A town marshal, despite the disagreements of his newlywed bride and the townspeople around him, must face a gang of deadly killers alone at high noon when the gang leader, an outlaw he sent up years ago, arrives on the noon train.
It's 1913, and the traditional American West is dying. Among the inhabitants of this dying time era are a outlaw gang called "The Wild Bunch". After a failed bank robbery, the gang head to Mexico to do one last job. Seeing their times and lives drifting away in the newly formed world of the 20th century, the gang take the job and end up in a brutally, violent last stand against their enemies who deemed to be corrupt in a small Mexican town, ruled by a ruthless general. Written by
The movie's line "If they move, kill 'em." was voted as the #72 of "The 100 Greatest Movie Lines" by Premiere in 2007. See more »
At the end of the opening sequence, when Crazy Lee shoots three lawmen, the electrical line to the squibs is visible. See more »
Do not drink wine or strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, least ye shall die. Look not though upon the wine when it is red, and when it bringeth his color in the cup, when it moveth itself aright at the last, it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder. Now folks, that's from the Good Book, but in this here town it's five cents a glass. Five cents a glass, now does anyone think that that is a price of a drink?
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"The Wild Bunch" is one of those movies people don't agree on, even those that agree it's great. It's definitely complex, entertaining in a disturbing way, and manages to be at once nihilistic and moralistic, not an easy trick, especially for a cowboy film.
The first problem we have to deal with when watching this film is the fact there's very quickly a gunfight going on and, against all movie convention, no one to root for. There's an all-star cast on one side, including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates, but against all expectation, they turn out to be a pretty black crew. About the first thing out of Holden's mouth, said about a cowed group of innocents, is "If they move, kill 'em," and before the battle is over, we've seen him and his team commit all sorts of savagery. About the only reason we don't immediately see them as evil is that the people they battle are no better.
Over time, we are encouraged to find something of value in Holden's Pike Bishop and his ruthless confederates, as they ride away, lick their wounds, and try to figure out how to get something else going, anything. The only problem is its 1913 and these outlaws are running out of time and options. "I'd like to make one good score and back off," is how Pike says it, to which Borgnine's faithful buddy Dutch exclaims: "Back off to what?!"
Chasing the bunch, and offering the viewer the film's one sympathetic character, is Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, a former partner of Pike's who doesn't want to go back to jail and for whom killing the bunch is the one unpleasant means of securing his freedom. Ryan, who died in 1973, is probably not as recognizable as the other leads today, but he lends a sad, elegiac presence to his on-screen moments that give the film much of its grace and warmth.
The final star is director Sam Peckinpah, who made a truly revolutionary film that not only pushed the art of film forward but holds up today as a cinematic experience. Time has been kind to this film in a way it hasn't to other ground-breaking auteur moments from the same era, like "MASH" and "Easy Rider." When "The Wild Bunch" came out just as the 1960s were ending, people were truly shocked by the violence and cruel characters. Today, of course, such things are so common, and so mindlessly celebrated, that we find ourselves admiring what Peckinpah does for the surprisingly subtle and restrained way he goes about presenting us with mayhem and carnage, and his refusal to glorify it, however exciting and entertaining the overall package.
Surprisingly for a director who had trouble getting work at the time, Peckinpah landed three Oscar winners in the cast, and a fourth, Ben Johnson, who'd win his a couple of years later. Obviously, the acting is strong, each player investing his spare lines with the right degree of space and spirit, but it's probably worked even better that the movie game in 1969 was in the process of passing the fuddy-duddy likes of Holden, Borgnine, and Edmond O'Brien behind. This makes them very believable as a group of hard-nosed has-beens. In that light, it's kind of cool how hip this film so quickly became when it was released.
It's such a good film it's easy to overlook minor weaknesses. There's a nice bit of symbolism in the beginning, now famous, where the gang rides past a group of children tormenting scorpions and ants, but the point, once made, is beaten into the ground. There are some bits of convenience that stick out, like when a gunned-down outlaw rises and mows down his attackers with a few too-precise shotgun blasts. The general dislikeability of just about everything and everybody does feel a bit of a weight after a couple of viewings.
But what's great is just awesome, especially that opening sequence and the final showdown at Bloody Porch. Such terrific punch-drunk ambiance, it's almost a shame to watch it sober. The feeling of a new era coming upon us, which we see in everything from the doughboy uniforms at the outset to the car General Mapache rides around in, is redoubled by the glorious splendor, even clarity of this picture. Is it too much to praise a movie for the quality of the film stock itself? This is a paradox film, one about obsolescence and growing old that remains startling new-looking and fresh 35 years on.
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