Thursday, December 11, 2014

AFI Top 100: #79 "The Wild Bunch"

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Western genre has always been a bit of an enigma to me. The movies are special and unique in the way that war films are uniquethey qualify for the genre simply because they take place in a certain place and time. They also stand out because of the fact that they're really not that unique at all. Like war movies, plots are allowed to be generic because the real "special touches" come from the varying degree of graphic violence or nudityor both! And when the grip of censorship began to loosen in the late 1960's, there was hardly anything filmmakers didn't try to get away with.

This weekend, we explored the birth of the modern Western (if there is such a thing), screening #79 on the AFI Top 100 list, The Wild Bunch. It was my first time seeing this Sam Peckinpah-directed classic (aside from the opening 5 minutes we studied in film school), and I only knew one thing about it: there was an insane amount of gunfire from beginning to end.

What I didn't really know was the plot. It is about a group of old-timer outlaws in the early 20th century struggling to come to terms with both the expansion of the "civilized" government into the lawless West, as well as the advance in technology (transport, weapons, etc.) that is obliterating their way of life. They're thisclose to retirement, and after a botched bank robbery, decide they have enough left in them for one last job. 

The group is led by Pike Bishop (played by a weathered & ragged William Holden), and Peckinpah peppers many other familiar faces from the classic Hollywood era throughout the picture. He just covers them in muck and grime and instructs them to grab the breasts of every woman that passesso you know, we don't really recognize them. The dashing-even-in-old-age Robert Ryan appears as Deke Thornton, Pike's old right-hand man turned bounty hunter who laments not riding alongside his friend... but won't hesitate to kill him on sight just to keep himself out of jail.

The violence in this movie rides the line between realistic and silly like no movie I've ever seen. The characters kill without too much mercy, but within 5 minutes, the gunshots start and never stop. It gets to the point where you don't even really care anymore. It's said that more blank rounds were fired in the making of this movie than actual rounds fired during the entire Civil War (around 90,000)and that is absolutely not hard to believe, especially when a Mexican warlord pulls out a machine gun and starts using it like Scarface.

The only thing that really caught my attention was how women were treated. In line with the times, women were essentially used and disposed of like trash; I sort of expected that and wasn't too phased. Though I was a little shocked when they were used as human shields. Peckinpah is never one to tread lightly, which is something I can respect while still not enjoying.

That's how I felt about this movie. The acting is really stellar, though not groundbreaking. It was more interesting to see actors like Holden and Ernest Borgnine getting down and dirty in a Mexican stand-off. Yet despite all the envelope pushing and forays into the new violent era of 1970's cinema... The Wild Bunch just isn't constructed well. Between gun fights, the characters ride on horseback from one point to another, only to venture out again on horseback to circle back around to the same places. It just ends up feeling tiresome and aimless; and all the while, we're trying to align ourselves with the motivations of either Pike or Deke... ending up not really caring about either.

I will say, though, that the choreography of the fights was very impressive. It's hard not to acknowledge the work the filmmakers put into this movie. I'm not a Peckinpah fan (you literally couldn't pay me to sit through Straw Dogs), but his style is unique and he has quite the following. I feel like you'd have to be a Peckinpah fan to connect with this movie, or even just an appreciator of how the Western genre evolved. I love classic westerns and appreciate the modern ones. But no matter the approach, I need to care about the characters. And frankly, I just couldn't care less about any of this bunch.

Rating:  ★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Warner Bros]

Check back next week for Charlie Chaplin in #78, Modern Times  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us! It's currently available on Hulu Plus!

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