One of the greatest slices of western Americana you’re ever bound to find, The Wild Bunch is, in many ways, a series of goodbyes. A goodbye to the good old days, to old friends, and first and foremost, to an entire genre. The Wild Bunch could be seen as the final bow to Westerns as a whole, a profoundly melancholy curtain call on an era that ends as it began: violent, unpredictable, and beautiful. Automatic shotguns, handguns, and automobiles slowly invade a land built on revolvers and horses. The ticking clock is always on the mind of the Bunch, but its invisible hand dares not truly reveal itself. But among its haunting theme of the inevitable lies a gorgeous film that’s as rascally and rough as sandpaper and our titular found family of sorts.
The Wild Bunch hits the ground running, our attention almost immediately focusing on a group of ants swarming a scorpion and other creepy crawlies as our “heroes” approach a local bank, ripe for a robbery. Worst of all, as these bugs are burned alive while eating each other, we learn children are to blame for their fate. A clear warning that violence is hereditary among generations and one’s destruction is simply a bored little game for another. It’s impressively unsettling imagery, even for a film that’s legacy is defined by the ceiling it broke for violence depicted on the screen. Sam Peckinpah’s to-the-point direction sugar coats nary an inch for his film and the people depicted in it. He shoots the West as a sandbox of chaos and shifting morals. When the first shootout commences, or maybe when Pike immortally utters “If they move, kill ’em”, the editing reveals itself as some of the most kinetic and free-form in any western, but it doesn’t once come across as hard to follow.
Speaking of the people depicted in the film, I’m confident there’s no way The Wild Bunch would have achieved its status if not for the dynamic between the Bunch themselves. The camaraderie is beautiful and infectious (William Holden couldn’t play a better outlaw dad if he tried), and a significant amount of the emotional payoff is a direct result of their care and complicated history together, a bulk of this history shared between Holden and Ernest Borgnine, playing Pike and Dutch, respectively. They both bring an incredible amount of humanity to otherwise two fairly dangerous individuals. Their time together, especially when it’s just the two of them chewing scenery, shows how philosophical and reminiscent they truly are, especially on the subjects of the nature of man, their pasts, and the constant threat of Deke Thornton, an old partner who understandably struggles with the morality of hunting down his former friends. Not since Bonnie and Clyde has the relationship between criminals been so critical in how we perceive and judge their crimes. There’s a part of all of us that secretly wishes we could be a part of a group this tight knit, warts and armed robberies and all.