safety and security of the group. I haven't seen Borgnine in many films, so I was pleasantly surprised at how adept he was at being a snarky outlaw.
The real highlight of the film is the violence. Peckinpah had a real eye for shooting action, and the beginning and the end of The Wild Bunch is some of the most iconic set pieces in westerns. During the climax of the film, a countless number of Mexican soldiers are absolutely obliterated by the Browning machine gun in full gory fashion. Soldiers are riddled with bullets, blood spurts profusely, and even woman are gunned down. Pike's gang goes out in a blaze of glory, avenging their murdered comrade, but getting murdered in the process. It's a scene that is unlike anything else I've seen in any of the westerns I've ever watched. It is a perfect way to close out the film, and one that is pure Peckinpah.
If you've never seen The Wild Bunch, you're doing yourself a disservice. Not only is it one of the best westerns I've ever seen, but it is also an all-around great film. Prior to this month I had never seen a Peckinpah film, but that is going to change. It's unlike any western I've seen up until this point, and now the bar has been set so high for the rest of the month that I don't know if anything can live up to it.
Final Say: Watch It