The Wild Bunch ★★★★★

Watched as part of the June 2018 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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#10. A film from Rotten Tomatoes 75 Best Westerns of All Time.

Regular friends will remember that I'm throwing myself this year into the world of Westerns for the first time, since it's one of the most glaring areas of film history that I know almost nothing about; and this of course has been helped by my participation for the last year and a half in the Film School Dropout challenge, which not only devotes separate weeks to traditional Westerns and revisionist Westerns, but a third entire week just to Spaghetti Westerns. Today's 1969 Sam Peckinpah pick is firmly in the "revisionist" camp; for those like me who need a bit of explanation of what that means, basically during the countercultural '60s when nearly everything was being reimagined by the dominant youth culture at the time, even this old and solid genre was completely reimagined, with the young filmmakers of those years abandoning the John-Wayne-focused "white-hat white-horse pomade-hair good guy" paradigm that Westerns had become by the 1950s, and now embracing the genre as a chance to showcase dirty rebellious antiheroes with ambiguous ethics and a disdain for authority. You know, just like young filmmakers in the '60s were doing with cop movies and science-fiction movies and romance movies and just about every other genre you can name.

The Wild Bunch is one of the most bold examples of this reimagining; with no less than John Wayne himself whining at the time about how the film "kills the mythos of the American West," this is pretty much exactly what Peckinpah wanted, a pitch-black look at frontier life in which not a single person acts in a "good" way simply for the sake of being good, a world of violent outcasts who live in the "Wild West" precisely because they're too sociopathic to live in "civilization" further east (and would have no use for the brain-dead trained seals of the big cities even if they could). It's the story of a gang of aging outlaws, led by a never-better William Holden, who in 1913 are realizing that the lawless wasteland where they've done so well for themselves over the decades is rapidly coming to an end; while pondering their mortality and their inability to adapt with the times, they also end up running afoul of the US government, a posse of bounty hunters, a Mexican warlord, a pre-Nazi German, and just about everyone else in the American Southwest they cross paths with along the way.

The hype about this movie is real; it really is one of the most brutal films I've ever seen, not necessarily from the violence itself (which is essentially nothing different than you now see every Friday at the multiplex), but from the sheer contempt for human dignity that all our players involved express while in the course of committing this violence, a world where brotherhood means nothing and loyalty means nothing, and where your comrade-in-arms is happy to hold up your wounded body as a human shield if it grants him another five minutes of life during a shootout with an equally corrupt military. No wonder John Wayne and others were so shocked and dismayed when this movie came out -- although highly entertaining, it's also one of the dreariest, most pessimistic looks at humanity ever captured on celluloid, during a period when the American mood and spirit in general was at one of its lowest points in its history. An easily watchable actioner whose two-and-a-half-hour running time goes flying by, don't mistake its perpetual popularity as a sign that the film is fun and goofy like a Tarantino flick; it's actually a dark and terrible look at the worst humanity has to offer, ironically the very reason it's turned into such a classic in the 50 years since.

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