In 1969, Sam Peckinpah and Warner Bros. released one of the most talked about films of the year, and the most influential Western ever made. Most people focus on the film’s violence, because its presentation and relentlessness was shocking and something film goers had not seen before. If we remove the violence factor from the discussion, The Wild Bunch, is still a film that offers a very different view of Westerns and a very compelling story.
“If they move. Kill ’em!” – Pike Bishop at the start of the bank robbery.
The film was an event when it premiered. It was six years after release that I first saw it, and that was in a college film class. Even then, I found the film horrific and the slow-motion violence to be rather cliché, but the film was like a sledgehammer to the viewer. Why was it cliche? Within a year, films were more violent, and many just for the shock factor.
The Wild Bunch, begins with the bank robbery and carnage in the streets, turned the Western on its end. Again, even without discussion of the slow-motion and visceral gun-play, the film is brutal as life is portrayed as cheap and inconsequential. If you are holding a moral compass, the needle is spinning without a set direction. The film is like coming upon a tragic car traffic accident with multiple fatalities. It is horrific but you cannot stop watching.
The first 18 minutes of the film (including a seven minute shoot-out sequence) sets the stage for what will be a slow, descending journey to an equally tragic ending. During the robbery, town citizens are gunned down in the streets, caught in the crossfire. A woman is trampled to death by a bank-robber. Escaping bank employees and a customer are shotgunned while trying to run. Children hang onto each other as the carnage surround them.
The film focuses on four main bank robbers (plus Edmond O’Brien), who know their days are numbered, but they can’t change their course. All they can do is choose how and where they die. These guys aren’t even friends, although two are brothers, and their believe in Pike Bishop, their leader, is tenuous at best. The other two main characters in the film are the tracker who is paroled from prison to help the railroad kill the bunch, who was a friend of Bishop’s until he was betrayed, and the unscrupulous Mexican general who holds the future of the bunch in his hands.
At the center of the film is the role of honor and loyalty. Cold-blooded killers can be driven by the need to do honorable things. In The Wild Bunch, there is honor among thieves, although honor (and loyalty) is mainly to each other.
“We’re not gonna get rid of anybody. We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be. 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!” – Pike Bishop (William Holden)
Of the four members of the bunch, three are over the age of 50, and the other one is forty. Add Edmond O’Brien, Strother Martin and Robert Ryan, and most of the cast is over 50. The film is meant to convey a changing of the times, men out of step with the New Frontier, men whose time has run out. It is interesting that in 1969 you could cast a film where four of the five leads are almost senior citizens. In 2018, you probably couldn’t do that, unless your stars are Tom Hanks, George Clooney Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington. Old men are box office poison, even if it is important to the core of the film.
The Wild Bunch was very much of its time. While 1967 was known as the “summer of love”, 1968 was the “summer of blood.” Not only was there the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, Vietnam, the Chicago Democratic Convention and intercity riots were on the evening news in every living room in America. The bloom was off the rose as the 1960s turned from promise to blunt reality.
The Wild Bunch did not introduce violence to the screen or ramp it up, the Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone films did that. The Wild Bunch not only showed the reality of violence, it made a point of it with blood splatters from bullet-hits, and it showed the callousness and indifference of killing.
Although the film title is about Bishop and his gang, there is plenty of violence committed by others in the film. The railroad has hired a group of men who kill innocent bystanders while shooting at the bunch, and boast about it while picking their dead bodies of bounty. They also fire on and wound a U.S. Army solider, and again pick over the dead at the end of the film for valuables. The army of the Mexican general has committed many atrocities against Mexicans, which even offends the Ernest Borgnine character. “At least we don’t hang people!” he says with disgust.
At the end of the film, Bishop and his bunch go out in a blaze of glory, trying to rescue their Mexican comrade from the general, even offering to buy him back with money earned from the general. They expect to die in their action against a despot and his army, but it is their decision to do so, honorable as they think it is. The bunch, the general and his army, and the railroad bounty hunters are all dead in the end. Well, not quite all of them. The survivors join with Mexicans fighting for independence, an honorable final gesture.
The Wild Bunch shouldered a share of the blame for rising violence in film and television, although the list of culprits was far and wide. The association of violence in entertainment and society has been debated since the 1950s.
When Peckinpah was asked at the time if the violence in the film went too far, he said. “There is a very, very thin line, and I think we operated as close to it as we dared. We hope that, for most audience, we stayed on this side of the line. But I am willing to admit that we may have passed over it at some point. We feel the violence is a catharsis, a release, but sometimes the line is hard to find.”
Years later in an interview he spoke of his use of violence in films, by saying that he had been mistaken by the catharsis concept. He learned that his films had in some instances inspired some to violence, including a report that Nigerian soldiers after watching the film had shot their guns in excitement and said they wanted to die like the characters in The Wild Bunch. Whether the film inspired or created a more favorable attitude toward violence, the debate on whether entertainment violence has a causation relationship to real violence continues on.
In the 1960s, film violence moved from a few peripheral films to mainstream entertainment and a visceral experience. Sergio Leone’s films, and to an increasing degree spaghetti westerns in general, were tough and filled with violence between combatants. The Wild Bunch moved to involve women, children and animals. There were no innocent bystanders. In the opening sequence of the bank robbery, bank employees, customers and people on the street were victims of the carnage. It wasn’t just the Wild Bunch who did the shooting, the railroad bounty hunters shot anything that moved and then gleefully picked over the bodies for treasures.
Views on Peckinpah as a filmmaker varies, as his body of work is not huge (14 features) and his output by quality standards is uneven. He spent time working in television, writing, directing and producing mostly action programs. Taken together, his television and film legacy has some impressive moments, but includes excess and self-indulgence. His career running out of steam is his own doing as studios refused to hire him and he finished up directing music videos.
At one point, early in development, Peckinpah described this film as a sort of Robin Hood story. Very similar, except these guys rob from the rich, keep it and kill whoever gets in their way. Otherwise, very close to a Robin Hood story.
It was said that Peckinpah favored stories of epic failure, and if you look at the majority of his films, it’s hard to find happy endings in his films. The dramatic foundation of his films follows his characters circling the drain of impending defeat; and yet, many of his films are fascinating in how the characters respond and reveal their inner core. Even if Peckinpah’s characters appear painted with a two-dimensional brush, some of them are more complex and flash moments of conscious and moral struggle.