Thursday, August 11, 2011

No. 80: The Wild Bunch

For most of this month, stepping outside felt like walking into a full-blast microwave oven. The place to be in August? Not Kansas. So why then, on the one day - I mean literally, the one day - it's not over 100 degrees, would I choose to stay inside? Call it a classic case of writer's guilt. Pretty sure I just made that up, but it's true - after all, it's been almost a month since my last post. Worst of all, I genuinely liked today's film: AFI #80, The Wild Bunch.

I have to say, my parents tried their very best to make me think the worst of this film, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Wild Bunch is like the love child of a cheesy Spaghetti Western and a small-scale John Ford film – and that's a pretty good combo. It was directed by the flawed-but-sometimes-brilliant Sam Peckinpah, and stars an A-list cast, including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, and Robert Ryan.

After a bank robbery goes wrong, Pike Bishop (Holden) and his gang of aging outlaws head to Mexico. They’re being chased by Bishop's former partner, Deke Thornton (Ryan), and his band of vigilante bounty hunters. The outlaws get mixed up in the Mexican Revolution, and accept a job from Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a self-appointed bandido: to steal weapons from a U.S. army train. The job goes as planned, but when one of Bishop's men embezzles a crate of guns, he's captured by Mapache's army and tortured. The outlaws leave the man, but eventually loyalty and honor force them to return for a rescue. This leads to a long and bloody shootout where – spoiler! – nearly everyone dies. One lone surviving outlaw goes off to join the war, but everyone else: goners.

I must say, whoever cast this movie did a fantastic job. William Holden and Robert Ryan only share a few scenes, but their chemistry and tension connect them like brothers. The supporting cast also gives great performances: Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, and the other actors bring bursts of personality and energy to stereotypical Western parts. This film is notable for director Peckinpah's use of strong gore and violence (well, strong for the 60's.) This could have easily gone wrong, but the splattering blood adds another graphic layer to an already beautiful film. Add in music reminiscent of a modern Hans Zimmer score crossed with jangling Ennio Morricone, plus vivid-but-not-cheeseball cinematography, and you've got a winner.

Negatives? I didn't have many problems with this film, but there were a few wrong notes.

1) Ernest Borgnine is not the guy with whom you want to have a sensitive-man-to-man talk. Borgnine and Holden are great together when gunning down a town – but not in sleeping bags sharing their feelings. It's just awkward.

2) For the most part, I liked the art direction. But, after a while - no matter how beautiful that cactus might be - the endless, multi-angle, artsy scenery shots are a bit much.

So, if you like:

* A white-haired Edmund O'Brien, channeling Walter Huston in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
* William Holden (because really, who doesn’t love William Holden.)
* Lengthy and gratuitously bloody gunfights
* A completely whistle-friendly, finger-tapping soundtrack
* Endings where everybody dies

...then you'll love The Wild Bunch.

Next up: AFI # 79, The Deer Hunter (1978). It’s directed by Michael Cimino and stars Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken. I’ve heard that this one's grim and a weeper - so break out your hankies, and stick around to read about it!