Classic Capsule: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Anyone who’s interested in understanding how modern film culture operates need look no further than the critical reviews for Sam Peckinpah’s classic western, The Wild Bunch. These days, The Wild Bunch is widely considered to be a cinematic masterpiece, achieving an almost-perfect score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes‘ uber-popular “All-Critic” meter. Yet, drill down a smidgeon deeper and you’re likely to find the majority of those reviews were originally aggregated from the year 1995 forward (when a remastered version of The Wild Bunch initially became available via DVD). Zero in a smidgeon more, and you’re likely to find a narrow cluster of reviews that were written by senior critics old enough to have seen and reviewed the original Wild Bunch way back in the late sixties. Most of those reviews read like a veritable laundry list of mea culpas mixed in with an almost equal number of “I-told-you-so”s.

All of which raises the question: What might cause a major critic to heap praise upon a film he or she denounced as unnecessarily vulgar some 30-odd years prior? Well, that all depends upon the critic, I suppose. And yet, I’d be willing to bet that if you asked the majority of well-known elder statesmen, you’d more than likely hear some convoluted equivocation based upon the foolhardy notion that we were all living in a simpler time back then; a time when cinema and society were both considerably more demure; an ultra-prudent era during which the brutally violent nature of Peckenpah’s film seemed more than a little too ambitious, if not all-consumingly obscene.

But here’s the thing (and there really is no gentle way of putting this): Those critics? Those critics are full of shit, you see. Stinking mad as the brine, so to speak. How do I know this? Well, I know it because The Wild Bunch was initially released during July of 1969, the undisputed height of lurid culture in this country. We’re talking about the golden age of Thompson, Bukowski, and Mailer, for Christ’s sake. We’re talking about the motherfucking Summer of Love, a divisive period during which Vietnam was tearing the social fabric of this country in two. And to insist Sam Peckinpah’s homage to the American cowboy was somehow too eager or over the top is to insist that you simply could not bear to watch the evening news or open up a daily broadsheet back in those days.

I mean, I suppose it does bear mentioning that the majority of reviewers who actually got The Wild Bunch correct during its initial big-screen run also felt the unmistakable need to apologize for their advocacy. Most notably, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, who hailed The Wild Bunch  as “the first truly interesting American-made Western in years,” while counterbalancing that statement with some weak-ass disclaimer about how the film possesses a violent intensity that “can hardly be supported by the story.”

Bullshit, Vincent Canby. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

Unfortunately, Vincent Canby was far from alone in terms of that sentiment. And if you think the entire infrastructure has matured one iota in the four decades since, I’d submit that you should think again (Please see Django Unchained for more on this sad topic). The problem (or one of several problems, in fact) is that the movie industry – much like any other corporate structure – is rotten to the core with desperate yes men and cheap-ass hangers-on. Most mainstream reviewers live in constant fear … fear of scorn, fear of firing, fear of being blackballed from the next goddamned junket, for that matter. These flat-foots check their passion at the door, and – in that spirit – they respond to every kick-ass flick like The Wild Bunch or Django Unchained as if they had been tossed into an entire conference room of dullards, every one of them staring back and forth at one another in time, just waiting for someone to signal when it might be safe to laugh again.

Just how good is The Wild Bunch? The answer is, very good … but not great. The first 15 minutes alone feel like a full-length film onto itself: a band of lonesome drifters, a massive rooftop ambush, a daring robbery gone awry, the subsequent looting of corpses, all set against the metaphorical backdrop of “Shall We Gather at The River,” sung by the South Texas Temperance League as it files its way past a drum-tight circle of children, all of whom are cheering on a colony of fire ants, as it marches roughshod over a dying pair of scorpions.

From that point forward, The Wild Bunch settles into a full hour of dead air masquerading as backstory. The film does, however, recover, culminating in a batshit crazy shootout just a few miles clear of the Mexican bordera shootout which signifies the end of one era and the beginning of another; the triumphant last stand of an aging William Holden, and perhaps even the death of the American cowboy himself.

It’s a fitting send-off, to be sure, ripe with all manner of cheap drinkin’, and whorin’, and homoerotic cowdudes in between. The Wild Bunch hasn’t only provided inspiration for every significant Western that’s come along in its wake, it’s also provided a huge chunk of the storyline for RockStar’s acclaimed Red Dead Redemption series. Over time, the film has come to be recognized as a revolutionary piece of cinema, much like Django Unchained might be some 40 years from now, y’know, once Quentin Tarantino’s long-gone-dead-and-buried and the industry’s discovered the financial opportunity – if not the set of balls – to rebrand his greatest films modern classics.

(The Wild Bunch is currently available for rental via YouTube and Amazon.)