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Western reflects changing times of the late 1960s

Brian Doxtader | Monday, October 2, 2006

“The Wild Bunch” signaled the end of an era – the passing of the classic Western. Symbolically arriving at the end of the 1960s, its violence was underpinned by an elegiac tone that ripples with an air of tragic inevitability.

Easily director Sam Peckinpah’s (“Straw Dogs”) finest film, “The Wild Bunch” follows a ragtag group of aging cowboys trying to recover from a failed payroll robbery. Led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), the Bunch includes Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson). When one of their own is captured, the Bunch is faced with a difficult decision.

When first released, “The Wild Bunch” was controversial for its ferocious violence. Taking cues from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns and other counter-cultural pieces like “Bonnie and Clyde,” the bloodshed is far more prevalent than in previous films – by no means does “The Wild Bunch” contain the subdued, implied violence of John Ford pictures. Instead, the film opens and closes with viciously memorable firefights, the latter of which has become one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history. While the violence seems relatively tame by today’s standards, it was revolutionary in 1969.

The film is anchored by Holden’s quietly dignified performance as Pike. In fact, “The Wild Bunch” may be the actor’s finest work, which is no small feat considering his resume, which includes classics like “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Network” and “Stalag 17,” for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Ernest Borgnine is almost as good as Dutch, Pike’s right-hand man. Pike and Dutch are men who have been through a great deal together, and both recognize that their glory is coming to a close.

Much of the credit for the film’s success must be attributed to its director, who never again equaled these heights. Peckinpah became known as a controversial director because of the violent content of his films, but violence is not the defining factor of “The Wild Bunch.” Instead, Peckinpah knows he has great material and a great cast, and allows those elements to shine, though his steady directorial hand is evident throughout the picture.

“The Wild Bunch” is, above all, a film about changing times. A reflection of the late 1960’s turmoil in which it was made, the movie continually points out the death of a golden era – Pike has difficulty mounting his horse and the Bunch is shocked when they see an automobile for the first time. “The Wild Bunch” is about men who recognize change, but are themselves unable to adapt. The pall of that self-awareness hangs over the film, which is what gives it an elegiac tone, though these men are unwilling – or perhaps unable – to go quietly into that good night. Peckinpah’s film transcends its Western origins and becomes a commentary about the end of an era.

“The Wild Bunch” is a great Western, one of the best. Ranked the 80th greatest film of all-time by The American Film Institute, it remains an enduring classic. At its best, the Western was always a dark, tragic genre, as exemplified by films like “The Searchers” and “Unforgiven.” Yet few films, let alone Westerns, resonate as strongly or as sadly as “The Wild Bunch,” which is an enduring testament to the film and an enduring testament to its times.

“The Wild Bunch” will be screened this Sunday in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as part of the PAC Classic 100 film series.