With an unflinching, ravaged view of the world, director Sam Peckinpah could instil fear in the trenches of World War Two, the calm British countryside, or, as he does in The Wild Bunch, the slowly modernising western towns. Gone were the days of rogue law and order, and in came a pressure to adapt to civilised means of living. But where Straw Dogs painted the violent thugs as villains out for blood, The Wild Bunch sees the typical villains of the western hounded to the corners of America. The heroes are there too. There is no need for their kind anymore. Surplus to requirement, ageing outlaws wish to take out one last robbery, to set them up for the rest of their days.
They know their time is up, and Pike Bishop (William Holden) shows this superbly well. With no worry or fear in his voice or mind, he is set on carrying out a heist alongside his old rag-tag group. What would once be a snatch and grab operation for young, fresh-faced outlaws is now a meticulously planned game of cat and mouse between ageing old hands and the new arm of reformed law enforcement. Robert Ryan presents this tenacity of the new system exceptionally well with his role as Deke Thornton. With Bishop and company fleeing to the Mexican border, Thornton pursues them, with violent gunfights peppering their journey toward the south. What better environment could be possible? Peckinpah has an exceptional touch for displaying not just violence, but the emotional consequences of it.
Experience the passing of the torch in The Wild Bunch. There are no more coves or abandoned huts for cowboys and pesky villains to hide away in. Bishop and his band of merry rebels are fleeing not just Thornton, but the tide of change about to wash them out of the country. No longer can they ride into town taking what they want from where they like. With the tightening of rules came the disposable nature of cowboys and rebel westerners. Peckinpah does well to demonstrate this, the effective new age of policing towns is too much for them to bear. Railroad companies now had a stake in the towns they tracked through, hiring bounty hunters like Thornton to keep bandits at bay. It does not help, of course, that Thornton and Bishop were firm friends a short time ago. That chemistry Ryan and Holden have is electric, despite them being at odds with one another.
The Wild Bunch tackles old narrative staples a tad too late. Peckinpah was no stranger to innovation, and as he brings out a respectful attitude to Mexican and Native American culture, the final whistle blows, and we are left with the credits rolling and a hopeful attitude that this message will be carried forth into the future instalments of the western as a concept. The genre would be dead within two years. Had they clung on for just that effort longer, then maybe, just maybe, there’d have been a new flash of heroes and villains to select from. But it was not to be, and The Wild Bunch does feel like a suitable end to the genre, despite not truly being the final nail in its coffin. There are fantastic scenes that toy with the simplicity of the genre, expanding upon them as more than just febrile conditions of the off-screen attitudes. They are given depth, meaning, and an understanding. It’s a shame it never got further than that.