SAM PECKINPAH, THE WILD BUNCH (1969) (DIRECTOR'S CUT 1996) 2 HRS 25 MINS (WS/DVD)
Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.
THE DIRECTOR: SAM PECKINPAH (1925-1984)
American director, screenwriter, actor (Charlie the meter reader in Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)). Born in Fresno, CA 1925. Educated USC, Los Angeles with MA in drama 1950. Legendary director of westerns with reputation for being difficult (toward producers and studios) but regarded as inspirational by many actors. Served in US Marines from 1943. Worked as assistant under Don Siegel before directing episodes of western TV series "Gunsmoke," "The Rifleman," "The Westerner". Interested in code of honour of the outlaw and killer (gunfighter, gangster, soldier, CIA operative), interaction between males engaged in violence, erosion of noble but violent way of life in face of modernity. Controversial because of his depiction of violence, often censored by the studios (films released heavily cut). Regarded by some as "cathartic", by others as exploitive. One critic notes:
"Cathartic violence" was a term that seemed coined to define his iconoclastic postures. In Peckinpah's Conradian scheme that mixes nobility with tragedy, all are guilty to some degree and all have their reasons. His work typically exists on a skewed moral plane between eras and cultures, with ambiguous quests for identity and redemption undertaken by hopelessly lost outcasts and enemies. He vividly defines the thin line between internal conflict and external action, and, perhaps most importantly, the violent displacement of a false code of honor (and law itself) by another more enduring and devout.
- The Deadly Companions (1961)
- Ride the High Country (1962)
- Major Dundee (1965)
- the notoriously violent "Vietnam Western" The Wild Bunch (1969) with its slow motion "ballet of death" scenes
- The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
- Junior Bonner (1972)
- The Getaway (1972)
- Pay Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
- Convoy (1978)
- another very violent film Straw Dogs (1971)
- Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
- The Killer Elite (1975)
- The Osterman Weekend (1983)
- and his only war film (from the perspective of an anti-Nazi German soldier on the Eastern Front) Cross of Iron (1977)
Original release running time was 143 mins (2hrs 23). After its release the studio cut 4 scenes reducing the running time to 135 mins (2hrs 15). A "Director's Cut" was released in 1996.
Meaning of the Title
Who is "the wild bunch"? Pike Bishop and his men? or the human race in general?
- Pike Bishop - William Holden
- Dutch Engstrom - Ernest Borgnine
- Deke Thornton - Robert Ryan
- Freddie Sykes - Edmond O'Brien
- Lyle Gorch - Warren Oates
- Angel - Jaime Sanchez
- Tector Gorch - Ben Johnson
- Mapache - Emilio Fernandex
- Coffer - Strother Martin
- T.C. - L/Q. Jones
- Harrigan - Albert Decker
Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, ed. Stephen Prince (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
- Stephen Prince, "Introduction: Sam Peckinpah, Savage Poet of American Cinema", pp. 1-36.
- Christopher Sharrett, "Peckinpah the Radical: The Politics of The Wild Bunch", pp. 79-104.
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, "Re-Visioning the Western: Code, Myth, and Genre in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch", pp. 155-74.
The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 1: Films, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987).
- David Cook," The Wild Bunch," pp. 521-525.
The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 2: Directors, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987).
- Andrew Tudor, "Peckinpah, Sam," pp. 410-411.
THINGS TO NOTE
- the controversy at the time of the film's release about the growing violence being depicted in American films (such as Bonnie and Clyde). Is the violence depicted in this film "gratutious" as some critics claim? How does one expore the negative effects of violence without showing the violence that one wishes to condemn?
- the Peckinpah trademark of slow motion killing - the "balletics of death", his use of multiple cameras and very rapid editing to show battles from many directions. Cook says that with 3,642 cuts The Wild Bunch has more individualised cuts than any colour film ever made.
- Peckinpah's "revisioning" of the "Western" movie and the myth of the frontier - who are the heroes (lawmen or outlaws or bandits)? why doesn't the violence solve problems or bring about justice? where does the classic Western device of "the chase" lead to? The US Cavalry is incompetent and poorly organised. The Bunch is incompetent as well (Pike says "This time, let's do it right").
- the scene at the beginning of the film where some children on the outskirts of the Texas border town of Starbuck are watching ants and a scorpion fight, and then torturing and killing them. What is Peckinpah saying about human nature? Is violence inherent in human nature or a product of our (or Texas or American) culture?
- the setting of the film in 1913 in the Texas bordertown of Starbuck - the closing of the American frontier, the Mexican Revolution from 1911 (the first of the modern 20thC revolutions), the out of place gunfighter of the old frontier who has no where to go
- the deliberate confusion in the opening shootout - are the good guys the ones wearing uniforms? Note how many innocent bystanders are killed in the crossfire between the bounty hunmters and Pike's group (a comment on the Vietnam War perhaps?)
- what kind of honour and loyalty exists between Pike and his group? They are courteous to a woman whose shopping they knock out of her hands but they do not hesitate to kill innocent bystanders in the crossfire. Why does the Bunch go back to rescue Angel? Loyalty to a comrade or resignation and "tired of being hunted".
- the extraordinary ending of the film - another montage of killing. Cook excitedly observes that:
It has been written that the ending of The Wild Bunch stands alone as "the unparalleled montage event of cinema history". It does and is, and any attempt to describe it more specifically brings a painful reminder of how insufficient a vehicle language is in the description of filmic art. The spectacular gun battle which blasts Agua Verde to pieces, both killing and mythologizing the Wild Bunch in the process, is a mad, orgasmic frenzy, as the slaughter grows more and more intense until it reaches first Eisensteinian, then Bunuelian, and finally Wagnerian proportions - Wagnerian because those proportions are epic (and the members of the Bunch are in many ways epic warriors whose doom is fated from the story's outset); Wagnerian in its dark, rhapsodic ecstasy. In that concluding massacre, an exultant Wild Bunch figuratively destroys everyone and everything (5,000 extras were "killed" in the filming, according to wardrobe head Gordon Dawson). It is at once an apocalypse, a Liebestod, and a Götterdämmerung - the negation of a brutal, dispirited world in its one last grand, heroically destructive act. (p. 524).
- the recurring image of buzzards - they will show where Sykes' body is, they appear briefly after the final shoot out, the bounty hunters are human buzzards preying on the human bodies they have killed.
- the complexity of the moral and political world of the Bunch in 1913 vs. the more black and white moral world of the traditional Western. Here the contending groups are the bounty hunters, the Bunch, the US Army, the innocent town bystanders, the Mexican Federales (Mapache), Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries, the Mexican peasants, the Mexican Indians
- the fatalism of the Bunch, the recognition that time has passed them by. What place is there for gunfighing outlaws in an age of electricty, cars, machine guns, and social revolution?