Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch ★★★★ 4/5

This movie completely threw me for a loop. When I started watching it, I was thinking I had seen it before. As the film progressed, I realized the movie I was confusing it with was The Magnificent Seven (1960). Well, it turns out that The Wild Bunch is a far cry from The Magnificent Seven. Westerns certainly came a long way from 1960 to 1969. If you watch this movie and expect a decent, well mannered Western, you are in for a surprise.

The opening sequence is atypical of the Western right off the bat. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates make up the members of the Wild Bunch. They ride into town disguised as American soldiers to rob a train station of a silver shipment. As they ride in, the musical score is startling and bold. Children alongside the road are torturing scorpions by placing them atop mounds of what appear to be fire ants. As the children laugh and giggle, the screen freezes on each of the main actors one by one and the music screeches and vibrates. The opening title scene is far ahead of it's time and is worth watching just for that.

Once in town, the Wild Bunch, led by Pike (William Holden) conducts their business of robbery only to be run out of town by a group of men hired to capture them. The leader of this group is (Robert Ryan) Deke. As Pike's men flee to escape and Deke's men try to capture the Wild Bunch, the town where the robbery occurs becomes a bloodbath. Innocent townspeople, women and children are all caught in the crossfire. To see this happen so vividly in a 60's Western was actually quite shocking.

After Pike's men escape and are able to divide the earnings of their robbery, they realize they were tricked and the silver they had stolen was actually bags of worthless washers. Broke, and needing money, the robbers flee to Mexico where they can plot their next move. As they travel to Mexico, they come across a rising Mexican dictator who entrusts them to steal artillery from the US Army. The group agrees and devises a plan to rob a train carrying the equipment.

The plot is pretty cut and dry from here out. Rob the train, get the supplies to the Mexican army without getting killed, collect their pay and be on their way. There are some twists here and there. One twist is that one of the Wild Bunch, Angel (Jaime Sánchez) lost his Father when the Mexican General's army had raided his village. Angel intends to shoot and kill the General himself. Upon finding this out, the General and his men claim Angel and torture him. This sets the Wild Bunch off and they then care more about getting Angel back then they do fulfilling their agreement with the General. This conflict is what brings the film to an ending that rivals the works of Quentin Tarantino. It is for this reason you do have to see this film.

Rarely do you come across a film lover who does not love and respect the work of Quentin Tarantino. It is virtually impossible to watch The Wild Bunch and not think about Tarantino. This film has so many components that are similar. The initial opening scene where The Wild Bunch comes into town posing as something they aren't, the way he used legendary stars in a way you would never expect to see them, the blurry lines as to who is the "bad" guy, and that who might be considered bad is actually good. There are complexities to the film that evolve from character struggles.

There are three scenes that make the film entirely worthwhile.

1) The train robbery. This scene is so smoothly choreographed and reflective of historic train robberies. The filming in itself is smooth and well down for the amount of action that takes place. A grand scene and highly entertaining.

2) When Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) essentially sacrifices Angel (Jaime Sánchez) to the Mexican leader. The facial expressions of the actors say everything that they are thinking. The tragedy of what is coming is clear - well, somewhat clear. Borgnine displays so many emotions in just a matter of seconds. He looks at the general and glances at Angel with disgust, which immediately turns to sorrow an apology. Before he even turns his head you can see the guilt and betrayal he feels. It is a brilliant scene and emotionally charged.

3) The finale. This is the most Tarantino-esque scene in the film. A machine gun becomes a character. A bloodbath ensues like that of Inglorious Basterds (2009). The dictator and his men are brutally slain on their own base with their own weapons. Shock value kicks in and the movie is a far cry from predictable. With The Wild Bunch the mold of the Western was broken.

There are other interesting elements to this film as well. From a historical perspective, it analyzes illegal arms trade. In the 1980's weapons were reportedly illegally sold to other countries. Could this film have laid out the plans for that, or does it simply explain how that type of thing happens? The whole concept that with the right access, a down on their luck bunch of guys could make money stealing and selling weapons to dictators and guerrilla groups is very realistic after seeing this film. There are those who don't believe in country and have no alliance to anyone other then themselves.

Also interesting in this film is the racial breakdowns. The racism in the film is atypical in the sense that it is not stemming from white characters. The bulk of the stereotype comes from the Mexican army who repeatedly refer to the Wild Bunch as the Gringos. They also run with one Hispanic, Angel. When Angel is taken into custody and being tortured by the Mexican General, they no longer care about any reward or money. All they care about is getting their friend back. They hold him as an equal throughout the film. In past Westerns, a character of a different race might have been expendable, or abandoned once the initial goal was completed.

It is worth seeing and if you are a movie fan, yes, you should see this movie. It is worth is for many reasons. First, the main reason is to see how it laid down the path for movies to come decades later. Second, it defies conventional movies of it's time. It is worth seeing for the political implications, the social contexts, and the character developments. There are parts where the movie does drag out bit. It is for that reason I could not go with 5 stars.

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