RECAP: The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah made a career antagonizing his actors and bludgeoning the public over their heads with messages an imagery. In his 1969 masterpiece, the man who would consider himself an outlaw director made a film about the low down, most rootin’-est, tootin’-est cowboys seen in American cinema.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A wild bunch of thieves and do-no-gooders robs a railroad company, a train, and a Mexican general, outruns the US Army and bounty hunters, and all for the fun of it.
“Hero” is a strong word. It implies people doing great, nice things for other folks. Good luck finding any kind deeds in The Wild Bunch.
Nevertheless, we need a main character, and William Holden‘s Pike is it. Pike first appears on screen with his buddies wearing US Cavalry uniforms in 1913 in San Rafael, Texas. Joining him in this robbery, and for most of the remainder of the film, are Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), and the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson).
What’s a good name for a group of men? Let’s call them a bunch. Why not? Pike’s bunch walks slowly down San Rafael’s main street toward the bank. An old woman carrying packages bumps Pike, dropping her parcels. Pike offers her his arm and escorts her.
That was a nice gesture, but Pike only did to keep his cover as the wild bunch walked to the bank. (The place is not so much a bank as it is the headquarters of a railroad. We’ll call it a bank for brevity’s sake.) Inside the bank they reveal themselves as murderin’, thievin’ bank robbers. Holding up the joint, Pike shouts to his men, “If they move, kill ’em.” This is his first line.
Pike gets wind of bounty hunters surrounding the bank. He brings the teller to the front door, tosses him outside to draw enemy fire, and a shootout starts. The teller Pike throws out is casualty number one.
So yeah, Pike’s not the nicest guy around. He bailed on his best friend, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), in a whore house, the latter going to jail as Pike escaped. Thornton is the guy leading the bounty hunters chasing Pike throughout the movie.
Pike will go after a member in the wild bunch, but in doing so he leaves another to (probably) die. Oh, and Pike shoots a member of his bunch after he goes blind and can’t ride. There will be no time for mourning him either, because he’s dead dammit, and they have to keep moving.
So yeah, he’s really a tremendous asshole. Impossible to root for. What’s Pike got going for him? He’s a hard-nosed leader. The Gorch brothers, fellow bunch members, gaze upon the stolen bags of gold coins and demand a larger share. Pike dares them to take all the shares. That shocks the brothers. “I either lead this bunch or end it right now.” The brothers back down. Then they open the bags and find them full of worthless washers, themselves the victims of a setup.
Pike leads the bunch now, but not for long. Later, he falls off his horse. He’s on his last job, and he knows it. The bank was to be the last job, until those washers tumbled out of the bags and changed his mind.
At least in one scene, Pike is a walking outlaw cliche, searching for that last, big score and ride into the sunset. The job goes perfectly. The rest of The Wild Bunch forces Pike to navigate the deal-making side.
At first, The Wild Bunch promises Thornton and Harrigan, the railroad’s man, will be the bunch’s chief adversaries. Not so. Mexican renegade general Mapache (Emilio Fernández) reveals himself to be the drunken master of Mexico’s north.
Angel (Jaime Sánchez), one of the wild bunch, hails from a village in northern Mexico. Mapache killed Angel’s father and stole his girlfriend. Many a film has used such actions as primary plot motivation, but The Wild Bunch is dense enough that this plot line can be loose and last a few scenes.
Pike and company ride to visit Mapache. The general is based in a walled village near the US border. Sources tell the general of an American train shipping cases of rifles and ammunition near the border. Mapache wants those rifles, but he cannot cross the border and take them because he seeks good relations with the US. Lucky for him a band of outlaws has ridden into town. The general offers $10,000 in gold for 16 cases of rifles.
When the bunch first arrives at Mapache’s village, they sit at a table and order beers. Angel’s woman appears, offering a horse to the general, who accepts the gift and takes her on his lap. Angel cannot stand the sight of this. He draws his revolver and blasts her dead.
Mapache assumes this to be an assassination attempt. Guns are drawn and everything. Angel, with Dutch’s help, convinces the general that he really was shooting his two-timing lover. Mapache not only accepts this explanation, he laughs about it.
The general is running roughshod over northern Mexico, but he’s not the only one. Pancho Villa, a real dude and a really bad dude, overruns Mapache and forces his retinue to flee on a single train, many of the men shooting from the caboose.
Somehow, through all this, the band plays. Mapache so inspired his followers that they play music during an attack. Mapache stands like a statue and watches as his men are shot around him.
Mapache and the wild bunch engage in tense trade talks after the bunch steals the guns. Eventually the general gets 15 of the 16 cases (one went to Angel’s village) and, as a token of goodwill, a machine gun, one of the world’s newest and deadliest weapons.
Being a world-class drunk and party animal, Mapache, once he’s headquartered in Aqua Verde, hosts a days-long party with drinking, whoring, and shooting fireworks. Their chief bit of fun is Angel, who Mapache knows stole the case of rifles. As the wild bunch arrives in Aqua Verde for the last time, they find Angel being dragged behind the general’s car. Mapache is as savage as he is accommodating.
General Mapache is a sneaky good villain. Aside from the dragging of Angel by car, we don’t see him commit acts of barbarity. More often than not he is drunk. He berates a funereal train of nuns for interrupting his dinner with the wild bunch, ladies sit on his lap, and he clutches one’s breast in a scene as he talks to the wild bunch. We need others, such as Angel’s villagers, to tell us how bad he is. It’s possible, likely, even, that his men follow him not out of fear, but because he gives them a good time, as if he were Mexico’s first rock star.
The Wild Bunch ain’t your daddy’s western. Gory, violent, nihilistic, the movie seeks to undermine, if not destroy, the goodwill the genre spent four or five decades building.
The film begins with American soldiers riding into San Rafael, Texas. Except they ain’t soldiers, they are bank robbers. It’s several minutes before we realize this. This is a western, and we expect trouble in this quiet town. Peckinpah has Pike and Dutch help an old lady carry parcels through town. On a roof nearby is a group of men holding shotguns. One wakes up the other with the warning, “Soldiers.”
We think the attired-as-soldiers are soldiers who will disrupt the men on the roof preparing to rob the bank. The movie’s six minutes old before we realize the opposite is true. A few minutes pass before the shooting starts.
When it starts, it doesn’t stop, even when you want it to. Pike shoves the accountant into the street, just as the Temperance Union band parade rounds the corner. Peckinpah masterfully builds tension through music, the constant drone of strings atop the horns in the band, and filming each member of the wild bunch, inside and outside the railroad headquarters. Robbers draw guns, cock guns, and toss guns.
Thornton and his hired goons on the rooftops are too eager to not shoot someone, and they tear the accountant apart. The townspeople, those not shot, scatter. Every bounty hunter pops up and shoots. The robbers destroy the windows blasting away at their would-be captors. Shotguns, single-shot rifles, and pistols are all on the table. The bounty hunters are bunched and easily hit, and several of them die before any bank robbers are shot. More civilians are shot, at first, than robbers.
“They’re blowing this town all to hell,” says an eager Crazy Lee inside the bank, where, for some reason, he’s tasked with holding hostages. They sure are. More civilians die. Hundreds of rounds are fired. Women scream. Thornton is the first to hit a robber. Crazy Lee licks a woman’s ear. Two more robbers are shot as they flee on horseback.
Thornton spies Pike as the latter loads sacks of gold onto a horse. Thornton shoots at Pike, but a tuba player takes the bullet. Coolly, Pike shoots in the head the guy beside Thornton. A woman is trampled. Two children hug each other in the street as bodies fall around them.
As the robbers flee, more people on the ground are shot, and it’s hard to tell who dies. One man in a suit is shot several times, but was he part of the bunch? Hard to say, for viewers and for the bounty hunters who filled him with lead.
The rest of the bunch, now perhaps half its size, rides from town. One of the robbers was blinded in the escaping, and he will die during the retreat, when Pike kills him.
This gun battle begins the movie. Cacophonous and confusing, most westerns would be proud to have such a fight end the movie. The Wild Bunch has greater ambitions. After the fight ended I thought, “How are they going to top that?”
They did top it, which you can read below. The action scenes in this film were spectacular. Bodies falling are often intercut amongst continuing action. Blood packs practically exploded on bodies. And, of course, we cannot ignore the thundering power of the machine gun, the weapon that would soon chew up tens of thousands of young men in Europe’s trenches.
Pike’s No. 2 is Dutch, a man nearly as old as Pike, but bumped up to second in command after Thornton’s arrest and dismissal from the bunch.
Dutch is solid, trustworthy, and good with a gun. He’ll back Pike no matter what, and Pike needs the backing with the loose cannon Gorch brothers. Dutch listens to Pike lament the old days with Thornton and says, “Wouldn’t have it any other way either.”
The Gorches are indistinguishable, despite not being twins. They challenge Pike’s leadership constantly. Any good band of outlaws needs a pair of brothers to reach the next levels of internal strife. Brothers are always more loyal to each other than any leader, and if the leaders are brothers, forget about any change in command.
What sets apart the wild bunch from other gangs in westerns is laughter. Many times in The Wild Bunch the gang members cut tension with laughs.
When the bunch dumps the contents of the bags stolen in the opening bank robbery, they learn they’ve been had. Washers. Hundreds of metal washers spill from the bags.
Old Man Sykes, a bunch member tasked with watching the horses, steps in to make fun of the robbers. He tells them they all have “a big grin to pass the day with,” cackling all the while. Pretty soon Pike and the gang are laughing about whores.
After they escape Thornton with the cart of weapons, the gang passes around a whiskey bottle, emptying it before one of the Gorches can sip. They laugh about that. Plenty of laughter for these hard men. They might snipe at each other, but their bonds are secure. In the end, these bonds are sealed by death.
Mapache has plenty of men at his command and women to hire for fun, but it’s former bunch member Deke Thornton who fills the henchman role.
Thornton opens the movie chasing Pike. He leads a group of guns for hire, men positioned on roofs surrounding the bank Pike is about to rob. Hired by a railroad executive, Thornton is turning on his former buddy so he can stay out of jail.
We don’t know any of this as the movie starts. During the huge gunfight outside the bank, Thornton and Pike stare each other down as the former shoots at Pike, only to have his bullet blocked by innocent tuba player fleeing the carnage.
After the disaster at the bank, Thornton’s new boss sends him and the hired trackers after the wild bunch. Thornton hates these men, and he’s never averse to telling them so. He calls them “gutter trash” more than once. He all but spits on them.
If Thornton doesn’t catch Pike he’ll be thrown back in jail, the kind of jail where they whip prisoners for fun. In a flashback, we see the night Thornton was caught. He and Pike, visiting a whorehouse, are ambushed by The Law. Pike escaped while Thornton was shot in the shoulder and captured. This after Pike repeated, “Being sure is my business.” Sure they wouldn’t get caught that night, and then they did.
Thornton follows the wild bunch throughout the movie, never getting close enough to grasp, but often close enough to watch them escape. Following the train robbery, Thornton leads the men after Pike and into Mexico.
Thornton easily tracks the bunch as they ride their wagon load of rifles and bullets toward Mapache and payment. They nearly catch them on the bridge to Mexico, but choice shooting and timely explosives send Thornton and his men into the muddy river.
Wet clothes and soggy spirits won’t slow Thornton. He chases the bunch throughout Mexico. He pretends to miss their trail, a trick the other hunters don’t realize. “I wish to God I was with them,” Thornton laments to his no-good dogs of men.
Thornton does not participate in the climactic battle. He steps in later, taking Pike’s pistol for reasons unsaid.
Thornton was a strong character who provided important plot direction. He represented the railroads and sought revenge on Pike, something the US Army, which also chased the wild bunch, and Mapache could not provide.
I enjoyed Thornton’s hatred of the men he worked with. The henchmen of a henchman were the dumbest characters of the story. They chase the wild bunch for profit, and constantly bicker about who shot whom. Their clothes, dirty to begin with, were mud-colored by the end. Some lost their boots.
In their eagerness to fight the wild bunch in the opening bank robbery, they gave themselves away, jabbing their rifles in the air and shooting the bank teller as he was thrown out of the bank as a human shield.
Let’s talk about the train robbery. Pike and company want the 16 cases of rifles to sell to Mapache. The train stops for water, and that’s where the bunch makes its move. Pike, Dutch, Angel, and the Gorch brothers easily board the train, and silently.
Once the engine is unhooked from the passenger cars, the shooting starts. Dutch stumbles between two cars and draws fire from the two cavalrymen he had his gun trained on. Angel and Gorch use the moment to kill the other troops on train. Pike kicks the conductor off. Dangerous moves all around.
Of course, few moments are captured more closely than the explosion of the bridge crossing the Rio Grande. As Thornton stands on it, the fuses earlier lit ignite the explosives, and the whole thing goes kaboom. Peckinpah gives us shots from river bank, down river, and bird’s eye, watching the thing collapse in slow motion. We weren’t going to forget that moment.
Final note: in the opening gunfight, you can see a stuntman pulling down a horse after its rider is shot.
Discussing The Wild Bunch is impossible without detailing the bloody climax. After watching the gory, violent, confusing opening shootout, I thought How will they top this later? They topped it.
Pike, Dutch, and the Gorches are forced to choose between helping Old Man Sykes as he traverses the desert alone or helping Angel, captive of Mapache. Both are probably going to die, certainly one of them. Pike decides to leave his old friend behind and invade Mapache’s compound to rescue Angel. Everyone knows this is a terrible idea, but Pike has completed his “one last score” and wants and ending to his life to mean something, I guess. “I’m tired of being hunted,” he says.
The four guys march into Mapache’s compound itching for a fight. Instead they sleep the night there after whoring and drinking. Smart move, Pike, getting your fill of freebies before trying to bite the hand that fed you.
The following morning is bright and hot. The quartet assembles by their horses, loading and cocking their rifles. Wordlessly, they walk through the town as it bustles to life. And walk. And walk. Lots of walking, building the tension for the shootout we know is coming. Drums on the soundtrack play a march.
These guys might be hung over, but they know Mapache and his men are hungover-er. “Los gringos otra vez,” Mapache sputters out when he sees them. The general dresses like he’s wearing a Halloween costume of a general. “What do you want?” the general asks. Pike wants Angel. The general offers his ragged body. Then, to Dutch’s horror, Mapache slices Angel’s throat.
Pike doesn’t hesitate. He shoots the general. So do the others. They fill him with lead. The Mexicans are shocked by this. Pike and the others look several men in the face, gauging their desire to fight.
Seems like they will live. Dutch laughs. Pike stands straight. The fight can be over. Can be. Pike eyes the German advisor, in full regalia, and calmly shoots him. Why not? This moment could not be more packed with meaning. Pike, representing America, kills Mexico’s ambitions (represented by Mapache) once and for all. He waits a beat. Pike shoots a German, America’s next foe in war. Then it’s carnage.
Symbolism over. The Mexican soldiers come to life and shoot at the wild bunch, which moves toward the better cover offered by a stone wall. Most of the soldiers are seated at tables in the courtyard below the officers’ table.
Pike is shot as Dutch and the Gorches leap behind a half wall for cover. One of the brothers shoots a prostitute as she flees. Pike kills two men each trying to operate the tripod-mounted machine gun, the latter falling on the trigger and killing several of his allies. The machine gun shoots and kills seemingly with a will of its own.
Pike works his shotgun. The Gorches have Pike’s flank. Dozens of soldiers have died, but more stream into the courtyard now. Women, hiding behind and beneath tables, appear more jaded of the violence than scared of it.
Dutch takes two shots, as does a Gorch, though he recovers and takes the machine gun. With a smile on his face, he kills five, 10, 20 men or more. Dutch lobs grenades to kill still more.
Pike enters a bedroom and shoots a man hiding behind a door. Dutch uses a prostitute as a human shield before taking more bullets. The other Gorch brother takes a turn on the repeater, turning it to a doorway and killing several men dumb enough to walk through it. Pike, meanwhile, is shot in the arm by a prostitute before killing her.
Pike and Dutch meet behind a thick table. They look at each other. “Come on you lazy bastard,” Pike says, one last time. He gets his go with the new, modern weapon. Dozens more die. Pike shoots a box of grenades, which explodes four times.
A child, wearing a soldier’s uniform, it seems, shoots Pike. “NO PIKE,” Dutch screams as his friend and leader turns the gun upward, still shooting. Dutch runs to him and is shot, still shouting his friend’s name.
That ends the fight. Even 50 years after its release, the finale of The Wild Bunch shocks in its gore and death count. Hundreds of people die by the guns of four men. Those four men absorb Blackbeard levels of punishment before falling.
These four men finish the movie with perhaps the highest gun-only (plus a few grenades) body count in history.
The violence staggers the viewer.
The wild bunch has a good time robbing banks, robbing trains, and robbing Mexican generals. Plenty of whores to go around for these men. One of the Gorch brothers gets so drunk that he proposes to a prostitute. His friends laugh at him.
I discussed the tendency of Pike’s men to laugh away their squabbles. They mock Thornton as well. After escaping them into Mexico and blowing the only bridge for miles, with Thornton on it, Pike tips his cap to his former friend, in an ultimate F.U. move.
The movie’s biggest joke is the US Army. Pike and company rob the munitions train with ease. Thornton and his men occupy one car while the army occupies another. Thornton paces the aisle while the troop leader naps.
Thornton gets his men and horses off the train as the robbery continues. The army doesn’t get going until the train is robbed and the engine car sent in reverse, several minutes after Pike has the guns off the train and is halfway to Mexico, where the troops can’t follow.
When the troops arrive at the border bridge, Thornton’s men shoot them. Buffoonery all around, and to comic effect.
Another great scene occurs after Mapache gets his hands on the machine gun. The German advisor begs him to use the tripod, but the Mexicans don’t listen. Three or four of them grip the gun. Somebody triggers it. The machine gun fires hundreds of rounds in several arcs in the village, sending everyone, literally everyone there, for cover. The scene lasts far too long, but it’s still funny.
The Wild Bunch is a western, and any western worth its salt better have soaring skies, muddy rivers, and desert, desert, desert. This movie doesn’t disappoint.
Much of the action occurs in (present day) Mexico, all of it in the 20th century. Those are unusual aspects of Hollywood westerns. Mapache holes up in walled villages. The wild bunch visits a local Mexican village, exactly as did the Magnificent Seven at the start of the 1960s, and this village is as idyllic as you’d want or expect such a place to be.
Other than these changes, The Wild Bunch hardly departs from the western setting template. Valleys, gulches, and riverbeds are dry and imposing when the characters are meant to suffer.
The Rio Grande plays prominently in the tale. It’s the US-Mexico border, so that’s a big reason why, but it’s also beautiful.
Sam Peckinpah has plenty to say about society and westerns in The Wild Bunch, his magnum opus. Start with the opening sequences.
Men who appear to be US cavalrymen, but are really about to rob the railroad company’s safe, ride into San Rafael, Texas. They pass a group of children laughing…and watching ants attack scorpions. You might call them army ants. You might call that foreshadowing. I’d call it fore-bashing your skull repeatedly until you get the hint.
More fun with kids: later, those children light the ants and the scorpions on fire. Holy shit that was messed up. Following the bank robbery shootout, more children run amongst the dead bodies, pointing finger guns at them and shouting “Bang bang.”
Much later, some children ride Angel like a toy horse as the man is dragged behind a car, his face brutally cut. Many children are shown in The Wild Bunch, and most of them are more excited by the violence than the adults, and than they should be. The movie wants us to believe the cycle of violence will continue, even worsen, as the First World War arrives in the next few years. At the end, many soldiers shoot Pike, but it’s a child who gets the best shot.
Clearly, Peckinpah intended to bridge the gap between the western outlaw trope, a man who could change the course of events through sheer will and a pistol, and the indiscriminate killing of the machine gun. Westerns have long had much to say about America, and The Wild Bunch is no different.
“It ain’t like it used to be,” Old Man Sykes says. It sure ain’t.
Peckinpah was making a New Hollywood western, hoping, it seems, to kill the genre forever, symbolized by its destructive final shootout. Thornton, who rides into town after the gunfight ends, takes only Pike’s unused six shooter as souvenir.
Plenty of films have attempted to be the last western. Most likely, the last western will be a quiet one, the genre itself will ride into the sunset rather than expire from a bullet wound.
About everyone in The Wild Bunch is an offensive character. That’s kind of the point, but I can’t not subtract points for it.
- According to Mental Floss, Peckinpah had a Mexican village delay electrification for six months until shooting wrapped.
Summary (51/68): 75%
Anti-heroes were much the rage in the 1970s that followed The Wild Bunch, especially as Vietnam and Watergate cooled the public to its traditional heroes. Peckilnpah’s movie has nothing to say about Vietnam, but it drags the heroic western hero through the mud.
The spectacular violence still shocks, almost five decades after its release. But it’s not only violence that makes the film great. The film weaves several plots together into a cohesive whole, characterizes the lead players and supporting players alike, sketching sides to several characters.
Make no mistake, The Wild Bunch is as good as westerns, as good as action movies, get.