THE LAND HAD CHANGED. THEY HADN’T. THE EARTH HAD COOLED. THEY COULDN’T.
Two Westerns made quite a stir in 1969, films that looked different from many of their predecessors. Fox and Warner, the studios behind them, knew early on that the projects would have a lot in common, so a race began. Warner quickly hired Sam Peckinpah to start rewriting a script originally written by Walon Green and Roy Sickner, and in the end The Wild Bunch opened in theaters a couple of months before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both were revisionist Westerns, portraying an era that was about to change; Wild Bunch takes place in 1913 among aging bandits, while Butch Cassidy shows the early days of cinema. The latter faced less critical acclaim than the former, but today they are both huge classics.
One last hit
Pike Bishop (William Holden) has a plan. After robbing a railroad payroll office together with his gang, the veteran criminal intends to retire, an unfathomable concept to his old partner ”Dutch” Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) who can’t imagine any other kind of life. However, things go wrong at the Texas payroll office; Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) leads a posse on their trail and attacks them during the robbery. In the violent chaos, Pike loses half his gang and many innocent bystanders are also killed.
While escaping to Mexico, Pike and his remaining crew realize that the whole thing was a set-up and the loot is worthless. They end up in a small village where one of Pike’s gang members, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), was born and raised. Maybe they can find work with a cruel army general, Mapache (Emilio Fernández), who’s hunting Pancho Villa…
The bloody consequences of violence
Peckinpah’s greatest film was a comeback for him after a few either critically or commercially unsuccessful projects. He had surprised critics with Ride the High Country (1962), a film featuring aging Western stars, an idea he returned to in The Wild Bunch. But he also wanted Westerns to show the bloody consequences of violence, just like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had done. Peckinpah was also influenced by a younger generation’s frustration with an increasingly senseless Vietnam War. From where he was standing, it seemed like the end of an era, end of innocence perhaps, so why not portray men who experienced the same thing and were trying to survive in spite of the odds?
Peckinpah wanted to go full Vietnam on them, and he sure did.
Peckinpah deliberately made the film very violent, which was hotly debated in 1969, but probably doesn’t have the same kind of impact now. Still, the massacre during the robbery does make one think about how it must have looked to audiences at the time, who were used to much more sanitized Westerns on TV and in theaters. Peckinpah wanted to go full Vietnam on them, and he sure did. His portrait of the aging bandits is tinged with a sense of sadness and betrayal; flashbacks add to a richer background.
Another part of the story may cause different reactions today, as the film asks us to show sympathy for Angel and ignore a brutal murder he commits of his former fiancée. In light of that, it’s hard to care much for his ultimate fate, even if the film treats it as an important emotional moment.
The presence of Holden, himself an aging movie star, lends weight to the film and Jerry Fielding’s music score brings energy. Cinematography, directing and editing work in perfect harmony to create explosive action scenes. No wonder that a lot of people went to see The Wild Bunch for its kinetic violence. Peckinpah wanted them to be appalled, but he made the action look too cool for that.
The Wild Bunch 1969-U.S. 134 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Phil Feldman. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Music: Jerry Fielding. Editing: Lou Lombardo. Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (”Dutch” Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez… Ben Johnson, Strother Martin.
Trivia: Also available in a 145 min. version. Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum were considered for the part of Pike; Richard Harris as Thornton.
Last word: “When I was handed the script, to be quite honest with you, I did not read into it all the controversy it seems to have stirred up. I had made violent films before, of course; Westerns and war pictures. This is a script about people who have outlived their time, who have anachronisms. I accepted it on those terms. When we were actually shooting, we were all repulsed at times. There were nights when we’d finish shooting and I’d say, ‘My God, my God!’ But I was always back the next morning, because I sincerely believed we were achieving something.” (Borgnine, RogerEbert.com)