Year of Release: 1969 Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O’Brien, Jamie Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Robert Ryan.
Four strangers dressed as some sort of military men ride into town on horses; they pass a group of curious children enjoying themselves. Next they pass a prohibition meeting. They carry a large package of parcels for an elderly lady as she crosses the street. Then they enter a bank; their guns are drawn and they begin robbing it.
In a traditional western, the mysterious outsiders would be the heroes. Or, if they were villains, they would ride off from this crime without a scratch, but a lone hero would appear shortly after, promising to find the criminals and bring them to justice. In Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary 1969 film, The Wild Bunch, these villains are the protagonists, and this gig is nearly their last. They escape from the holdup, but only after a brutal gunfight in which they lose several of their younger recruits. As soon as the gunfight begins, the tone of the film changes considerably. This is not a fun, shoot-’em-up Western, but a serious reflection on the nature of violence.
The realistic, gruesome violence of the opening gunfight is foreshadowed. The children playing by the road in the very first scene are tossing scorpions onto an army of red fire ants. They gleefully watch as the ants torture and consume the scorpions. Once the scorpions are dead, the children place paper over the ants and light them on fire.
Is this sort of sadistic pleasure among the children identical to the enjoyment that people take from watching violence? The film wants one to believe so, or more accurately, wants one to believe that enjoying violence and the suffering of people for its own sake is identical. It ultimately boils down to why one watches violence in various forms of entertainment. If it is solely for fun and for pleasure in watching others suffer, the film is correct. More specifically, in traditional westerns or any entertainment, when the hero triumphs and the villain receives his due, do we cheer because justice has prevailed and evil is no more or because another human being was shot and killed, usually in a cool climactic action sequence with lots of explosions?
Peckinpah creates a provocative scenario by having a gang of robbers be the protagonists. Instead of focusing on the officials tracking down the criminals, the film focuses on the anti-heroes. The viewer is able to see the “Wild Bunch” as they laugh and enjoy themselves, sorrowfully recall painful memories, have an occasional quarrel, and most of all work together as a team. The leader, Pike Bishop, (William Holden) says early on that if the members cannot stay loyal to one another, they are no better than animals, and they are finished.
As a stark contrast to the “Wild Bunch,” the bounty hunters hired to track down the criminals are a disorganized band of riffraff “gutter trash” solely interested in the prize money rather than achieving justice. Their leader is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) a conflicted former member of the gang, who promised to help the railroad company in order to avoid returning to prison.
The life of violence has wrecked havoc on all of these men. Deke does not wish to hunt his former friends, but he also wishes to keep his word and do what is right. Pike does not wish to harm his old friend who was captured by Pike’s own carelessness. Pike argues with his gang over Deke’s motives, claiming Deke is obligated to keep his word. Dutch, (Ernest Borgnine) on the other hand, claims it is more important to consider whom he gave his word to. He has a point, but the “Wild Bunch’s” promise to help an equally repulsive character proves to be as grave a threat.
Just as the emotions of the characters are conflicted and often tense, the violence is equally damaging and intense. When emotions spiral out of control they lead into gruesome violent scenes that further demonstrate the destructive nature of violence and a life of crime.
Since the viewer strongly empathizes with the anti-heroes, he wants them to succeed at their endeavors. When the gang threatens to dissolve, the viewer hopes they can overcome their difficulties. The conflicts of interest and failure to support one another do threaten the gang’s existence at several points. Above all, the violence against the “Wild Bunch” is the most disturbing, because the viewer understands these are human beings, and he does not wish to see them killed.
Following the format of the traditional western, there is a climactic gun battle. However, there are several noticeable factors which are different. A significant change of weapons and enemies serves to underscore the brutal reality of the film. All of this is foreshadowed and carefully developed from the opening scene, until the violence and sin spirals into a shocking conclusion.
Content Advisory: Several scenes of fleeting nudity, much graphic gun violence with gore, scenes of torture, animal abuse, implied sexual content, and mild crass language. MPAA rating: R
Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: B+