Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Wild Bunch (1969)
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Background

The Wild Bunch (1969) is director/co-writer Sam Peckinpah's provocative, brilliant yet controversial Western, shocking for its graphic and elevated portrayal of violence and savagely-explicit carnage, yet hailed for its truly realistic and reinterpreted vision of the dying West in the early 20th century. Peckinpah had earlier directed another classic western about the West's passing, Ride the High Country (1962) and the epic western film Major Dundee (1965). Many of the film's major stars, including William Holden, Edmond O'Brien, Robert Ryan and Ben Johnson, were veterans of westerns with a more romantic view of the West in the 40s and 50s. This hard-edged, landmark masterpiece of the Western film genre was beautifully shot in wide-screen by cinematographer Lucien Ballard.

Its unrelenting, bleak tale tells of aging, scroungy outlaws (the 'wild bunch') bound by a private code of honor, camaraderie and friendship, but they find that they are at odds with the society of 1913. The lone band of men led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) have come to the end of the line and no longer are living under the same rules in the Old West. They are relentlessly being stalked by bounty hunters, one of whom is Pike's former friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who would rather side with the outlaws if it weren't for the threat of being sent back to Yuma Prison. [The outlaws represent an un-idealized version of the 'western' Japanese samurai warriors in Akira Kurosawa's epic The Seven Samurai (1954) - a film that Peckinpah used as a model. The anti-heroic 'bunch' also represents contemporary American soldiers in the late 60s, out of place in the jungles of Vietnam.]

The film's posters stated the theme of changing times and the industrial revolution in the early 20th century of Texas and Mexico, at a time when airplanes, cars, and machine guns were being introduced into society:

Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time...Suddenly a new West had emerged. Suddenly it was sundown for nine men. Suddenly their day was over. Suddenly, the sky was bathed in blood...Nine men who came too late and stayed too long...Born too late for their own times. Uncommonly significant for ours.

The much-imitated, influential film is book-ended by two extraordinary sequences, both massacres. The gang of desperadoes are first assaulted in the film's opening ambush following a failed bank robbery in a Texas border town, and then brutally destroyed in the film's conclusion - as united comrades in a selfless, redemptive act - by a savage and vindictive Mexican warlord after a double-crossing arms deal. The two scenes include some of the bloodiest, most violent shoot-ups ever filmed. Peckinpah choreographed each of the film's two bloodbaths as a visually prolonged, beautiful ballet - a slow-motion, aesthetically breath-taking, non-gratuitous, lyrical, extreme celebration of bodies being torn apart by bullets.

The slaughter of innocent bystanders, and the use of women as shields (in the all-male film) were served up as counterpoints to the media's honest display of violence during the late 60s, with the Vietnam War, assassinations, urban riots, and other events filling the airwaves. Due to its violence, the film was originally threatened with an X-rating by the newly-created MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), but an R-rating was its final decision. A so-called 'director's cut' version of the film, threatened with an NC-17 rating when submitted to the MPAA ratings board in 1993 prior to a re-release in 1994, held up the film's re-release for many months.

Following the film's production, it was severely edited by the studio and producer Phil Feldman (in Peckinpah's absence), cutting its length by about twenty minutes - remarkably, none of the excised film was violent. The film has been restored to its original "director's cut" length of 143 minutes, reinstating scenes (including two important flashbacks from Pike's past, and a battle scene between Pancho Villa's rebels and General Mapache at the telegraph station) that depicted the underlying character and motivations of the leader of the Bunch. With numerous, elaborate montage sequences with staccato shifts, the film set a record for more edits (3,643 shot-to-shot edits at one count) than any other Technicolor film up to its time.

The film won no Academy Awards, but was nominated in two categories - for Jerry Fielding's original musical score and for the film's story and screenplay, a collaboration between Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah, and based on a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner. Just two years earlier, a modern-day gangster film, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had also stunned audiences with its frank, sensational violence - notably with its "dancing" death of the two principal characters in the film's final ambush scene. And the 60's 'spaghetti' westerns of Sergio Leone anticipated the excessive violence. In the same year as The Wild Bunch, which increased the acceptance and tolerance level for violence on the screen, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) provided quite a contrast - it was an entertaining, popular Western with humor and lighthearted action.

The film's lasting influence has been seen in the imitative graphic violence of the films of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and others. [In 2004, a new version of the film by producer-writer David Ayer adapted Peckinpah's classic as a drug-heist thriller, and set the action in contemporary Mexico.]

The Story

The film's opening with freeze-frame credits is brilliantly presented with martial music. To the sound of snare drums and cymbals, the Wild Bunch (five of them) masquerade in the disguise of tan-colored, regulation khaki outfits as U.S. Cavalry soldiers - good guys. They appear heroically-positioned, riding stiffly and formally into a dusty town (San Rafael, also called Starbuck) along railroad tracks. The frame freezes into a black and white chiaroscuro image when each of the credits appear, unfreezing to continue with the colorful action.

On the outskirts of the southwestern Texas town, the five ride by a large gathering of village children who are being entertained by toying with scorpions placed in the middle of a caged colony of red fire ants - in reaction shots, the cruel children watch and giggle as the struggling scorpions are tortured and consumed by the swarming ants. [Children are often seen throughout the film witnessing - and then participating in - the violence.] Peckinpah's metaphoric symbolism foreshadows the blood-red, capricious treatment the members of the Wild Bunch (the scorpions) will soon receive in the small Texan town by an opposing ambush of bounty hunters and amassed Mexicans (the ants).

In the wind-blown dusty town, the men pass by a South Texas Temperance Union revival, being held under a tent where Mayor Wainscoat (Dub Taylor) preaches to the proper, black-clothed audience about the sinfulness of drink, quoting liberally from Leviticus 10:9, and Proverbs 23:31-32:

Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou nor thy sons with thee least ye shall die. Look not thou upon the wine when it is red and when it bringeth his color in the cup when it moveth itself aright. At the last, it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder. Now folks, that's from the Good Book. But in this here town, it's 5 cents a glass. Five cents a glass. Does anyone really think that that is the price of a drink? The price of a drink - let him decide who has lost his courage and his pride who lies a groveling heap of clay not far removed....

They dismount in front of the South Texas R.R. Administration Offices, as two more men join them. When the leader of the group Pike Bishop (William Holden) walks them in formation toward the Starbuck bank, the railroad office bank, he accidentally bumps into an elderly lady. Politely, he picks up her string-tied parcels, his second-in-command sidekick Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) offers to carry them, and then Pike takes her arm to assist her across the street. The group of soldiers are unaware that they are hugely outnumbered - there is an ambush already prepared by the railroad bosses. A group of ruthless bounty hunters is waiting on a nearby rooftop, assembled by Pike's nemesis Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker) [his name reminds one of the notorious railroad financier, E. H. Harriman], the mercenary organizer of the bounty hunters, with their appointed leader Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), Pike's former partner.

Inside the bank, the senior bank clerk is heard reprimanding:

I don't care what you meant to do. It's what you did I don't like.

After entering the bank, Pike seizes the senior bank clerk, lifts him from his chair and tosses him across the room. Then in closeup, he ruthlessly barks a snarling, deadly command to his men if any of the hostages should move:

If they move, kill 'em.

The bold, final credit freezes the frame of Pike's face espousing violence, juxtaposed with the words - "Directed by Sam Peckinpah."

The preacher has his flock solemnly swear to abstain from all distilled liquors, including wine, beer and cider. The Temperance Union band plays, "We Shall Gather at The River," leading a parade of followers marching down the street, right toward the bank and the getaway horses. To increase the tension of the scene, the film is edited, inter-cutting rapidly from the Bunch in the bank, to the bounty hunters, to the temperance marchers. The band of robbers fill their heavy leather bags with as much as they can carry, robbing the bank of its railroad payroll. Angel (Jaime Sanchez), one of the alert lookouts in the bank, observes the tips of rifles on the rooftop across the street. Other lookouts stationed out on the street also notice the trap that is set for them.

In the climax to the spectacular opening sequence, Pike decides to make their break from the bank and use the oncoming temperance union marchers to their advantage as shields and cover. On the rooftop, one of the sleazy, trigger-happy bounty hunters Coffer (Strother Martin) kisses his rifle in nervous anticipation. The senior bank clerk is kicked out into the street, a small diversion which triggers orgiastic, destructive gunfire from all directions at the hapless victim. Both sides appear to ignore the endangerment that they arbitrarily cause for the town's innocent inhabitants in the chain reaction of gunfire. In the blood ballet (partially filmed in slow motion), many of the bullets from the armed factions strike innocent bystanders in the crowd - men, women, and children in the parade who are caught in the overzealous crossfire. Bullet wounds spray gushing blood and chunks of flesh, and bodies writhe in agony and pain. Pike, Dutch, Angel, Buck (Rayford Barnes), and the Gorch Brothers - Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson) shoot their way out of town. In the confusion during flight, Pike's horse accidentally knocks down and tramples a defenseless woman. [Outside of town, it is later discovered that the woman's white shawl was hooked to the side of the horse and clinging to Pike's boot.]

One of the memorable images is the slow-motion sight of one of the escaping riders being shot from his horse, and cascading through a store-front, glass window of a dressmaker's shop. The yellow-raincoated gang member smashes through the glass, rolling into three dress mannequins (female) - symbolizing more violence to women.

Inside the bank, the half-witted Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins), one of the gang members purposely (or thoughtlessly) left behind to guard hostages "until after the shooting starts," terrorizes two bank clerks and a female customer. When the lady calls him "trash," he punishes her by disgustingly tonguing the inside of her ear. Then, he forces his prisoners to march around, singing the marcher's hymn: "Gather at the River." Outside during the gun battle, Pike looks up and recognizes Deke Thornton. Both of them aim and shoot, but both lose their nerve and hit other targets nearby. In the getaway, one of the gang is shot and dragged by his horse, losing his saddlebags. Two children clinging to each other for safety watch with an expression mingling shock and awe. They appear delighted when another outlaw rides by at full gallop and snatches the saddlebags from the ground.

On the outskirts of town, the decimated gang pauses by the children who are still playing with their captured and devoured scorpions. The youngsters toss dry straw on the caged scorpions and ants, setting the whole pile afire. Surveying the bloody, human carnage, townspeople wail, as two of the scurvy bounty hunters, Coffer and T. C. (L. Q. Jones) argue over their kills and scurry around like vultures looking for loot. Harrigan disdains their sloppy job: "You stupid damn fools. Why did you shoot this employee and let the others get away?" Strong but haggard, Thornton argues with Harrigan:

Thornton: The next time you better plan your massacre more carefully or I'll start with you!
Harrigan: Why didn't you kill Pike when you had the chance?

One of the abandoned gang members, Crazy Lee is discovered in the bank and wounded by Harrigan and Deke Thornton. He shouts back at them:

Well, how'd you like to kiss my sister's black cat's ass?

Then, with a final quick-draw as he lays dying, Crazy Lee picks off three other men like clay pigeons who are gawking at him from the street. Harrigan finishes him off by pumping two blasts into his body. The mayor disparages Harrigan's ruthless use of their "town as a battlefield," but the railroad organizer defends his bloody assault as "trying to catch a band of outlaws...We represent the law!" In the streets among the bodies of the dead, the children play-mimick shooting each other with make-believe pistols with great delight.

On the outskirts of town, only Pike, Angel, Dutch Engstrom, the Gorch brothers Lyle and Tector, and Buck, a sixth wounded gang member, remain from the aborted raid. Buck falls from his horse, revealing that his face is hideously covered with blood. Blinded by blood (both figuratively and literally), Buck begs Pike to kill him, and Pike perfunctorily and coldly complies with his request to put him out of his misery:

Pike, is that you? I can ride, Pike. I can ride. I can't see but I can ride. God. No! I can't ride. Finish it, Mr. Bishop.

After considering whether they should linger and give the "good man" a "decent burial," Dutch's sarcasm and criticism of sentimentality brings them to their senses to move on:

I think the boys are right. I'd like to say a few words for the dear dead departed. And maybe a few hymns would be in order, followed by a church supper, with a choir?

Relentless in his pursuit of the outlaws with a total of $4,500 reward money out for their capture or death, Harrigan orders his scummy group of trigger-happy bounty hunters to start anew: "You go after them in ten minutes. Get them. Get Pike and you'll be rich! If one of you tries to quit on me, I'll pay a bonus of a thousand dollars to the man that kills him." Deke Thornton has been taken out of Yuma Prison by Harrigan to reluctantly hunt Pike down within 30 days, in exchange for his parole. But he is disgusted by the greedy, degenerate, scruffy low life characters he has been given to work with as bounty hunters. After making a veiled threat toward Deke to have the bounty hunters kill him if he forsakes the chase, the manipulative railroad boss Harrigan forces Thornton to make do with what he has been given and become his 'Judas goat':

Thornton: Tell me, Mr. Harrigan. How does it feel gettin' paid for it? Gettin' paid to sit back and hire your killin's with the law's arms around you? How does it feel to be so god-damned right?
Harrigan: Good.
Thornton: You dirty son-of-a-b---h!
Harrigan: You've got thirty days to get Pike, or thirty days back to Yuma. You're my Judas goat, Mr. Thornton. I want all of them back here, head down over a saddle.

As Harrigan's words play again in his mind, a rapid flashback dissolves over his face, as he remembers a bare-backed whipping he received at Yuma. The memory of the punishment quickly fades in and out.


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