I am one of the few surviving appreciators of second bests. In hindsight, my second biggest crush in high school ended up being a much better person and is in fact the only person from high school that I keep in close contact with. Your second best is always the sneakier one, the more interesting and mysterious one. You’ve studied your favorite, your best, with the gumption and know-how of a private detective. You know them inside out. However, the second best is just a little less known, shrouded in an enigma; it’s so irresistible that you sometimes forget why the first one is your best or favorite, but then you snap back in. If you’re looking to get married soon, more than likely you will cheat or at least make out with your second favorite at some point. This is the way of the world, get used to it. It’s all good news for The Wild Bunch, which happens to be both Sam Peckinpah’s second best film (Straw Dogs is better) and the second best revivalist western ever made (after Unforgiven).
It’s even got William Holden’s second best performance (he was better in Network). He plays Pike Bishop, the head of an outlaw gang of ace criminals. We are introduced to the gang when it is nearly 10 men strong, but after a gunfight with Thornton (Robert Ryan), Pike’s old partner turned bounty hunter, there are only six. Relentlessly chased, they quickly take an offer to hold up a train and steal 16 crates of rifles from it. They return to the Mexico town, still being trailed by Thornton. The only Mexican in the gang, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), insists on taking one crate so that the general who hired him won’t take over his village. When they return to the general, they give him the crates and he gives them the money, but not before taking Angel and torturing him for trying to arm his village. An argument between Pike and his closest comrade, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), sparks a return to the general’s compound and stand off between the five remaining outlaws and the general’s army, which consists of roughly 200 men.
The Wild Bunch takes new strides for the Western genre in both its character development and its story line. In John Ford westerns, it seemed at least somewhat clear cut who the bad people are and who the heroes are. Here, Peckinpah dismisses the sugar coating and opens with the gang of outlaws murdering and slaughtering as many people as possible to get out of their botched hold-up alive. There is no chivalry, no false heroics; these are grizzled, mean criminals who don’t have any loyalties but to each other, and even that is shaky. There is also the inclusion of the machine gun. An unknown extra in the cargo they rob, the machine gun is an object of great mystery and great dispute. The Mexican soldiers trying to figure out how it works bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the sign of change in the old formula, the advancement of technology and time in a genre that brutally snuffed both. Holden’s restrained performance points in the same way. He is the first person to say that Angel isn’t worth saving from the Mexicans and they should just go ahead, while Borgnine wants to go back. The role of sidekick (logic and cowardice) and hero (bravery and romanticism) have been switched to an amazingly effective degree.
It’s easy to see how current directors like Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino took Peckinpah’s use of gushing violence and psychological underpinnings to build their careers (De Palma is equal parts Hitchcock and Peckinpah). The pure grandeur of the film even places it as the second biggest Western epic (The Searchers is bigger and better). There is a certain familiarity and love at showcase here. Like Sergio Leone, he strayed and succeeded in other genres but his heart was always with Westerns. And although Straw Dogs will always be his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch has a thunderous heart that you can hear beating under it. Being second place isn’t all that bad.
The director’s cut DVD includes commentary from Peckinpah’s biographers, plus a second disc of deleted scenes and three documentaries about Peckinpah and his most noteworthy film.
Guys gone wild.