"As close as we've been to a masterpiece in a long time."
The western is supposedly dead - finally put out of its misery in 1992 by Unforgiven - not. The cowboy may have exchanged his horse for a BMW, his six-shooter for an exploding pen and his hat for a cool pair of shades, but the mythology of the western looms large over every action picture that comes out of Hollywood.The action flick has replaced the western mostly because there is no frontier - it is now a post-industrial, urban landscape, where drive-by shootings are followed by the screech of burning rubber rather than the thump of galloping hooves. Films like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch actually dealt the final blows, and any attempt to revive the western since then has been a desperate trip into nostalgia - Dances with Wolves most definitely included.
Made in 1969, The Wild Bunch is a simple story with complex undertones. Set in 1913, a year before the First World War, a band of outlaws finds itself in a world that no longer understands the concept of honour amongst thieves.
The band is led by Pike (Holden), an aging gun-slinging bandit in search of the elusive 'last job' so that he might retire 'naturally'. His friend Dutch (Borgnine) is totally dedicated to their cause. And this is the irony - one which Peckinpah states and restates in no subtle terms - these guys have no cause, no direction and no purpose. This immediately renders their honour absurd and their lifestyle meaningless.
Moreover the violence which underpins their every waking moment is stripped of its heroism and recast as a self-destructive force. The gorgeous cinematic poetry of many of the violent scenes are continuously undermined as we come to this realisation.
Melancholic and unapologetic, few films have been so self-reflexive about their own generic histories as this one, and even fewer actually have something interesting to say as a result. Restored to the director's preferred cut, this is as close as we've been to a masterpiece in a long time.The western may indeed be dead, but in The Wild Bunch it most definitely died with its boots on. ---Paul Garcia