Exploding the mythological conventions of prior Westerns, The Wild Bunch tells the story of a gang of outlaws (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine) looking for a new racket after a bank robbery yields nothing but metal washers.They are pursued by a posse of bounty hunters hired by the Rail Road and led by Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their gang. The gang crosses over into Mexico and quickly find themselves recruited by the self-styled General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) to rob an American Army train carrying rifles and ammunition to be used in the fight against Pancho Villa. Upon robbing the train, of course, the gang adds the U.S. Army to the list of those pursuing them.
One of the members of the gang, a Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is upset that the General, after plundering Angel’s home village, has taken his girl as a concubine (of her own free will). He avenges this slight by helping the Natives who live in the mountains outside Agua Verde (the General’s garrison) steal a box of rifles and ammo. At the last of a series of exchanges of gold for weapons, the General seizes Angel who is abandoned by his fellow gang members.
The gang finally returns to Agua Verde in order to hide out among the now heavily armed Mexicans. They witness the dragging death of Angel and, when they seek to reclaim his body, the Mexican’s slice Angel’s throat. The four remaining gang members open fire, improbably killing dozens of the General’s men before finally being taken out themselves. The posse come across the scene of the carnage and are delighted to scavenge the bodies of the Mexicans for goodies and collect the bodies of the gang members in order to cash in on the reward. A feeling of what? Compassion? Sadness? strikes Thornton and he stays behind at Agua Verde, eventually joining the Natives in their crusade against the Mexicans.
The violence, gore, nudity and language show the impact of the adoption of the MPAA standards in 1968. None of it is gratuitous. The cinematography is most effective when showcasing the vast vistas of the open West. Stereotypes about Mexicans and Natives, although utilized in the movie, are not nearly as egregious as other Westerns of the period. Slow paced (it takes an hour to get to the train robbery), but with richly developed characters, this is a Western that can be enjoyed by someone who really hates Westerns (me!)