1969’s The Wild Bunch is the first Western on the AFI list. If AFI has a bias against comedies, it would appear to have a bias in favor of Westerns, with 4 making the list. Maybe that’s appropriate – the Western genre, although it has receded in the past 25-30 years (despite occasional attempts at revival such as 3:10 to Yuma) was a dominant force in commercial film making for a generation. I just don’t tend to like Westerns that much.
The Wild Bunch sees Pike (nobody gets a last name in this film), his aging sidekick Sykes and his band of outlaws attempting to rob a silver shipment from the railroad. The movie opens with a bang and a bloody shootout in a small town in the middle of a temperance march between Pike’s gang and a group of bounty hunters with dozens of bystanders killed. We learn that the whole situation was a set-up (there is no silver) by the railroad to attempt to capture or kill Pike’s gang and that Thorton, who once rode with Pike, is leading the bounty hunters to capture him.
Pike’s gang ponders what to do next – they debate stealing payroll from the Army along the border and head south to a town in Mexico where Angel, one of their riders is from, Aqua Verde. Angel learns that the Mexican General Mapache had invaded the town and stolen Angel’s former girlfriend, Teresa and his mother.
They hang out in town and Mapache arrives. Angel sees Teresa and shoot and kills her, nearly winging Mapache. Mapache takes Angel into custody but offers the rest of the gang the opportunity to steal guns from an army shipment on the railroad in exchange for gold. Pike negotiations to get Angel back on his crew for the job.
Angel doesn’t want to do the job as it will help Mapache. Pike agrees to let him have one crate of guns for his people in exchange for his share of the gold. Thorton figures out that Pike will likely go after the arms shipment and prepares to intercept him.
They pull off the heist by separating the cargo and the steam engine from the rest of the train, driving it down the track and unloading the guns into a wagon. Thorton’s folks who were in the back of the train unload along with their horses and go after them. The wagon briefly gets stuck on a bridge, but they pull it out and then dynamite the bridge to block Thorton’s crew from chasing them.
Pike is afraid that Mapache will kill them rather than pay them, so he dynamites the cargo. They give Angel his case and then work out a scheme to deliver a few cases at a time, in exchange for a portion of the gold to Mapache. On the very last rotation, Mapache says he knows Angel stole the last case of guns and that his mother ratted him out. He takes Angel as a prisoner.
Thorton is hot on their tail and they decide that the safest course is to bury most of their treasure and then head back to Aqua Verde. When they arrive, Pike offers to pay to free Angel, but Mapache refuses. They have a night with prostitutes and then next morning Pike again asks Mapache to release Angel. Mapache agrees but then slits Angel’s throat. Pike starts a huge gunfight and is killed along with most of his crew.
Thorton and his men arrive to find the aftermath of the carnage. Thorton’s crew rides back with the bodies to attempt to claim the reward from the railroad, but Thorton stays behind. Sykes rides back to town and let’s Thorton know he has killed his crew. He offers to let Thorton ride with them on their next heist.
There is a lot to like in the movie – the opening and closing gunfights are packed with action. The sheer brutality of the film is something to behold for a movie made in 1969. Likable characters doing brutal evil things without a second thought creates an interesting moral quandary for the viewer, much like in later-day productions like Oz, The Wire and Breaking Bad. Pike’s code of being willing to kill innocent bystanders but being fiercely loyal to his crew and true to his word makes for a fascinating character study. Even Angel, who is easily the most upstanding guy in the film, is willing to shoot a former girlfriend without second thought for betraying him to another man.
The movie is not without its flaws – after an initial rush of action at the opening, it moves very slowly in the middle of the film – at 145 minutes it was probably 30 minutes too long. There is very little tenderness or honest emotion to counter the brutality that is portrayed by the film. Angel is the most interesting character in the film and is central to the plot but is given far too little dialogue or character exploration. Mapache is much more a stereotype of a Mexican general than an authentic character. In other words, it basically has all the flaws that most Westerns have. The movie is also a bit overacted throughout, inspire of a fairly all-star cast.
Watching it today in a era with different social standards, it is probably easy to underestimate how impactful the brutality and immorality portrayed in the movie were in 1969. This was a meaningful and controversial film at the time. I just re-learned again that I don’t like Westerns that much. To me, this is a good movie, but not an all-time great film. I know very few film critics would agree with me.
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 6/10
Total Score 28/40