Each Monday, I share reviews of Westerns I’m studying to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Sixteen: The Wild Bunch & Hour of the Gun
The Wild Bunch
This must be the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen Sam Peckinpah’s most famous film. Whether it’s his best, I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter. All his films are interesting, worth multiple viewings, and worthy of intense study.
On this watch, I noticed some things I hadn’t before: 1. The dialog in the first quarter is a little too shouty; it takes time for the characters to settle into something more subtle that makes the film remarkable. 2. It’s not quite clear when this “wild bunch” came together. All of them seem to know of Robert Ryan’s character but it’s clear that only Holden and O’Brien rode with him. It would have been nice to get a few hints in the script of when these men come together. Sometimes they feel like they just joined up and other times they feel like they’ve been riding together for years, especially Borgnine/Holden.
What stood out to me most this go around was Mr. Borgnine. It’s his smile and the laughter which really takes some of these moments from “normal” Western scenes to something entirely new and unique. This laughter, the laughter of death, is what makes the film for me. After they kill the general, when he cracks that grin… wow! That and the laughter from this bunch throughout the film adds so much to the depth of these killers.
Another moment which stands out among so many is when Holden calls for their final action: “Let’s go”. He’s basically saying, “It’s time to die.” Warren looks at Ben Johnson and then back at Holden and says, “Why not”? It’s like he has nothing better to do than to die, or maybe that he has never had anything better than to die for a friend.
Peckinpah’s main triumph may not be the action, the violence, the editing, but the way he gets in these guys’ heads more than any Western filmmaker had up until that time.
Seen on DVD.
Hour of the Gun
I was quite surprised at how good this film is and how little it gets mentioned in the conversation of Wyatt Earp movies. I’d put this in the top five films made on the subject, right alongside Tombstone and My Darling Clementine.
What makes this picture is Garner’s performance. I’d just seen him in Support Your Local Gunfighter and it’s fascinating to watch how different he is here while being mostly the same on the surface. For the most part, he looks and dresses the same. His face carries a similar stoic expression and changes rarely. But here unlike the comedy, he emits a rigid, almost fascist character that dominates the screen. He does so with the even tone in his voice that hardly ever goes up or down, with the stiffness in his back and walk. It’s quite an incredible performance and though I’m no expert on Garner’s filmography, I’d wager this has to be one of his best.
Robards is good as Holliday too but halfway through the film, I was delighted to see they weren’t playing up the sickness much. Right about the time I was thinking that, the cough started to appear. Like the film Doc, this movie sort of brings in the gunfighter’s illness randomly, certainly not overdoing it as some have but also not laying a good foundation for it from the first scene onwards.
To be honest, I didn’t care much about the statement that this film follows the story with exact accuracy. I find it boring to haggle over the details of the Earp story when clearly it’s a case of multiple perspectives (as attempted and not delivered by Alex Cox with Tombstone-Rashomon, a film I worked on). Hour of the Gun isn’t good because it’s accurate; it’s good because the characters, place, and the way it all plays out is captivating.
Having just seen John Sturges’ overrated The Magnificent Seven, this gave me new interest in exploring more of his Western work.
Seen on Amazon Prime