And to think, this was once thought of as controversial. Years of escalating cinematic body counts have decreased the shock of the mythical ending, but it hasn't taken away the power of this eulogy to the end of the Wild West. Holden was never better."We've got to start thinking beyond our guns".
"The best film ever made....."
So says Pike (William Holden), the nominal leader of the titular group, early into the film, after a bank hold-up goes awry. This is not the mythical "Wild West", where John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart wander around, decent and straight as an arrow. Times change, technology advances (and is gleefully embraced by some sectors of society, especially when they see the uses for entertaining and novel ways of torture), and man-on-man showdowns are becoming less pertinent and more of an outdated macho posture than anything.
And yet, this Bunch, a group of murderous thieves, know no other way, and in the end, they can only fall back on what they know, just in order to salvage a little bit of dignity, to uphold their concept of honor. If their way of life is slowly disintegrating around them, what better way to exit it than in an orgy of excess that defined those lives?
And really, what are their options? They are being tailed by a group of mangy bounty hunters, working for the railroad that they have crossed one too many times, who are as indifferent to human life as the Bunch are made out to be, shooting innocent civilians and young army men ostensibly on their side, just for money. There are no good guys, no bad guys, and somewhere along the line, the idealistic image of retirement vanishes from the men's minds, seeing as it never really existed in the first place. Their only options are to fade away into a series of tenuous robberies, promising a series of diminishing returns; allow themselves to be caught by people just as worthless as them; or to blaze away brightly, and maybe help usher in the new world with a few less despots to pillage it. Neil Young had it right. The Wild Bunch predate it.
In this land, no-one is pure, no-one is just. We see children joyously torture scorpions and ants, the reasons are not made clear, but the parallels are - what hope do the worst of men have in a world where even the children are brought up to believe in the majesty and righteousness of violence? "Even the worst of us dream of being children again. Perhaps the worst of us most of all", says an elderly Mexican man, sitting in the middle of a threadbare village, ransacked by the tide of civil war. We realise that it would make no difference.
Peckinpah, in essence, seems bent on destroying the West, not by debunking myths, but by showing what happens to the legends after the stories passed down from generation end. This is that oft forgotten epilogue; or perhaps a eulogy. The film is poetic, lusciously photographed in glorious widescreen by Lucian Ballard - the countryside seems pure and fresh, the sky luminous blue, the only blemish the clouds of dust that betray all. These men roam around in the vast expanse and yet can't seem to escape anything; not their pursuers, their past or themselves. They stand out like beacons, smudge marks on a white dress.
Holden cuts a terrifically weary, ragged figure, and he is outstanding at suggesting a man who's inherent decentness begins to reappear after years of crime and debauchery. Even more ragged is Robert Ryan as his former partner, turned pursuer, a man who seems torn between whether to kill his former comrades or to join them again. He is disgusted with the bounty hunters he is given command of, and even more disgusted with himself, though he's not sure why. Maybe he's bitter that his cowardice, his fear of prison, won't go away. Maybe he regrets not having been killed in the first place. Either way, he's literally chasing his past, and not quite sure what to do with it when it's captured. These are two of the best performances that you are likely to see in a Western, unromantic yet shifty.
Peckinpah doesn't fetishize the violence, but he doesn't shy away from it either. It's here, there, everywhere, and to downplay it would be a disservice to the story. The final sequence, made infamous at initial release, seems tame now in retrospect, at least in terms of blood and gore. But it remains untouchable in purpose, a perfect coda to a perfect film.At the end, Thornton sits in the dirt, sits and sits. For him, it's the end of an era. For the viewers, it's seems like the end of the Western.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=685&reviewer=397
originally posted: 01/31/05 20:03:30