By John Smith
The year is 1913. A small town in Texas is alive with music, children laughing, and a Temperance Union parade. Life is simply happening, but soon death and destruction invades the town and symphony of pain and gunfire erupts. This sudden contrast of mood and the unflinching, unapologetic violence makes for one of the most intense and memorable introductions in film history. It also sets the tone for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal anti-Western, The Wild Bunch.
Sam Peckinpah has become notorious for his graphic approach to violence in his films, but in that sense, he inspired modern film makers not to hold back quite as much and to be comfortable in making whatever movie they envisioned, and I hold him in the highest regard for that. This violence works well for his films like Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but it is a necessity for The Wild Bunch.
This is the story of Pike Bishop (William Holden), the notorious leader of a gang, who after a life of violence and thievery wants out of this life. All he needs is one last score. Along with his second in command, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), and the rest of the gang they head into Mexico and meet Mapache (Emilio Fernández). Mapache is a sadistic general in the Mexican army who enlists Pike to rob a train holding weapons and ammunition in return for gold, which would be enough for Pike to retire.
This film is more than just a gratuitously violent bloodbath for the sake of shocking audiences. This was one of the most violent, if not the most violent film made up until this point in film history. Being released in 1969, The Wild Bunch should be viewed in relation to the Vietnam War. Critics were very uncomfortable with the violence of The Wild Bunch, but Peckinpah defended it by saying that actual violence was being broadcasted into people’s homes every night on the nightly news. Unfortunately, “Bloody” Sam was trying to shock and disturb audiences, but they were drawn to it and were entertained, which seems to confirm the director’s fears of desensitization by the media.
What The Wild Bunch also succeeds at is being an anti-Western. Before this film, American audiences were used to seeing the Westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone amongst others, and all of these had a very exact formula about how to approach the characters and story arcs. These “traditional” Westerns feature heroes who have served in the military or are masculine good guys bursting with confidence, and a more racist view towards Native Americans and Mexicans. The Wild Bunch takes all of these and throws them out the window. The protagonists are anti-heroes and criminals who may be male, but overflow with weaknesses and insecurities. There’s also a less than favorable outcome for all involved and has a more tolerant view towards minorities.
The Wild Bunch takes the Western genre and turns it on his head, while still remaining intelligent and thoughtful through its barrage of gunfire and blood. The film starts intense and ends with the most memorable climax in film history. This is a very important and entertaining film.
John Smith is a film student at Temple University with an interest in screenwriting. I do appreciate the classics and take the time to see as many as I can, but I will probably be more interested in a horror film that’s been dug out of the deepest hole in film history.
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