Grade: A-Wild Bunch, The (1969)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Stars: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: R

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Sam Peckinpah: The Wild Bunch


Wild West. Jesse Linsley, a Member of the Wild Bunch Gang, 1902
Wild West. Jesse Linsley, a Member of the Wild Bunch Gang, 1902
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“I suppose I'm something of an outlaw myself. I identify with them. I've always wondered what happened to the outlaws of the old West when it changed.”

Sam Peckinpah
Breaking new ground in 1969, Sam Peckinpah raised violence to a beautifully surreal new level with imagery that shocked its audience and continues to influence filmmakers. Most people who see The Wild Bunch may have little clue about its plot, but they will certainly remember the extra doses of blood and the slow motion choreography of the gun battles. When the dust settles on the violent ballet sequences, it looks like Peckinpah becomes a Jackson Pollock limited to dripping buckets bright reds over the fallen. His masterpiece came in at a budget of $6 million, of which at least $1 million must have been spent on the red paint.

Yet there is much more to this story of outlaws living on the Texas-Mexican border than the unforgettable violent images. Set in 1913 when General Pershing is pursuing Pancho Villa and his banditos, Peckinpah establishes a myth with his nine outlaws headed up by William Holden as Pike Bishop. They are looking to pull off just one last big heist, so that they can retire and leave behind the ways of the old West. The fact that these ways are rapidly vanishing is brought home in the little Mexican town when a Stanley Steamer arrives.

On a more subtle level, Peckinpah gets across the idea of placing his characters in transitional times in much the same way that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid do by having the outlaws cross the U.S. border. What do killers do when they get to Mexico and have to cope with a different culture and different values?

Our outlaws have a strict moral code, making them sympathetic characters that evoke reactions when they fall during the course of the story. In a sense, a love story evolves. Many times Bishop and the man that the railroad company has forced to hunt him down—Bishop's outlaw buddy Thornton (Robert Ryan)—show their deep admiration for each other. They know intimately how the other thinks and feels and anticipate each other's moves. At one point Bishop chastises his men for thinking badly of Thornton: “When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished. We're finished! All of us!”

The centerpiece of Peckinpah's film comes near the end from an improvisation that is not described fully in the screenplay. This occurs when Bishop says “Let's go!” and the remaining outlaws begin their long silent walk through the town with slowed down camera, moving past drunken soldiers, partying extras, and mariachi bands for the final tension filled battle. It's a scene that deserves replaying and studying if you are a serious film buff.

Certainly many other filmmakers have been awestruck. We can find traces of Peckinpah's influence in nearly every action film that has followed. The most obvious imitator is Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo, who not only patterns his choreographed gun battles after Peckinpah exploding bloody ballet sequences, but also takes on many of his content themes.

Above all are the images that will remain in your head, from the opening pictures of the scorpions being overwhelmed with red ants to the slow motion falling of horses and riders after the bridge blowup to the vulture perched on the dead man. This is anything but your ordinary Western, despite the expected high noon styled showdown. The Wild Bunch ranks as a work of art, and revives love for pure cinema.



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