Posts Tagged ‘Ben Johnson’

Movie Reviews 303 – The Wild Bunch (1969)

June 16, 2017

The western was once a Hollywood staple, born in the silent era at the nascence of the film industry itself, it reigned supreme along with the romance and crime mysteries from the 40’s on through the 60’s. It competed with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the form of the weekly serials used to entice kids to return for Saturday matinees. Legendary stars including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and even director John Ford were synonymous with the format. But somewhere along the late 60’s it began to lose it’s lustre and fell out of favour, and the genre has been only sporadically revisited since.

The popularity of westerns in it’s heyday could be attributed to one factor: the promise of some action  But while those old westerns featured gunfights, showdowns and Cowboy and Indian war battles, the inflicted wounds were moderated to keep them mostly family friendly – well as family friendly as a gunshot or piercing arrow can be – bloodless and without realistic injuries. Director Sam Peckinpah changed all that with The Wild Bunch, throwing the sugar coated oaters a dose of reality.

The story is about a band of grizzled outlaws who roam along the periphery of the Mexican border as they pull their heists. The movie begins with the gang disguised in cavalry uniforms entering a small town and staging a bank robbery. But just as they are about to make their getaway they notice guns poking along the nearby rooftops. But the lawmen, forewarned and waiting for them, have not planned well. Evident that they are about to be ambushed by the waiting posse the outlaws take advantage of a badly timed celebratory parade including women and children leading right up to the bank porch. The outlaws exit the bank with guns blazing, instantly barraged by return gunfire. What follows next is a prolonged scene of frenzied carnage that leaves casualties on both sides, but mostly with the young and innocent bystanders. This opening scene clearly establishes the realism to follow.

The ragtag group of outlaws keep one step ahead of their pursuers while at the same time try to get one last good robbery with visions of a comfortable retirement dangling before them. Their trail is hindered not only by the lawmen and bounty hunters hot on their trail but also by a former gang member who got caught and coerced into cooperating with the gangs capture. Their escape plans are further complicated by the Mexican revolution, rebels, corrupt authorities in both factions, arms dealing, gang infighting and another thwarted heist.

Amid much soul searching and questioning the meaning of life, the grim outlook is inescapable leading to both desperation and eventual resignation. The gun battles are palpable and with blood red flowing freely along with bits of body and flesh. The handguns and shotguns are reinforced with a prized machine gun with becomes the centerpiece of a bloody finale. Other brutal acts which include a slit throat and a man dragged within and inch of his life are just as authentically portrayed.

The stellar cast is led by William Holden as the gang leader, Robert Ryan as the former member leading the hunt, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and even Strother Martin as one of the feckless bounty hunters.

Not for the faint of heart, the brutality in the film still stands as a benchmark today. The film also pushes the realism and ruthless boundaries in other ways such as showing kids torturing scorpions engulfed in ants and how ragged Mexican women would prostitute themselves for a few gringo coins, subject matter that would normally be hinted at and not explicitly shown on camera.

Peckinpah would once again adopt this ultra-violence format in Straw Dogs, another film that was proved to be controversial, but just as great cinematically.

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