Movies We Like
The Wild Bunch
As the western genre in America became more and more watered down by television, Sam Peckinpah singlehandedly turned the western on its head; his The Wild Bunch shocked 1969 audiences with its almost apocalyptic, misogynistic, and violent vision of a dying era. By today’s standards The Wild Bunch is still a nihilistic masterpiece. The action and graphic carnage on screen are still staggering and utterly exciting. And along with Battleship Potemkin, Psycho, and Bonnie and Clyde, it’s still one of the gold standards for incredible cutting-edge editing of violence and death. The film is bookended by two of the best pieces of choreographed mayhem ever put to screen where the Bunch engage in shootouts so violent and intense that the film got an X rating then and even got an NC-17 rating when it was re-released in the ‘90s (both ratings were negotiated down by the studios). The editing and mix of film speeds, including slow motion, have been ripped off and become a standard in operatic action scenes since—just check out all of John Woo’s best (Hong Kong) films; they’re direct grandchildren of The Wild Bunch.
The legend of director Sam Peckinpah has taken on mythical proportions; he was a man out of time, a hard drinkin’ visionary with a death wish. One fact is definitely true: he was an ex-TV western director trying to find a place in features. His Ride the High Country was considered a little gem while the financial disaster and critical drubbing of Major Dundee almost ended his film career (a half-century later, it’s now deservingly considered an outstanding film). With Waylon Green (director of crazy killer insect cult flick The Hellstrom Chronicle), Peckinpah wrote the perfect vehicle to truly strut his romantically ugly version of the end of the Old West.
The film opens with a group of kids enjoying watching a horde of red ants kill a scorpion. It’s 1913; a gang of outlaws, led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), rob a railroad office and then engage in a savage shootout on a dusty western town’s Main Street with a posse of lawmen who have been trailing them. You’ve never seen a shootout like this; dozens of people are killed including gunmen on both sides, but mostly innocent bystanders who happen to be in the street or who are used as human shields by the crooks. Pike and a few of his men manage to escape the shooting gallery and hide out on the Texas/ Mexico border. Pike’s crew includes his loyal bud Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), a young Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and the rowdy Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson). Pike realizes his ex-partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is leading the gang after them, so they decide to hide out in the little Mexican village Angel grew up in.
The village has been taken over by an insane Mexican general named Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). It’s become a hellhole full of sex, tequila, and robbery to feed his loyal troops. When Angel spots his ex-love in the general’s arms, he shoots and kills her, which of course angers Mapache. To appease him, and possibly now save Angel’s life, they agree to do a job for him, stealing arms from a U.S. military train. The middle section of the film is the train heist and its aftermath wherein they try to get a portion of the weapons to Angel’s people so they can one day overthrow their tormenters. On delivering the arms to Mapache, the Bunch know they could be walking into a death trap. When Mapache shoots Angel, Pike’s natural reaction is to shoot back, killing the general. The four men give each other a look, almost with relief knowing they are about to die, as dozens of Mapache’s men, at first stunned, prepare to respond. And that begins maybe the greatest gunfight in movie history, highlighted by the use of a Gatling machine gun and some well-placed slow-motion editing.
In one of the film’s most telling moments, with all the shooting and all the death, Pike finally gets shot, and it’s by a woman. First he spots her in a mirror, is she real? Do women hold any kind of reality for these men? And then she fires on him; it’s fatal and it’s symbolism for the attitude towards women in The Wild Bunch. Here, women are whores and liars and dangerous (even the mothers) and good for only one thing. It would be easy to dismiss as a product of the times (1913), but it’s prevalent throughout Peckinpah’s entire machismo canon, from Straw Dogs and The Getaway to Convoy. The guy does not put women in a great light, but he certainly has a way with the fellas; The Wild Bunch is a career highlight for all the guys involved: Borgnine, Ryan, and Oates. For the grizzled Holden, just 10 years after still being a pretty boy in The Bridge on the River Kwai, it’s another notch on his impressive career belt. He still had one more big performance in him with Network in ’76, before his relatively early death at age 63.
In the end, Thornton shows up to survey the bullet-riddled carnage. He sits quietly while dead bodies are being looted by his men (L.Q. Jones and Cool Hand Luke’s Strother Martin). In the death of his ex-partner he sees an end of the era; machine guns, tanks, cars, and even airplanes are signs of new technology that will put a man with a pistol on a horse out of business (ironically the western itself would help build the popularity of the new fledgling moving pictures). For aging actors like Holden and Ryan hitting their twilight years, the end of the West would become an even more popular theme then the peak of the West. As they got up there in age, Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West), John Wayne (The Shootist), and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) would all have their “I don’t think I fit in here anymore” westerns. If 1939’s Stagecoach reintroduced the western as a romantic vehicle for new young strapping actors, The Wild Bunch was a western graveyard.
The Wild Bunch was nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Original Score (Jerry Fielding) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced (Walon Geen, screenplay/story, Roy N. Sickner, story, and Sam Peckinpah, screenplay).