Dir: Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs; Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid; Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia; Convoy)
There are only three candidates for the best ever Western. I will hear a debate about The Searchers, How the West Was Won, or Rio Bravo; but I will not be swayed after that debate. Only Unforgiven, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, and The Wild Bunch are allowed serious consideration.
I think The Wild Bunch may be the winner.
I forgot how great this film was. Some of the best characters in any Western. The old "one more job and then I retire" theme is augmented here by a crew of bounty hunters stalking our intrepid bandits. The leader of the bounty hunters (Robert Ryan) is being blackmailed to get his former partner, the leader of the bandits (an unbelievable William Holden). Ernest Borgnine is also very good as one of the bandits. The story involves a chase through Mexico and Federales who terrorize a small village. As with most Westerns, the themes of honor and duty are in the forefront. But here, the anti-heroes are rather ruthless, and the law itself is even more corrupt. This is definitely a neo-Western.
Peckinpah made his reputation as a maven of screen violence here, with truly amazing opening and closing gun battles. The opening scene is legendary, with a Temperance Union caught in the crossfire. I can recall no other Western focusing on collateral damage like this, a gripping reminder that the violence depicted is at once thrilling and disgusting. But other than that, the film is continually brilliant. Shot of gorgeous bluffs and canyon land, the harshness of the desert is ever present. While the action scenes are wonderful, the more laid back and playful elements of village life and the joyful rowdyness of these rough men are something special as well. Many great lines, breathtaking direction, everything that makes the genre special.
A particular high point for me is a minor role by Alfonso Arau. I remember my first time seeing The Wild Bunch, on its rerelease at the Mayan Theater in Denver. There, out of no where, was El Guapo from The Three Amigos. Same damn character, same cadence in this speech, same undeniably joy in every word he says. John Landis found that guy and just had him reprise his stuff. Great inisde movie joke, and a great performance in both instances.
Unforgiven is more philosophical. The Good, Bad, Ugly is cooler. But The Wild Bunch is probably the best combination of all elements of the Western. And I do think it is that genre's best representative.