`Wild Bunch' is western writ large

FILM

February 14, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

What Citizen Kane was to movie lovers in 1941, The Wild Bunch was to cineastes in 1969. Its adrenaline rush of revelations seemed to explode the parameters of the screen.

The director and the co-writer, Sam Peckinpah, turned the last stand of the Hole-in the-Wall Gang into a wrenching piece of early 20th-century mythology.

His filmmaking both evinced and catalyzed complex feelings about the outlaws' freedom, brotherhood and professionalism, their manliness and childishness, and the way they experienced the closing of the West as Purgatory and used Latin America as an escape hatch.

The movie remains the most extraordinary summation of Peckinpah's tender-tortuous personality. He rips himself open and, against all odds, puts himself back together frame by bloody frame.

Co-written with Walon Green, the script puts the cast - led by William Holden as the Bunch's leader and Robert Ryan as his ex-partner and reluctant nemesis - through tests of strength and loyalty that dramatize Peckinpah's preoccupations with the bandits' appetites and anarchy, and with the codes and social pressures that rein them in. These trials release the group energy of the most quirkily expressive ensemble ever assembled for an action movie: Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Edmond O'Brien, Strother Martin, Bo Hopkins, Jaime Sanchez and Emilio Fernandez.

Holden's forceful, gnarly performance gains from the 1995 restoration of flashbacks that were cut from the original U.S.-release prints. These scenes depict a man who messed up in the past and is now determined to pull off his last job - and "do it right." Peckinpah did it right in The Wild Bunch. He produced an American movie that equals or surpasses the best of Kurosawa. Scorsese tries to match it in Gangs of New York - and doesn't come close. The Wild Bunch is the Gotterdammerung of Westerns.

It screens tomorrow at noon at the Charles. Admission: $5. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.thecharles.com.

Anatomizing Noyce

Sundance Channel's always-fascinating series Anatomy of a Scene reaches a new pinnacle this week with its episode on Phillip Noyce's The Quiet American. That's because the scene it anatomizes is one of the most breathtaking passages in contemporary movies: a 1952 terrorist explosion in Saigon Square.

With succinct lucidity, this episode lays out how director Noyce and his collaborators use sound, motion, on-location observations and, above all, their understanding of the forces at play in Graham Greene's novel to conjure the most harrowing screen slaughter of innocents since Pontecorvo's 1966 The Battle of Algiers.

Anatomy of a Scene: The Quiet American premieres Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

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