Movie Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Note: This is #49 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The Wild Bunch is interesting because we essentially follow a group of villains with one hero (or, arguably, just another kind of villain) just hanging around on the periphery. The bunch in question is a group of old school, wild West outlaws who have made a long career out of robbing stage coaches, banks, and railroads. But in the year 1913, they’re starting to get long in the tooth and looking for either a life beyond their guns or one big score to set them up for retirement. The group is led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his old friend Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine, who has the coolest name EVER). After botching one robbery and shooting up half a town’s worth of innocent bystanders, they flee south and get tangled up in the Mexican Revolution. Dogging them is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who is a former member of the bunch himself and out of prison on the condition that he recapture Pike and his gang.

The movie is very much about a group of aging men staring at the upcoming end of an era that they themselves defined. There’s lots of marveling at newly minted automobiles and machine guns, children being dangerous, and the entire concept of revolution plays not only a concrete but symbolic role in the film. There’s some great character development going on, particularly with Pike and Deke where we get to see why they are who they are and how much despair their current situation causes them. Also, there are a lot of gunfights. Very violent ones, in fact, and capped off by a spectacular shootout in a Mexican military camp that calls back a powerful image that ran through the opening credits: a group of children forcing a small group of scorpions to fight a swarming mass of fire ants until they are eventually worn down and torn apart.

So I liked this one. It’s violent and unpleasant, unlike a lot of other more pulp-minded westerns from this project so far, but it strikes me as a very good piece of film making and story telling in general.

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