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The Wild Bunch is a 1969 Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah. The film is focused on the story of Pike Bishop and his gang, who are trying to complete their last business before taking a break. An ex-gang member Thornton is now on the other side of the law and is given one month to arrest the gang. The film is notable for its deviation from the Western genre in terms of characters and structure. Moreover, it explores important topics of gender discrimination, loyalty, and leadership.
The film begins with Pike’s gang robbing a bank in a small Texas town. Thornton and his gunmen are waiting for the gang members to step out of the bank. A long gunfight results in multiple deaths on both sides, as well as in dead and injured civilians. However, Pike and three of his men manage to escape, joining the rest of his gang on the way to Mexico. Thornton follows them but runs about two days behind. Throughout the journey, the two have flashbacks of their past activities, including the event when Pike left Thornton injured in the hands of the police. Pike and his gang reach the village where Angel was born. There, he discovers that his father was murdered by a Mexican General Mapache, and his former love Teresa left with the Mexicans, seeking a better life.
The gang reach the Mexican border and find Mapache at the nearest town. Seeing Teresa, Angel shoots her, after which the gang is invited to share a table with the Mexican leaders and receive a task for a train robbery. The gang outsmart Thornton and escape with the stolen weapons, blowing up a bridge on the way. As they bring the arms to Mapache, it turns out that Angel stole some of the weapons. Mapache arrests Angel and tortures him. The gang returns to Agua Verde and attempts to persuade Mapache to let Angel go, but the general kills him, setting off a gunfight that leaves the rest of the gang and Mapache’s fighters dead. Thornton arrives after the fight is over; he is approached by Sykes, the only living gang member, who invites him to join the Mexican revolution. Thornton agrees and sets off on a journey with Sykes and the rebels.
Right from the start, it is evident that the film deviates from the Western genre, particularly due to the characters. Usually, anti-heroes in Western films are victimized and portrayed as lonely or misunderstood. In The Wild Bunch, however, Pike’s gang consists of outlaws who are fierce and greedy. Pike himself shows no remorse throughout the film. The characters do not trigger any compassion or approval in the audience, which is why their death seems fair, not tragic.
Women are somewhat demonized throughout the film. They are portrayed as cheating and treacherous. For instance, Teresa left her lover Angel for Mapache, who killed his father, whereas Pike’s woman cheated on her husband with Pike and was killed for that. Loyalty is shown as one of the key virtues throughout the film. Despite the gang members’ actions and attitudes, it is their loyalty or lack thereof that remains their primary characteristic. Therefore, women’s disloyalty adds to their demonized portrayal.
Leadership is another important theme. In essence, the film is based on the conflict between three leaders: Mapache, Pike, and Thornton. Each one has a distinctive leadership style. Whereas Thornton is a calm and distanced leader, Pike only shows his leading position during decision-making or when a threat arises. Mapache, on the other hand, shows power wherever possible and would go far to maintain his leadership position.
Overall, The Wild Bunch offers an interesting take on the Western genre due to its themes and characters. The film is significantly darker and more serious than most other examples of the genre, provoking the audience to think about the concepts of loyalty and leadership and what they mean in the context of the story.
The Wild Bunch. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, performances by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Edmond O’Brien. Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, 1969.