Tag: Ben Johnson

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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John Wayne embodies the honour and duty of the American man in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Captain Nathan Brittles), Joanna Dru (Olivia Dandridge), John Agar (Lt Flint Cohill), Ben Johnson (Sgt Tyree), Harry Carey Jnr (Lt Ross Pennell), Victor McLaglen (Sgt Quincannon), Mildred Natwick (Mrs Abbey Allshard), George O’Brien (Major Mack Allshard), Arthur Shields (Dr O’Laughlin)

If there is a film that marks John Ford as the great American Artist of the West, it might just be She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Shot in glorious Techicolour on location in (where else?) Monument valley by Oscar-winning cinematographer Winton C Hoch, it’s a gorgeously lit celebration of everything that made the American West a legend. Streaking red sunsets, rolling plains, lightening that slices through the sky, masculine military ruggedness beautifully bought to the screen. It’s Ford’s biggest push to become a Winslow Homer or Edward Hopper of the wide-open American space.

Nuzzling in the middle of Ford’s unofficial Cavalry trilogy (either side of Fort Apache and Rio Grande), John Wayne plays Captain Brittles (who might as well be Kirby York again, since he shares the same personality and most of the same backstory), is counting down the last few days until retirement. After Custer and his men are slaughtered at the Battle of Little Big Horn, he’s ordered to lead a cavalry patrol to fly the flag and help prevent a new war with the Indians. At the same time, he’s to escort his commander’s (George O’Brien) wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanna Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach (and safety). Olivia herself is in the middle of a love triangle with the two lieutenants eying taking on Brittle’s command, Cohill (John Agar) and Pennell (Harry Carey Jnr).

The film tells the story of that patrol and the subsequent follow-up mission to save those caught protecting the rear guard (needless to say Brittles continues the mission after his supposed retirement, bending the rules). There isn’t actually much in the way of plot in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Instead, Ford’s intention is to front-and-centre those particular American qualities of loyalty, honour, dedication to the cause and self-sacrifice. The men of the cavalry always put their country and fellow soldiers first, willing to sacrifice themselves to the greater good and show not one jot of hesitation in doing so. Ford shoots all this with real beauty and more than a touch of whimsical wit, coming particularly (where else?) from the Irish American contingent among the soldiers.

At the film’s heart is Wayne himself, now cemented in Ford’s films not as the traditional romantic action hero, but an elder statesman, wiser and less trigger-happy than his fellows, an unflappably experienced man who guides and inspires, shrugging off praise with an aw-shucks-just-doing-my-duty nobility. If Fort Apache and Red River were first steps towards Wayne – at this time only just past 40 – starting to act as if he was ten years older than he actually was (and in Red River’s case a little bit older than that!) – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon cemented him as the grizzled, inspiring man of action, a role he would play in variation for most of the rest of his career.

And he’s very good in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford had of course been impressed by the depth and shade of his performance in Red River. This is a simpler role – it would be a few more years before Ford used the darkness in Wayne as well as that film – but it shows Wayne slotting into place as part of What Made America Great. Wayne plays Brittles with a sadness – he’s a touching grieving husband, who takes a familiar chair out every night to talk to his wives tombstone – and a fatherly concern for his men, but tolerating no selfishness or greed. He mentors and pushes Cohill and Pennell like a second father, and has a brotherly banter with his loyal sergeant (inevitably Victor McLaglen as a hard-drinking, extremely Irish drill sergeant). He will do his duty, but he also respects Indian culture, will fight but prefers a peaceful option, will follow orders but never blindly. He’s all that’s good about the American fighting man, and this is one of his finest performances (and a personal favourite of his).

The yellow ribbon wearer is Joanna Dru as Olivia, the sort of spunky young woman Ford’s films frequently feature in key roles. Dru is just about the archetype: brave, determined, smart – much smarter than both of the rather dull men playing court to her. She’s also sensitive and understanding of Brittle’s grief and can hold her own with the men out in the field. Dru’s very good in the role, bringing it a great deal of depth and more than a touch of heart.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, plot wise, is more of a day-in-the-life movie. At heart not a lot actually really happens in it other than following the cavalry on two missions (one of which fails) and far from averting the war, it’s explicitly suggested they are just delaying it. The status quo is almost completely restored by the film’s end. The real focus of the film is the detail of what the men set out to do, the determination and humanity with which they go about it – not least the self-sacrificing bravery – and then the return to rest and prepare to go out again. All shot in some of the most striking and beautiful images of the West ever committed to the screen. As a visual tribute, the film is a rich feast.

It’s Ford’s celebration of America and the West and his case for the beauty and majesty of a generation and the values that they placed above all others. For this, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon may be one of the finest of its kind. It lacks the narrative thrust of Fort Apache – and like that film is, in the end, as unquestioning and uncritical of the actions and legacy of those pioneers out West, or the dangers of imperial expansionism or blind veneration of deeply flawed heroes like Custer – but it’s beautiful, very well acted (particularly by Wayne) and a fine film from a director at the top of his game.

Shane (1953)

Alan Ladd as the mysterious gunslinger Shane

Director: George Stevens

Cast: Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marian Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Brandon de Wilde (Joey Starrett), Jack Palance (Jack Wilson), Ben Johnson (Chris Calloway), Edgar Buchanan (Fred Lewis), Emile Meyer (Rufus Ryker), Elisha Cook Jnr (“Stonewall” Torrey), Douglas Spencer (“Swede” Shipstead), John Dierkes (Morgan Ryker), Ellen Corby (Liz Torrey)

On the surface Shane is pretty much the definitive “white-hat-black-hat” Western. Crikey, Jack Palance’s vicious gunslinger Wilson practically wears nothing but black. Alan Ladd’s heroic Shane does what needs to be done, and the kid loves him to bits. But Steven’s film is more complex and intriguing than that. Because Shane is in fact only a few degrees away from Wilson. When he rides into the homestead, he is already weighted down by the memory of all the people he’s killed. Shane is no saint. He’s a tired man whose shed too much of other people’s blood to ever feel anything but an outsider.

Shane arrives at the Starrett farm. Joey (Brandon de Wilde), the boy-of-the-house immediately hero-worships this mysterious stranger with the distinctive guns. Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is at first hostile but takes Shane in as a farm worker and he and his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) – maybe particularly Marian – are drawn towards this reserved but good-natured man. Starrett and the other homesteaders are in the middle of a feud with local cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to drive them off the land so he can use it for his cattle. Violence seems inevitable – but how long can Shane keep his unspoken pact to himself to put down his guns and try a life of normality?

Shane is one of Steven’s finest films, beautifully filmed with Oscar-winning photography and told with a lavishly poetic sense. It works so well because it juggles both a simple story, with a deep poetic understanding of humanity. You can see why this is “a Western for those who don’t like Westerns”. It’s got a beautiful, understated sense of struggle to it – the homesteaders against the bullying of Ryker – beautifully mixed with a sense of the dangerous glamour of violence. Match that with some wonderfully hissable villains and the honesty and decency of the Starretts and Shane’s quiet dignity, and you’ve got a perfectly judged morality play.

But the film works because there is so much operating on multiple levels. Which brings us back to Shane himself. Sure, he’s a decent guy. We expect him to be the hero. He fulfils much of that function in the plot. He’s kind and loving with the kid. He holds his cool and never seems to get angry. But why is this? The film makes clear that Shane has a past. A past of gun-slinging violence. And if Shane is still standing at the end of a life like that, he must have been good. And ruthless.

What was it that made Shane so desperate for a change? To try a life of normality, chopping down stumps and putting up fences on a farm? I suspect Shane in his prime wasn’t that different from the calm, cool and ruthless Wilson. You can see the guilt in his eyes when he finally shoots his weapon (at a rock!) two thirds into the film. This is a man who knows that killing carries a terrible burden – and he clearly knows all too well after sending so many to their graves. At the end of the film, with his emotional pean to Joey (“There’s no living with killing”) he’s speaking from the heart. And only someone who has killed many, many people – who doesn’t look remotely worried when facing off with Wilson and Ryker – could really know that.

It’s an idea that you could miss in the film, but it’s there all the way through. The casting of Alan Ladd – who was never better – is crucial to the success of this. Imagine the strength and power a Wayne or Cooper or Stewart would have given Shane. They would never have felt so slight, or beaten down by a life of violence. But Ladd’s smallness, his sadness and his reluctance works for the part. Stevens continually shoots him as an outsider, on the edge of scenes or even isolated in crowds. He can fade into the background in the way other stars couldn’t have done. He feels like a man who knows he has been a moral failure, who isn’t redeemed by star quality.

Stevens plays with our expectations of Shane through the reactions of the Starretts. Joe is (tellingly) instinctively hostile to him at first, before Shane wins him over. Marian’s reaction is however fascinating. She is both slightly repelled by what she can see as Shane’s past violence, but also increasingly drawn towards him. Is this because Shane’s internal knowledge, his worldliness, his depths of sadness make him more of a thoughtful kindred spirit than her husband can be? Joe is a simple man, decent beyond words, but not a thinker. Shane is more – for all his danger – and Marian feels like a woman who has accepted her place but perhaps dreamed of more. She would never act on this, but Shane to her seems to represent a path not taken.

And Joey? Shane is everything a boy could dream of in a hero. The man with few words who appears over the horizon with nothing but a six shooter. Stevens camera cuts back again and again to Joey’s adoring, worshipping face – and it’s an excellent performance from (the Oscar-nominated) Brandon de Wilde, as a young boy on the edge of becoming a teenager who wants to be a man, but still looks with the eyes of a child. Stevens throughout places the audience on the same level with Joey. Like him we want to believe in Shane, to see him play the hero. It’s part of the films skilful construction that it finishes before it occurs to you that the character the audience most closely related to was the uncritical, unknowing child. On first viewing we stare at Shane with the same hero worship as Joey.

Shane wants a life of normality. Shane isn’t a million miles away from Eastwood’s revisionist Unforgiven. In fact, Munny’s life in that film is basically Shane’s, without Ladd’s humbleness. The brutal killer who wants to leave it all behind, but is dragged back in. Who finally faces off and guns down a horde of enemies in a saloon bar before riding off into legend. Sure, Shane will be remembed with more fondness by those he leaves behind – and he saves the homesteaders – but just like Munny he does it by leaving a trail of bodies behind him.

Steven’s beautiful film is both a compelling narrative of goodies and baddies, but also a profound, fascinating and challenging film. It’s wonderfully made and has a host of reliable actors at the top of their game. Ladd is superb, Jean Arthur brings great depth to Marian, Van Heflin’s Joe is a the sort of simple, decent, salt-of-the-Earth type the West was made of. Facing them, Jack Palance makes the most of limited screentime (and got an Oscar nomination) as the sneering, bad-to-the-bone Wilson. It’s a perfect mixture of small, intimate scale that seems to be taking place in an epic environment. It’s influence has been so profound it’s virtually an archetype. An American classic.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

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Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd are making the best of small-time life in The Last Picture Show

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Cast: Timothy Bottoms (Sonny Crawford), Jeff Bridges (Duane Jackson), Cybill Shepherd (Jacy Farrow), Ben Johnson (Sam the Lion), Cloris Leachman (Ruth Popper), Ellen Burstyn (Lois Farrow), Eileen Brennan (Genevieve), Clu Gulager (Abilene), Sam Bottoms (Billy), Randy Quaid (Lester Marlow), Gary Brockette (Bobby Sheen)

“Anarene, Texas, 1951. Nothing much has changed…” So went the tagline for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Change, or rather the lack of it, is the heartbeat of this film. It’s small time (fictional) Texas town isn’t a million miles from the Wild West dustbowls. You feel nothing has really changed for decades, the same faces in the town have just got older. But the tagline suggests that, in many ways, the 1950s were not that different from the progressive 1970s. Sex and scandal lie under the surface of the town, with the inhabitants having little to distract them from boredom other than seducing each other. Unlike the sort of traditional films shown in the picture show – Father of the Bride or Red River – this town is just drifting, a change in America both round the corner but also feeling like something that would slide off the town like water from a duck’s back.

The film largely follows three high schoolers are preparing for graduation. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) are on the town’s useless high school football team (a uselessness no-one will let them forget). Duane is dating Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), a woman just discovering the power of her looks – and Sonny longs for her himself. Instead, Sonny starts an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman), the overlooked, lonely housewife of his football coach. Romantic entanglements abound, but life drifts on with the younger generation thinking sometimes of the future, but really repeating the mistakes of the older generation – people like Jacy’s cynical mother Lois (Ellen Burstyn) and the owner of the town’s pool-hall, cinema and diner, the fading conscience of the town Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson).

Bogdanovich’s film was a sensation when it was released, a key part of the New Wave films in Hollywood. It has lasted, in the way other films from the period haven’t, because it has a subtly simple but compelling story, shot as a perfect fusion of French New Wave styles with John Ford and Orson Welles inspired classicism. Bogdanovich’s film buffery is obvious from every frame – not just from the film posters announcing what is being shown at the picture palace, but also from its loving use of French-style realism and lack of glamour, set and framed in the Fordian style, often stressing isolation, intercut with homages to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

And in it we have a series of young people who seem to have no idea either where they, or the world is heading. Timothy Bottoms acts with such effortless naturalism, it’s easy to forget he is even acting at all. It’s a perfectly judged performance of a very normal young man, low on aspiration and inspiration, selfish in the way the young are but full of passion and regret. Jeff Bridges is similarly brilliant, playing a not-particularly smart (or particularly successful) school sports star in a performance completely free of any condescension or camera winking, but played with a charming honesty. These are supremely normal young men. Generally decent, well-meaning and naïve, not knowing what it is they want or need from life. They would fit as neatly into 1971, with their dreams, as they do in 1951. Especially as Duane packs off to head to Korea (no real difference from Vietnam).

And a lot of these dreams revolve around sex – and often sex with Jacy. Cybil Shepherd was a sensation on the film’s release, seen as the ultimate late-teen temptress and sexpot. But in fact, Jacy is (in her way) as much of an innocent as the others. She’s a woman only just discovering her own passions and longings. Who doesn’t want to become the jaded figure her mother has become – but working out the easiest way to get what she wants (be that a better boyfriend, better chances or even just some attention) is through using her physical attributes. Her sexual experimentation is, in a way, liberating – and just another attempt to find an answer to her own aimlessness. Sure – encouraged by her mother – she doesn’t invest anything emotionally in these entanglements. But is it really all that different from Sonny’s own using of Ruth Popper?

Ruth Popper is emblematic of the sadder older generation in the town. You can imagine they must have had hopes and dreams – or were once as breezily uncaring – as the younger generation. But they’ve found out, just as they will, that things don’t change. That you can blink and find yourself twenty years down the line, unhappy and lonely in a place you can’t seem to escape.

Cloris Leachman is outstanding as Ruth (she won an Oscar), the only person in the all the film’s couplings that we see expressing tenderness and vulnerability (in a film full of sexual encounters, the most intimate thing we see is her combing Sonny’s hair). She dares to slowly open herself up emotionally to believing in Sonny – to seeing their affair as more than just the booty call it starts as, but as something with a future. From the tearful fragility of her first scenes – her buttoned up matronly appearance, making her look far older than she is – she blossoms into a warmer, excited, person. It makes her inevitable betrayal by Sonny all the more heart-wrenching – along with her self-loathing fury that closes the film.

All the adults are drifting through the same disappointing life. Ellen Burstyn (also nominated) is wonderful as Jacy’s mother, who continually defies expectations. This mother is unfazed by her daughter sleeping with her lover, suggests that she might as well experiment sexually so she can find out it’s not all that and carries a revelation of deep loss and personal tragedy that only comes to light late in the film but is there in the character from the start. Other adults seem equally aware of their pointlessness: the coach is a repressed homosexual, the English teacher seems resigned to teaching Keats to bored students, Jacy’ father is a blow-hard nobody, Sonny’s father is a stranger to him. Only Eileen Brennan (excellent) motherly waitress still seems to have some hope.

Sonny’s surrogate father – and the heart of the film – is local businessman Sam the Lion. Johnson is superb, gifted a surprisingly small number of scenes but which establish both his moral force and his position as a link to a halcyon days past in America that might not really exist. Bogdanovich gives Johnson a knock-out speech (surely what won him the Oscar) – an Everett-Sloane-in-Kane inspired remembrance of a relationship from long ago, where the world seemed full of hope and opportunity, that perhaps get closest to defining the film’s sad reflection on how little those two things actually seem to exist in the present.

But it’s also about the temptation of memory. Bogdanovich’s masterpiece (it was all downhill in his career from here), The Last Picture Show knows only too well how quickly we realise life is a confusing, compromised mess. And the film, for all its old-school Hollywood style, is all about the past being just as a confusing, empty, sex-filled place of loss as the present is. Things have always been like this – and they probably always will. Welcome to Anarene. Nothing has changed.

Rio Grande (1950)

John Wayne is the Colonel regretting past mistakes in Rio Grande

Director: John Ford

Cast: John Wayne (Lt Colonel Kirby Yorke), Maureen O’Hara (Kathleen Yorke), Victor McLaglen (Sergeant Major Quincannon), Ben Johnson (Trooper Travis Tyree), Claude Jarmon Jnr (Trooper Jefferson Yorke), Harry Carey Jnr (Trooper “Sandy” Boone), Chill Wills (Dr Wilkins), J. Carrol Naish (General Philip Sheridan)

John Ford’s next project was meant to be The Quiet Man, his Ireland-set passion project. However the studio, Republic Pictures, were not convinced the expensive picture could ever be a hit (it later became one of their biggest hits and only Best Picture nominee). So they told Ford he could make it on condition that he, and his proposed stars Wayne and O’Hara, first made a good old-fashioned Western. Because they sure as hell knew they could sell that. So Ford turned out the third and final picture in his “Cavalry” trilogy, three interconnected films (the others being Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) with loosely connected themes and overlapping character names.

Lt Colonel Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is posted on the Texan frontier, defending the settlers against Apache attacks. When Yorke’s son Jefferson (Claude Jarmon Jnr) – who Yorke wasn’t seen in almost eighteen years – washes out of West Point, he volunteers to join Yorke’s regiment as an ordinary Trooper.  This leads to the arrival of his mother – and Yorke’s estranged wife – Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara arriving at the Fort, eager to get her son out of an enlisted life she feels isn’t right for him. But Yorke is determined there will be no special treatment for his son, never mind how dangerous are starting to get with the Apaches. 

Rio Grande is a professionally assembled, classic Ford western that hits all the marks you could expect in terms of action, excitement and that romantic version of the West that you might expect from Ford. But it’s perhaps so professionally assembled it still feels like one for the money at times – it’s a collection of all you might expect from a Ford classic, so much so it doesn’t feel like it offers much new among the director’s other works.

It’s most interesting parts revolve around John Wayne’s complex performance as a man who has buried his emotions beneath a cover of professionalism. Yorke is now martinet, but he’s a man who has put duty above his personal relations. It’s easy to forget that in many of his iconic roles Wayne was often the veteran, and here is man nearing retirement, loaded down with regrets and secretly crying out for a chance at reconciliation. Wayne’s performance is heartfelt and tinged with sadness, the sort of man who looks at his son from a distance as he performs dangerous horse riding stunts, but then backs away into the shadows, anxious that his fatherly concern remains unseen. It’s a quiet, lonely and sad performance from Wayne, a reminder of what a soulful actor he could be.

It also helps that he has wonderful chemistry with Maureen O’Hara, equally wonderful as his wife. A caring and loving woman, O’Hara’s Kathleen is also determined and independent, sure of her own mind and with no compunction about standing her ground against her husband. The two of them make a wonderful pair, two people who fear they have turned their backs on happiness for duty but secretly desperate for reconciliation. That desire certainly drips from Wayne, whose sad eyes beneath his drooping moustache seem to be constantly searching for grasping something from his life – and Ford certainly knew how to shoot this American icon with angles that made him appear like a mournful monument.

The actual plot of the film outside of this isn’t really that strong. Any shade or depth is removed from the Apaches who are faceless, ruthless killers who move like a swarm and spend the nights dancing and drinking after a victory. Even at the time there were feelings that the film was uncomfortably slanted in its view of the Native Americans. The actual story of the battle against the Apache meanders across the screen, with discussions of crossing the Rio Grande to do battle with them largely forgotten in a final act kidnap plotline that serves as the film’s action set piece.

Honestly, most of the plot outside of whether Wayne, O’Hara and son (played with an earnest honesty by Claude Jarmon Jnr) pretty much is by the numbers stuff. There are a host of songs and musical interjections from contemporary Western group Sons of the Pioneers. Ford made a virtue of the studio’s decision to include the band – apparently they loved being in the film and led a number of impromptu sing-alongs during the late night cast sessions, which basically led to Ford putting more of them in the film. The songs do add a wistful, whimsical air to the film which actually works rather well and mirrors nicely the personal drama of a family unit which duty is keeping apart.

The action when it kicks in is enjoyable, even if Ford relies a little too heavily on over cranked cameras to adjust the speed of various falls and horse riding stunts – the sped up effect actually often makes the whole thing look a little too reminiscent at times of keystone kops silent film. The best stunt sequence is done instead in real time, as Johnson, Carey Jnr and Jarmon Jnr take it in turns to “Roman Ride” two horses at a time around a course. Johnson and Carey – skilled horsemen – spent weeks training, the effect was so good that Ford suggested Jarmon have a go.

The cast is rounded out by some solid work from Ford regulars. McLaglen is good value as a decent Sergeant, one of those comic Irish types that Ford had such fondness for. Johnson is very good as a trooper on the run from the law who can’t resist coming back to the do the right thing. But the film belongs to Wayne and O’Hara, a couple looking to seize a last chance at happiness. Rio Grande may be one for the money, but it’s still got a touch of that Ford magic.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

William Holden and Ernest Borgnine lead The Wild Bunch into one last adventure

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Jamie Sánchez (Angel), Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache), Strother Marin (Coffer), LQ Jones (T.C.)

SPOILERS: Discussion of The Wild Bunch is pretty much impossible without discussing its ending – but then it does have a pretty famous ending. Well you’re warned…

It’s easy to look back the Wild West with rose-tinted glasses. To remember it as being when the American spirit was at its best and a romance ruled. To basically take the “Wild” out of the picture. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is all about putting that “Wild” front and centre, a stunning exploration of the closing days of the Wild West that replaces sentiment and nostalgia with violence and a group of men who know nostalgia is just the vanity of hardened, brutal killers.

In 1916 Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the leader of a notorious gang of criminals, ruthless killers all, wanted by the law – and the rail company they have been robbing for years – at any price. Pike’s latest bank job winds up being a trap, with a deadly shoot-out taking place in the middle of a town (with the population lethally caught in the crossfire) as the rail company tries to kill Pike’s crew, their efforts led by Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), forced to work against Pike or return to the hellish jail at Yuma. The massacre sees only a few members of the gang survive – Pike, his best friend Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), the Gorch brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), Mexican gun-slinger Angel (Jamie Sánchez) and old-timer Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien). The gang flees to Mexico, with Deke and his posse dispatched on their heels by the furious railway company. In a Mexico ripped apart by civil war, the gang are hired by would-be warlord General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to hijack guns from the American army – but there are other dangers when Angel has friendly contacts with the Mexican revolutionaries.

Peckinpah’s film is a stunning exploration not only of the dying dreams and way of life of old men in the West – Pike, Deke, Dutch and Freddie are all old men while the Gorch brothers are hardly in the first flush of youth – but also the endemic nature of violence. Peckinpah’s film is unfailingly brutal in its depiction of violence, an infection that runs through every level of society. Everyone from the children – the film opens with a gang of children laughingly feeding two scorpions to a mass colony of ants, before setting all the animals on fire (look in vain for the “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture” message) – to the men themselves. The film’s opening shoot-out – a technical marvel and also a masterpiece of slow tension building by Peckinpah – is shocking in its brutality.

Unlike Leone, to whom violence is shocking in its suddenness, Peckinpah slows down the action so that we can see (and feel) the horror of each bullet. The Wild Bunch set some sort of record – in its final shoot-out sequence – for blood squibs used. It’s not a surprise after watching the opening shoot-out between the Bunch and the railway forces. With the Bunch using a passing Temperance march to cover their retreat, bullets are fired indiscriminately, killing passers-by and men from both sides alike. No one, aside from a furious and appalled Deke (the only character who has suffered himself from violence in prison) expresses a moment’s guilt for this massacre.

But then Pike and the bunch are hardened killers to a man. Pike cares nothing for the members of the gang lost – even forgetting until late on that he left a man guarding the bank staff while the gang rode out of town – and when a wounded survivor can’t ride and agrees that Pike should finish it, he doesn’t pause for a second. Any ideas of these men as being rogues or there being any charm to living a life on the margins of the law are rapidly dispelled. 

And this violence isn’t just an American thing – it dominates life in Mexico as well, where the drunken, bullying General Mapache is a brutal would-be dictator, whose soldiers frequently terrorise, steal from and murder the villagers around them. In Mexico, the gun is law even more than the US, and these guys have even closer to being criminals in uniform, just as Deke’s posse could just as easily be working with the Bunch as against them.

So what motivates these men? What is brilliant about Peckinpah’s film is acknowledging that these violent killers may feud and fight, but they are still stretching for some sort of meaning in their life. These are world-weary old men with little to live for, who are trying to work out what – if anything – is left in their lives. And that life has to have some sort of code, some sort of grounding basis, even if everything else is up for grabs. Pike says when you “side with a man, you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re finished”. It’s a flexible rule for these guys – and they frequently shirk it in the film when events are dangerous – but it’s a code they need to believe they would keep.

It’s that code that comes into play late in the film as Angel falls increasingly foul of Mapache’s anger and whims. It takes the gang a while to stand by it, but when they do it’s also partnered by a sad realisation that for these old men what else is there? Their lives have been ruled by the gun and shoot-out after shoot-out. Peckinpah views the West with no nostalgia, but he understands that men need to view their own lives with nostalgia at times, to understand that they may yearn to point at something and say that was what their lives were for.

And what else is there? Everyone in the film knows it’s over. They’re old men, and the world is moving on and leaving them behind. At one point the gang look on at wonder at a car owned by Mapache, and the Gorch brothers flat out can’t believe in the existence of an aeroplane. The modern world is ending the world of these guys, and Pike knows it: “We need to start thinking beyond our guns” he says at one point, but offers no solutions at all about what that might be. The modern world is the real deadly bullet that’s taking out the gang: in the final shoot-out, the key weapon even turns out to be a modern machine gun, spraying death at a level ordinary shooters can’t even begin to match.

That final shoot-out sees all these themes come together brilliantly. It could almost be a rebuttal of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (released the same year) that sees our heroes captured in romantic sepia freeze frame, charging into certain death against the Bolivian army. Here we effectively see the battle, with additional machine guns and thousands of blood squibs as the Bunch take on Mapache’s army in fury at Mapache’s murder of Sanchez. In a furious shoot-out lasting almost ten minutes, it’s a blood bath as the Bunch mow down dozens and dozens of Mapache’s army while themselves being repeatedly shredded by bullets, adrenalin alone keeping them going. Peckinpah even has the final fatal bullet that takes out Pike coming from a child soldier.

But the Bunch are taking this suicidal last stand because it’s their last –  their only – chance to have stood for something, to have a code they stuck by. To stand by their partner and if that means going down in a hail of bullets, at least there is some sort of glory to it. And besides – what else have they got? The modern world has drained all purpose from their life, so why not at the end wordlessly agree to leave behind the greed that has dominated their lives and die for something?

Peckinpah’s film is simply brilliant, fabulously made and brilliantly shot and edited. The cast of pros is simply excellent. Holden’s world-weary faded glamour now leaving only a cold ruthlessness and a wish that he had more to show for it is perfectly partnered with Borgnine’s easy-going sidekick who wants to do the right thing but needs to find the reasons. Ryan is excellent as a guilt-ridden Deke, who finally has begun to understand the impact of violence. The rest of the cast also excel. The Wild Bunch may be the least nostalgia infected Western ever made, a grim reminder that the West really was Wild. But it’s also a stunningly well-made and challenging picture.