If They Move...Kill 'Em: 'The Wild Bunch' at The Belcourt
By Jim Ridley
on Fri, Jul 10, 2009 at 10:30 AM
It's hard to imagine now, when a toy-shilling teen adventure like the current Transformers movie can eradicate thousands of soldiers in a CGI eyeblink with scarcely a pause for breath. But 40 years ago, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch triggered a debate about the extremes of movie violence that spilled over onto magazine covers, newspaper op-ed pages and public-affairs shows.
Why is it that entertainments with body counts triple that of The Wild Bunch--and we're talking probably five digits now--leave me relatively unmoved? Perhaps it's that there's little pause to consider what's being lost.
Peckinpah was mocked for his use of slow-motion during some of the goriest massacres--see Monty Python's gently restrained "Salad Days" sketch--but he's not winding down to gloat about how cool someone's murder looks. The deaths become suspended in mid-air, fixed in our attention, nearly frozen in time...but only slowed, not stopped, because death doesn't quit.
The Wild Bunch shows this weekend at The Belcourt as part of their great summer-long Western series, and if you get a chance to see the movie in a theater, take it. Above is a snippet from one of the greatest opening sequences in all of movies--a savage worldview outlined in about two minutes of film. Here's a further description of the movie itself:
Is it immortal, or just undead? The difference is clear on the big screen. Of all the classic films to visit The Belcourt, here's one that's worth catching no matter how many times you've seen it: Sam Peckinpah's 1969 Western about a crew of aging bad-ass bandits who flee to Mexico after their career-ender bank heist goes awry. As the world-weary outlaws pursued by a former crony (Robert Ryan) and a cutthroat posse, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine operate almost entirely in a moral gray zone unthinkable to the traditional Western hero--symbolized by Holden brusquely ridding his spurs of an innocent victim's torn garment. But their wild bunch (including character-actor gods Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) still clings to a code of honor among thieves, prizing earned camaraderie above all else. As Borgnine growls, delivering the movie's creed, it's not giving your word to someone that counts, "it's who you give it to!" The result is war poetry in the guise of a horse opera. The object of furious controversy 40 years ago for its ultraviolence and slow-motion splatter, The Wild Bunch now looks like an elegy for a weathered brand of craggy cinematic masculinity--or a bloody hand clawing open the grave of the Western. D. PATRICK RODGERS & JIM RIDLEY