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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

One for all and all for one.

The Wild Bunch

Plot Overview

I arrived early for movie class to witness a preview of an early bloody shoot­out in which I could not make out who were the good guys and who were the bad. Wait till they start the movie proper, I figured.

“The Wild Bunch” quickly develops a shootout between outlaws disguised as soldiers and some vigilante mercenaries (“bounty hunters”) whom their rail­road employers refer to as “gutter trash.” As every­one looks pretty dis­reput­able, we don't know whom to root for. The surviving members of the Wild Bunch—played by William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates—rendez­vous with an older gang member, Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), to divvy up their take. In a rapidly-getting-tamed west, robbing “That damn rail­road … sure as hell ain't a-gettin' no easier,” says one of the “Bunch.” Replies Sykes, “And you boys ain't gettin' any younger either!” Wild Bunch leader Pike Bishop (William Holden) could only have survived into modern times because he's “The best. He never got caught.”

Some had wanted this to be their last job before they retired. Their retirement plan had some holes in it, though, so they have to develop a plan ’B‘. They cross into Mexico and strike a deal with Mexican Federal Army General Mapache (Emilio Fernández)—a Huertista commander in the short-lived regime of General Huerta, sug­ges­ting the year is 1913 or 1914—to rob a lightly guarded U.S. Army supply train of rifles in exchange for $10,000 in gold that Gen. Mapache got by plundering the country­side. It's easy pickings being guarded by “green recruits.” Gen. Mapache won't rob it him­self, because he doesn't want to start a war with the U.S. One of the Wild Bunch, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), is Mexican from one of the plundered villages (“These are the years of sad­ness”), who feels it's okay to skim some of the rifles to aid his village. Mean­while the rail­road's bounty hunters—played by L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin and Albert Dekker—are being led by former Wild Bunch member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who'd been captured and conscripted in exchange for his liberty. He can anticipate Pike's moves. Gen. Mapache has got him­self a German military adviser Mohr (Fernando Wagner). He's also making time with Angel's fiancée. With so many divided loyalties and the green army recruits likely to shoot at any available target, once the Bunch acquires sixteen (minus one) crates of rifles, along with grenades, and an M1917 Browning machine gun, the bullets will start to fly. There were more shots fired in this movie than in the 1913 revolution in Mexico.

In this modern west, if any of the Wild Bunch survive, they'll have to conclude, “It ain't like it used to be; but it'll do.”


I was at a lunch earlier in the day of this movie, at which some­one told a joke about a temperance preacher declaiming on alcohol he'd pour in the river if he had any. He goes on with that line until they close with the hymn: “Shall We Gather at the River?” “The Wild Bunch” opens at a meeting of the South Texas Temperance Union, cutting back and forth with a gathering of children observing a river of ants swarming over a live scorpion. Rev. Wains­coat (Dub Taylor) preaches a rousing sermon against alcohol consumption from Lev. 10:9 and Prov. 23:31-32. Some soldier-like hombres are mean­while riding into town helping little old ladies cross the street (“May I?” ¶“Thank you.”) At the meeting the attenders take the pledge (“I solemnly promise God … helping me to abstain.”) They then take to the street to march to the tune of “Gather at the River,” passing the rail­road office just as the robbers make a break for it, joining them in a river of violence as a planned ambush opens up from adjacent rooftops.

Seeing temperance gets tied up with The Wild Bunch, we might as well take a second look at it. Besides abstaining from intoxicants, temperance can also mean: moderation in thought, feelings, or actions. We see members of the Wild Bunch moderate their greedy thoughts about unequally dividing up the loot (“it ain't fair”) after Pike convinces them to be satisfied sans a larger portion. We see Angel moderate his feelings of bother­ation about his sister running off with the General, after he takes in the big picture. As for actions, that machine gun must be mounted on a tripod, not fired from the shoulder, prefiguring the stability that will be needed to moderate our heavy weapons in the coming Great War. As for drinking in moderation, that's covered when the gang passes around the bottle, and the person who takes an immoderate swig consigns the last man in the circle to an empty.

The oath of abstinence might be best applied to the General's fancy automobile (“Now what in the hell is that?”) able to run on gasoline or alcohol. I don't see many gas stations around there, but according to Rev. Wains­coat's preaching against drinking, “in this here town it's 5¢ a glass.” They've got whole kegs of it at the General's redoubt. Maybe the General hadn't ought to be using a tank of alcohol to pull Angel around to his death in a dispute over an arms deal gone sour.

Eventually the west will come to the Matthew Shepard Act of 2009, adding sexual orientation to the federal hate crimes criteria. Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming was pulled to his death over some drug deal gone bad but became a cause célèbre when the media discovered he was gay. Now one dare not utter a homo­sexual epithet while committing some petty crime for fear of doing serious federal time. Well, Angel was partly incited to modify the distribution of arms on account of his hetero­sexual orientation when his fiancée left him for the General and then humiliated him. And there sure was a lot of name calling going on, like “you egg-suckin', chicken stealing gutter trash.” You think the west is being tamed in this movie, stick around and you'll see it become a  Hate Free Zone.

The funniest moment of the film was when the gang realizes they'd been played for fools. The conversation goes like this:

Pike Bishop: They set it up.

Lyle Gorch: "They"? Who in the hell is “they?”

Sykes: [laughs hysterically] "They"? Why, they is the plain and fancy they, that's who "they" is! Caught you, didn't they? Tied a tin can to your tail. Led you in and waltzed you out again. Oh my, what a bunch! Big tough ones, hunh? … They? Who the hell is "they?"

Pike Bishop: Railroad men … bounty hunters … Deke Thornton.

By using the sweeping term "they," the gang is refusing to acknowledge the treason of one of their own, Deke Thornton. I was seated next to a lawyer watching this movie, who explained it in lawyerese: The word misprision [pronounced misprizhon] means concealing a felony or treason, by some­one who him­self did not participate in the felony or treason. Most often we'd hear it—if we heard it—applied to misprision of felony, where, to take one example, a Bishop who is not him­self a child molester reassigns a priest who gets caught to another parish with­out telling or warning any­one. Only here it's misprision of treason when the loyal gang hides the treachery of one with a generic, “they set it up,” instead of naming the culprit: some­what along the lines of one of King David's intrigues in 2Sam. 20:19-21.

If we're willing to apply “The Wild Bunch” to our times, there's a similar misprision of treason that ties right back into temperance. Rev. Wains­coat winds up his speech saying, “Now folks, that's from the Good Book,” referring to its pure source à la Psalm 12:6. The Good Book in 1913 would be what we would call the King James Version, what he preached from being just about all that was avail­able at the time. In twenty more years, 1933, the Sinaitic Ms. would be published, being the second most important manuscript used in more modern bible versions. It was discovered by Constantin Tischendorf at St. Catherine's Monastery, but the abbot only loaned it to him; he wanted it back. Tischendorf treacherously forged the abbot's signature to an agreement ceding it to the Russian Czar as a gift, who later sold it to the London Museum when he was strapped for cash, and so it has passed into scholars' hands and into our modern versions through an act of treason. Intros to post-1933 bibles, which say they use the "best manuscripts" or "original manuscripts" are using code words for including the Sinaitic Ms. It's easy enough to cover up when one says, ‘the Bible says …’ with­out specifying which consumer version says it. That's misprision of treason just as was “they set it up” hiding the name of the man behind the scenes.

Production Values

“The Wild Bunch” (1969) was directed by Sam Peckinpah. The screenplay was written by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah using a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner. Its great cast includes William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Edmund O'Brien. It's bitter­sweet looking at the demise of the western as civilization marches on (“We've gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.”) It seemed to me perfect in its writing, direction, and scoring. The editing was a work of art. It's a veritable classic.

Warner Brothers hurried it into production so they wouldn't be accused of copying from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” whose gang in real life was called The Wild Bunch. Six cameras running at different speeds were used to capture the final shoot­out. This was radical in 1969; today we're more acclimated by TV to violence.

Review Conclusion w/ Consumer Recommendation

Farewell to the wild west; we're sure going to miss you, but at least you went out with a bang. There didn't seem to be anybody wearing the white hat in this one, which is a travesty on the western formula. Group loyalty seems to be the order of the day, although it's not always straight­for­ward. This is a worthy western to see.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Edge of your seat action-packed.

Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years.

Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening.

Suspense: Several real suspenseful moments

Special effects: Average special effects.

Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.