William Holden did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch.
William Holden is perhaps best known for his portrayals of endearing yet usually somewhat morally questionable or at least sardonic protagonists in films like Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. As the head of the group named the Wild Bunch it may seem Pike Bishop might be in a similar vein for Holden. The opening scene though bluntly corrects that false notion as the opening credits are listed as Pike and his crew make their way through a town dressed as soldiers to carefully approach the town's bank. Holden presents Pike as obviously quite determined as his plan seems to being going on through his head as he approaches the target. When he and his men make their move into the bank Holden ends the credits and really opens the film with his vicious delivery of "if they move kill em!" towards one of his men referring to the unlucky individuals stuck in the bank. Holden carries himself with a brutal intensity as in his voice there is the sense of the lack of mercy in the man, and Holden expresses the fact that Pike does not care one iota for the lives of the innocent bystanders.
Holden does not hold back in the opening scene realizing that Pike really is not that rather lovable outlaw that could have been the lead in a western, even in a western of 1969 with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being very much in that vein. Pike is a hard man and Holden plays him as such. When all hell breaks loose due to an ambush of railroad men accompanied by a former member of the Wild Bunch Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the bunch themselves in no way seem concerned about collateral damage. Holden portrays Pike only as a professional in the moment keeping his head with a fierce determination, while in no way expressing much sympathy for all the random people being gun downed in the carnage. Holden brings the remorselessness of a true killer in his performance. Holden does not just simply go along in the action scene but instead always reinforces the nature of Pike through his uncompromising manner. Holden's work matches the violence of director Sam Peckinpah's vision, as he creates Pike Bishop as a man formed by this violence, and as a man who could possibly exist within such a world.
After their bloody escape they have lost more than one man, with one of the men having escaped with them though having been shot in the face while being unable to see. This leaves Pike having to mercy kill the man. In the moment Holden does not portray it as a great emotional toll on Pike to do this exactly at least in the way one would think. Holden is incredibly effective in the scene as he does not show this as Pike being some sort of psychopath, but rather as very much hardened by his life of doing such things for so long. This is not to say that Holden plays Pike as strictly unemotional in this regard. Holden is excellent in this scene portraying such a searing exasperation in Pike as he has to kill the man. Holden exudes the wear his time as an outlaw on Pike brilliantly as you see in his face years of bloodshed without really anything to show for it. There is a remarkable moment when Pike fails to mount his horse the first time and as he is insulted by his men briefly. Holden's reaction is a perfect as he shows Pike's moment of resignation to frankly being past his prime and having to live with it.
Holden is terrific because he is able to find Pike's particular place in his life as an outlaw. This is essentially summed up after the opening heist where they successfully take the loot and make their escape, though not with rather severe casualties and finding out that all they stole were washers planted in the place of the gold. Holden's performance presents Pike in very much the same way in that his best days are behind him though he's not done yet, after all he still has not been caught. Holden still has the presence and the command in the part making it absolutely believable that Pike is still the leader of the group, and still capable of pulling off a difficult job. At the same time though Holden does bring a whole certain desperation about Pike. He's somewhat pained and Holden suggests that the life is much harder for him than it ever was before. Holden's especially good in his portrayal of the enthusiasm Pike has for the job. Where some of the other members clearly revel in it, there is only ever a temporary glimpse of happiness in Pike, showing that Pike does not necessarily even get much of a thrill out of life anymore.
Although Pike is an outlaw and really a coldblooded killer technically speaking he is not without a certain code. That code being for his fellow members. There's an honest warmth in the quiet scenes between Pike and his right hand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), as they realize the understanding between the two which is even though they live rough lives they are loyal to each other. This creates one thing that does bother Pike in his failures is leaving men behind which is how his old ally Thornton went to jail and came to work for the railroad. Holden brings a surprising poignancy to his silent moments where remembers Thornton and the other people he has left in the past. In the moment Holden brings a genuine sadness in Pike as Holden expresses the way Pike is haunted by these mistakes of the past. Holden finds this as a powerful guilt in Pike throughout, and carefully shows that is something that pains him to his very core since he really is not living up to his personal beliefs. There is one particularly strong moments where Pike defends Thornton which Holden delivers with a considerable passion that seems fueled by his past.
It is really up to Holden to give sense to the final act of the Wild Bunch. They finally have a successful score by helping out a questionable Mexican general, although it leaves one of their own captured although that's entirely his own fault. Holden first is perfect in the scene where they try to celebrate at a brothel nearby and Holden is rather moving actually by showing that Pike still can't find happiness within his accomplishment or even himself. Holden through this makes the final actions of the group convincing as their walk to save their last man is Pike finally truly fulfilling his sense of honor. Holden in the scene shows Pike perhaps at his most determined, and his most assured as he is being a man of his word. Holden really has a very tricky part here given that it would be easy enough to make Pike so despicable that he is too off-putting to watch. What is so compelling about Holden's work is that he no way sugarcoats Pike's character. In portraying his more vicious moments Holden does not compromise showing Pike as the final man he is. Holden is perhaps all the more intriguing in that he is able to create sympathy for Pike through his honest portrait of the man's personal code.