The year is 1969. The film is The Wild Bunch. Director Sam Peckinpah’s classic western premiered to a lot of praise and harsh criticism over the film’s graphic violence. Ten minutes of original film footage was cut after that premiere and was never seen in U.S. theaters. The movie was re-released in 1995 with the original Director’s Cut. I went to see it when the film reached a small theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Siskel & Ebert: at the movies praised the original ten minutes put back into the film with two positive reviews. I just bought the two-disc DVD special edition of the original director’s cut and I am not disappointed.
When I was a kid I used to go and watch Saturday movie matinees with my brothers and sister throughout the 1970’s. There were only two movie theaters in my small hometown. It was at the UA theatre where I first saw The Wild Bunch on a William Holden double feature. The other film was The Revengers 1972. Nudity was cut out of the film for kids but for some reason the guns and violence was kept in.
A group of aging outlaws called The Wild Bunch headed by Pike (William Holden) is on one last bank robbery. They are ambushed and the robbery fails after a bloody shootout. They are driven into Mexico by a gang of bounty hunters led by Pike’s ex-partner Deke (Robert Ryan). The outlaws are thrust into a civil war between the Mexican army and the mountain Indians. They are hired to steal crates of guns from the U.S. army in return for gold and eventual retirement.
There has been much said about this film since its’ release, maybe too much by film historians and western buffs. I will not go into detail myself but only praise this fine and entertaining film on its’ courage to go all the way with violence. I mean there is so much blood that it is glorified beautifully. This 1969 western was way before its’ time.
The bottom line is that these aging outlaws are living out the end of an era and witnessing the beginning of a new one. The scene where they lay their eyes on an actual motorized car is unbelievable to them. The old west is about to disappear in a few years and here they are living by their own code and it is survival. Bounty hunters and the Law are closing in on this wild bunch as the U.S. army controls the railway system.
In a scene cut from the original we have Deke and Pike sitting at separate campfires. In flashback we find where they were once best friends who then turn into bitter enemies. The result is Deke who is coerced to hunt down and bring Pike to justice or go back to jail. Pike in return is forced to lead his outlaw friends into Mexico. Pike and Deke know each other so well that it becomes a game of wits and who can outsmart each other.
At the center of this film is a young Mexican Indian named Angel (Jaime Sanchez). He runs with the wild bunch and is devoted to them. When they get into Mexican territory Angel uses them to wage his personal war against general Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). Mapache killed Angel’s father and his true love Teresa becomes the general’s whore. He wants a crate of guns to be used by his mountain Indians to fight for their Mexico. Angel then becomes a prisoner of Mapache because of that missing crate of guns.
The wild bunch gave their word to stand behind their partners. They ask Mapache if they can buy back Angel and the answer is no. The aging outlaws walk into a battle out numbered ten to one. They die the way they lived by a code of honor that truly was the old west. That scene where Pike is dead and still gripping that machine-gun says it all about who The Wild Bunch was. They sacrificed their lives for a partner. The tagline is perfect for the film “Nine men who came too late and stayed too long.”