Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, along the Mexican-Texan border, The Wild Bunch tells the story of an aging gang of outlaws led by Pike, and chased by bounty hunters led by a former gang member, Deke Thornton. They rob a bank, which turns out to be a set-up by the railroad company to capture the gang, and escape to a Mexican village, home of Angel, one of their gang members. The village was attacked by General Mapache, who also kidnapped Angel’s girlfriend. After they get to Agua Verde, Angel sees his former girlfriend with the General and shoots her. Pike agrees to steal a US military shipment for Mapache in exchange for gold. Though the hold-up is successful, the train also carries the bounty hunters, who chase Pike and his group, only to be foiled again. When Mapache realises that Angel has stolen a crate of weapons, he captures and tortures Angel. In a bloody shootout between Mapache and Pike, almost everybody, including Pike, is killed. Thornton and the bounty hunters arrive, and Thornton rides off with one surviving gang member, the old Sykes, and a group of Mexican rebels.
From the very beginning The Wild Bunch produced strong and passionate reactions. During a preview in Kansas City in 1969, 60 per cent of the audience had negative reactions to it; one irate woman wrote her congressman who in turn wrote Jack Valenti, head of MPAA (The Motion Picture Association of America). Still, some 20 per cent of the audience rated the movie as excellent or outstanding. That the producers went ahead with the film had much to do with the crisis in which Hollywood found itself, and with the fact that the viewers who liked the film were predominantly in their late teens and early twenties. While it didn’t gross as much as some other quintessential films of the late sixties – such as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) – like these latter films, The Wild Bunch simultaneously captured a historical moment and profoundly influenced future generations of filmmakers. Not just famous for its level of violence, The Wild Bunch revised the myth of the Western, reflected on the difficulty of (male) community and solidarity, reframed Mexican-American politics, and commented on the advance of modernisation and the effects of capitalism.
The violence for which The Wild Bunch – and Sam Peckinpah’s films in general – has become famous cannot be quite understood outside the context of the late sixties. Major changes, transformations and upheavals occurred while the film was being shot on location in Mexico, from March to June 1968. The Production Code, which had regulated what could be shown on screen and what was deemed unacceptable, was revised in 1966 and in November 1968 replaced by the Code and Rating Administration (CARA), which installed the ratings system, giving The Wild Bunch an R-rating. That The Wild Bunch could get away with an R-rating – rather than an X-rating – was at least partially connected to the social and political violence occurring in American streets. While the film was being shot, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated (in April and June 1968 respectively). Right before shooting for the film had started, in March 1968, American soldiers massacred over 300 unarmed Vietnamese, including women and children, at My Lai, a story that broke in November 1969, after the film had been released. As Vivian Sobchack has pointed out, the incredible violence that erupted on the screens in the late sixties reflected the general social climate, from urban riots, to the images of death and violence in Vietnam that appeared on the evening news, to anti-war protests. The emergence of ‘ultraviolent’ movies can thus be understood as a way of reflecting, negotiating and transforming the social violence of the late sixties.
While reviewers were divided about the effects of violence when The Wild Bunch first came out – middlebrow critics were appalled while intellectuals loved the film (Weddle, 1994: 366) – more recent critics have tended to agree with Peckinpah himself that the violence in the film conveys the sense of ‘horror and agony’ inherent in violence (Prince 1998: 33). Critics of the film usually presume its focus on frequently violent action: ‘No one [in the film] thinks … they all just act’, Wheeler Winston Dixon writes.1 Such a focus on violent action seems justified by the film’s unprecedented numbers of cuts. Peckinpah was much influenced by the films of Akira Kurosawa. In a careful analysis of all of Peckinpah’s films, Stephen Prince has isolated three types of montage that translate violence into a filmic language: slow-motion inserts, as in the opening massacre, that aestheticise violence but can also be understood as the human body’s loss of control over its actions or as a way of slowing down – and paying tribute – to the last moments of somebody’s life (Prince 1998: 63; Seydor 1997: 192); extended montages using crosscutting; and poetic or psychological montages that are connected to Peckinpah’s use of flashbacks – such as when Deke is captured in the bordello – in The Wild Bunch (Prince 1998: 67–73). Part of the problem of translating violence into an aesthetic language has to do with how it turns violence into a commodity, making it available for (excited) consumption. But Peckinpah, Prince argues, tempers that possibility by complementing the aesthetics of violence, by also showing what emotional pain violence inflicts, and by producing moments of ironic and intellectual distance.
In this sense, violence in The Wild Bunch can be understood as joining the era’s critique of US society, a critique that was often manifested in the cinema’s attempt to revise – and thus critique – mythological histories, in this case the Western. Many classical Hollywood Westerns were set between 1865 and 1893 – between the end of the Civil War and the moment when Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the frontier ‘closed’ – and featured conflicts between ‘civilisation’ and ‘wilderness’, in which a righteous cowboy often helped stabilise law and order – ‘civilisation’ – in an emerging Western settlement. While many so-called ‘adult’ Westerns of the 1950s often took a more sceptical view, The Wild Bunch pushed things to an altogether different level. Like other films from the period invested in revising notions of masculinity, The Wild Bunch dismantles the myth of the Western hero, as its characters are aging, frequently incompetent, and unethical (working for whomever pays best). At the same time, there are remnants of an ethical code – ‘He gave his word’ Pike says, and ‘That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to’, Dutch angrily responds – and the characters’ flashbacks investigate their depth of character as well as their morality. Set in 1913, during the Mexican Revolution, the characters themselves are painfully aware of the passing of the ‘old’ – or mythological – West, something they often comment on and that is visually brought out most poignantly when the cowboys have their first encounter with an automobile.
The film’s revision of the Western formula extends well beyond a critique of the genre and the mythological history attached to it – it can also be used to comment on larger political, social, and economic issues. For instance, we can understand it as a complex and ambivalent commentary on the American war in Vietnam – as a so-called ‘Vietnam Western’. Thus, the savage robbery and killing of innocent civilians that opens the film can be understood as an ‘essentially impotent outrage and despair’ about the US involvement in Vietnam.2 Such a reading becomes more complex when we consider how the film’s final, extended massacre appears to reaffirm violent military intervention. An economic, rather than political avenue of interpretation is opened up by the importance of the railroad in the film. As a corporation hiring bounty hunters, the railroad represents ‘a narrowing of possibilities’, as experienced by Thornton, for instance, a sense of ‘entrapment’, ‘arbitrary violence’ and ‘fateful inevitability’. ‘The film’s violence is capitalist violence’, Michael Bliss has provocatively argued.3
If the film’s commentary on difficult contemporary issues – such as Vietnam and capitalism – is complex and ambivalent, then its more apparent object of engagement – the US relationship with Mexico – seems even more vexed. Set during the Mexican Revolution, much of this history remains absent from the film, most notably revolutionary leader Pancho Villa and the United States government, which occludes not only the revolutionary struggle, but also the complex US involvement with a military dictatorship – the ways the US had helped General Huerta come into power in 1913, even if they later refused to recognise him as a legitimate leader. Instead of revealing the complexity of the political situation, the film sets up two key Mexican locations, the village where Angel, a Mexican member of the gang, comes from, and Agua Verde, a village under the command of Mapache, an ally of General Huerta who terrorises Angel’s village. While Agua Verde is seen as brutal, Angel’s village is understood as primitive, a lush place where toddlers play and youngsters dive into the water. Things get even more complicated after Mapache tortures and ultimately kills Angel, when the gang transfers its political loyalties from Huerta to the oppressed villagers, deciding to fight their former patron even if such a shift remains full of problems because motivations remain unclear and because it leaves most people dead.
The film has even more unsettling aspects. Critics have often noted how the film often seems to attack its viewers, leaving them no safe vantage point from where to observe the action, the characters and the setting, instead pulling them into different directions. One of the more unsettling techniques used in the film can be found in the moments of unrestrained laughter, for instance after the gang escapes across the border and rests in a small Mexican settlement, only to fight about shares and to discover they had been set up. Laughter here comes after a tense moment of confrontation – between the generations, between Americans and Mexicans – the danger that the group and camaraderie may ‘fall apart’. The scene ends with a tenuous resolution to stick together – one of the main obsessions and difficulties in the film – and the laughter registers the discomfort attending such sticking together. In this context, the film’s ending, after Sykes says, ‘It ain’t like it use to be, but it’ll do’, and romantic music is mixed with superimpositions of the dead laughing, may be one of the most difficult sequences to read.
While The Wild Bunch is important for both its aesthetic accomplishment – the ways in which it uses editing, slow motion, allegorical images, etc. – and for its social commentaries, its most complicated legacy might concern the history of screen violence. When the film was restored and re-released in 1994 it got an NC-17 rating (introduced in 1990) before the original R-rating was reinstated because no new footage had been added (Seydor 1997: 147–8). Upon the film’s original release, Martin Scorsese was one of the film’s avid viewers whose aesthetics of violence was much influenced by The Wild Bunch. Likewise, the film – as well as Peckinpah’s other films – broke crucial ground for the representation and aestheticisation of violence for filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone. Some critics worry that while Peckinpah’s screen violence was a reaction to the social violence of the period – and was thus not only justified but had an ethical and moral component – today’s screen violence seems de-contextualised, disconnected from any urgent social, political and cultural issues, and thus potentially not only meaningless but hurtful. The current debates surrounding screen violence – which sometimes too easily assume that we know what effect screen violence has on spectators – certainly confirm the importance of the issue. While The Wild Bunch may offer no solution, it can nonetheless sustain a profound engagement and conversation about a crucial contemporary issue.
1. Wheeler Winston Dixon, ‘Re-Visioning the Western: Code, Myth and Genre in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch’, in Prince 1999: 173.
2. Robert Torry, ‘Therapeutic Narrative: The Wild Bunch, Jaws, and Vietnam’, The Velvet Light Trap, Vol. 31, Spring 1993, p. 27.
3. Michael Bliss, ‘“Back Off to What?” Enclosure, Violence, and Capitalism in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch’, in Prince 1999: 107–8, 124.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Warner Bros-Seven Arts. Director: Sam Peckinpah. Producer: Phil Feldman. Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard. Editor: Lou Lombardo. Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Edmond O’Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Jamie Sánchez (Angel), Emilio Fernández (General Mapache), Bo Hopkins (Clarence ‘Crazy’ Lee), Alfonso Arau (Lieutenant Herrera), Sonia Amelio (Teresa).]
Michael Bliss (ed.), Doing it Right: The Best Criticism on Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
Edward Buscombe, ‘The Western’, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed.), The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 286–94.
Christine Gledhill, ‘The Western’, in Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink (eds), The Cinema Book, 2nd ed., London, BFI, 1999, pp. 147–56.
Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1998.
Stephen Prince (ed.), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films, a Reconsideration, foreword by David Weddle, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Vivian C. Sobchack, ‘The Violent Dance: A Personal Memoir of Death in the Movies’, in Stephen Prince (ed.), Screening Violence, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2000, pp. 110–24.
David Weddle, ‘If They Move … Kill ‘Em!’: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, New York, Grove Press, 1994.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.