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The Wild Bunch (1969)
DIRECTOR: Sam Peckinpah
SCREENWRITER: Sam Peckinpah, Walon Green
MUSIC BY: Jerry Fielding
STUDIO: Warner Bros. Pictures
RELEASE DATE: July 18, 1969
MPAA RATING: R
It’s a Realistic Western, but It Could Use a Trim

Written by Chris Pandolfi

I wonder if there exists a leaner, less deliberately paced version of The Wild Bunch, which clocks in at an unreasonably slow 143 minutes. How tragic that the only thing preventing it from being great is its length. Had it not been so needlessly drawn out, I might have better appreciated what director and co-writer Sam Peckinpah was trying to accomplish. Here is a western that, in the process of breaking with tradition, creates an entirely new one. This is not a romanticized depiction of cowboys; the men the movie gets its title from are crude outlaws with a murky moral code. There isn’t a single glorified shootout, in which slick gunslingers gather in the town square at high noon and end their duel with a victorious single blast; the violence in this film is raw, extreme, and graphic, with dozens of people getting gunned down in a hurricane of bullets.

And yes, there is blood. This isn’t to say that a character is shot off screen and then revealed lying on the ground with a small drop of blood coming out his mouth and trickling down his cheek; we’re not spared the sight of people actually receiving gunshot wounds, in which blood would spurt as it would in real life. We’re not supposed to find this entertaining. The intention is to disturb us, to expose the reality of violence. Having previously directed three western feature films, one western TV movie, and numerous episodes for the western themed series Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman, and The Westerner, Peckinpah was no stranger to the constraints of sanitized genre filmmaking. The Wild Bunch surely must have been a form a catharsis on his part, a way for him to let loose and tell a story that strived for some degree of realism.

The film works fairly well as a character study, although there’s always the sense that we’re learning much more than is necessary to advance the plot. It’s not so much in what they say but in what they do and where they do it. Certain scenes, many quiet moments in isolated villages and lowly brothels, don’t reveal much more than what we already knew, or at least suspected, about the characters they involved. The result is a large collection of extraneous moments. Admittedly, even the unnecessary material was skillful from a technical standpoint; Peckinpah shows great affection for naturalistic settings and stunning cinematography, and his casting choices reveals he had a good eye for talent. Nevertheless, this movie needed an editor with a much better sense of pacing.

The greatest strength of The Wild Bunch is the way in which it examines the end of an era. It takes place in Texas and Mexico in the year 1913, at which point the Wild West was rapidly fading into legend. And so we meet a band of aging outlaws who no longer have a place in modern society. The leader is Pike Bishop (William Holden), wizened and exhausted but clearly incapable of living any other kind of life. The same can be said of his posse (Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oats, Jaime Sanchez, and Ben Johnson). Even the code of honor with which they once adhered to is starting to crumble. After a botched robbery at a railroad station, the Bunch is pursued by a gang of bounty hunters led by Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). He doesn’t especially want to go after Pike; he’s doing it only under threat of being sent back to jail. It doesn’t help that his assigned team is a motley crew of unstable men who, like vultures, pick things off the dead.

Pike and his Bunch cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, where a small village is under the thumb of a ruthless warlord named Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). He wants to supply his troops with superior firepower, and so the Bunch is hired to hijack an American train carrying shipments of rifles and ammunition. The raid yields the discovery of a new automatic machine gun – a symbol of how the Pike and his Bunch have lagged behind in the march of time. “We’ve gotta start thinking beyond the guns,” Pike says early on. “Those days are closing fast.” Although he knows his glory days are coming to an end, there’s the unshakable sense that nothing waits for him after retirement. The exception is death. Perhaps this certainty is what drives him to take part in futile endeavors.

Another symbolic motif is the frequent presence of children engaging in destructive behavior. During the opening scene, for example, a group of American youngsters are huddled around a pit in which red ants swarm over scorpions; they laugh as they pile straw on top of the insects and set a match to it. Later on, Mexican children are seen happily chasing after a body being dragged through the streets by a car. At a crucial point, a boy armed with a rifle will actually kill someone. The message is obvious: The violence perpetrated by the adults has been passed down to a new generation, and this time there’s no code to honor. I suspect it would have been more devastating to hear had these scenes not been separated by so much unnecessary material. The Wild Bunch has the story, the actors, the performances, and the look. Now all it needs is a pair of scissors and a steady hand.


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