The Wild Bunch opens with a methodically executed heist slash shootout sequence. Director Peckinpah quickly introduces cast members, partially due to the dramatic plotting, mostly due to Lou Lombardo’s fantastic editing. All juxtaposed with some kids watching ants kill scorpions. The Wild Bunch opens with one heck of a declarative statement. Peckinpah wants to look at violence and how people treat violence as entertainment.
Unfortunately, he also wants to do a Western about men getting old and being men and bonding even though they don’t like each other because they’re men after all and men stick together. Just look at “villain” Robert Ryan, who is pursuing his old gang–led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine–and is now stuck with a bunch of low-life bounty hunters. Real men aren’t low-life bounty hunters with bad teeth. Edmond O’Brien, the eldest of the “Wild Bunch,” has bad teeth but he’s not a low-life bounty hunter. He goofs off in the steam bath just like Holden and Borgnine.
After the opening, which is simultaneously exhilarating and horrific, The Wild Bunch does a more traditional first act. There’s setup with Ryan hunting down the gang, there’s setup with the backstory between Ryan and Holden, there’s a full introduction of the supporting cast. Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are brothers and dissenting voices in the gang. Jaime Sánchez is the other guy, who’s apparently been there longer than Johnson and Oates, but not as long as Borgnine. It doesn’t really matter because the characters aren’t deep. They’ll occasionally get deep characterizations from the actors, but the script’s pretty thin. In the script they’re just old, mopey, angry, drunk, tired, horny, or some combination thereof.
For Johnson and Oates, it doesn’t matter. They’re around to be flashy so Holden can dwell on all his mistakes. For Holden and Borgnine, it does matter. Borgnine has almost nothing whatsoever to do except back up Holden, so it’d be nice for there to be a reason more than Borgnine admires Holden. And if not a reason, at least something melodramatic. Something melodramatic would show Peckinpah and co-writer Walon Green carried a little.
Instead, no. It’s undeveloped. Just like almost everything else in The Wild Bunch, except Sánchez’s backstory. Out of nowhere, the film goes from being Ryan hunting Holden and company to Holden and company hanging out in Sánchez’s home village in Mexico and becomes darn likable. Oates goes from ominous and dangerous to affable in about three minutes once they get to the village. Cute even. But Peckinpah doesn’t want the audience to like the characters for too long–at least not without reservations or comprise–so they’re always doing something awful.
There’s some good acting in The Wild Bunch. Holden’s a strong lead and he has a handful of phenomenal little moments. They don’t add up to anything, but they’re real good. And Peckinpah’s on for them too, which is nice. Borgnine’s fine. He really is just support for Holden. Sánchez is fine too; Peckinpah was apparently intentional about making him frequently pout. Oates is wild and crazy and it’s okay. It’s an enjoyable performance, but the character is still exceptionally unlikable. Johnson does a lot with a thin part.
Edmond O’Brien is amazing. He chews scenery, drools or spits it out with his chaw, but always with restraint. Whoever thought of dubbing his laughter over shots should’ve had a different thought, however. After some a lot of imaginative stylization in the first third, the film cools down until the grand finale. And that grand finale just shows the same techniques applied to different content; Peckinpah foreshadows pretty much everything in the spectacular open.
As far as the bad guys, Ryan’s okay. Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones are initially amusing as his most vocal moronic sidekicks. They soon get tiring, once it’s clear there’s no more material for them. Ryan gets it worst in that department, however. He’ll be going along fine and then get some trite, waxing nostalgic monologue. It makes for a long movie.
Jerry Fielding’s music is on the low side of mediocre. It’s kind of all right at times, but Peckinpah and Fielding go for a traditional Western score and it doesn’t bring anything to the film. And then there are the times Fielding does action thrill music, which do not work at all. In fact, they’re unpleasant. You’re sitting around waiting for something to happen and then there’s some action and Fielding kneecaps it.
I know Wild Bunch is a sparse, moody look at the male psyche, violence, and the myth of the Old West, but it should better at doing that thing. Peckinpah neglects his actors; not an insignificant problem since there’s only three or four intricate action sequences. There are a couple more elaborate ones, which have spectacle but not much else. But Peckinpah’s ignoring them when there’s nothing else going on except the characters walking, talking, riding.
Despite some dynamic filmmaking from Peckinpah, ably edited by Lombardo, Wild Bunch just doesn’t add up. There’s not enough for the actors, neither in the script nor in Peckinpah’s directorial attention.