The Wild Bunch (1969)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography Lucien Ballard

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 American epic Western Technicolor and Panavision film directed by Sam Peckinpah  about an aging outlaw gang on the Texas–Mexico border, trying to exist in the changing modern world of 1913. The film was controversial because of its graphic violence and its portrayal of crude men attempting to survive by any available means.

An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the “traditional” American West is disappearing around them.
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The Wild Cinema of Peckinpah

27 August 2005 | by Bogmeister (United States) – See all my reviews

Peckinpah has a rep and this is the film which provided most of it. I had the privilege of actually seeing this on the big screen once, in the late seventies. As the beginning credits end, Pike (Holden) tells his bunch “If they move, Kill ’em!” Then Peckinpah’s credit appears. A woman seated behind me gasped, whispering “oh, no…” Oh, my. It sounded like the lady didn’t know she’d wandered into a Peckinpah film and she knew what she was in for. When you enter Peckinpah-land, you need to be prepared. There are no punches pulled, no sidestepping the unpleasant aspects of life. Peckinpah’s characters are tough men; I mean, really tough, not phony-Hollywood tough. In this case, they are coarsened by what seems to be years on the trail, blasted by the sun, snapped at by rattlesnakes, and harassed by bandits. And at this point, they’ve pretty much had it.

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Not that they’re complaining, mind you. They’ve lived their lives how they saw fit, this bunch, and they make no apologies for any of it. I believe the actual year is around 1913, just before World War I begins. Most of the action takes place in Mexico, where the Bunch becomes involved with a local general (Fernandez) with the usual delusions of grandeur. If you go by the name of the character Angel, the general can be viewed as a version of the devil. That would make the Bunch avenging angels at the end. But heroes? No, not at all. They have their own code, they know instinctively they’re stronger together than on each own, but they reason this concept out also – Peckinpah wants to make sure it’s clear these are not unthinking savages. They’re just men, who’ve reached a point in history where they must make a crucial turn. History, it seems, has no real use for them anymore. It’s quite simple

    • they either fade slowly or go out quickly. In a film such as this,

with its now insurmountable rep, you tend to wait for those big set pieces, especially the climactic battle. Wait for it, wait for it… here it is. Bam! – you’re in Peckinpah territory. You’re a part of history.

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Brutal and elegiac masterpiece.

4 March 2008 | by Spikeopath (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Outlaws led by Pike Bishop on the Mexican-U.S. frontier face not only the passing of time, but bounty hunters {led by a former partner of Pike, Deke Thornton} and the Mexican army as well.

In 1969 Sam Peckinpah picked up the torch that Arthur Penn lit with 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, and literally poured gasoline on it to impact on cinema to the point that the shock wave is still being felt today. The death of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1967 ushered in a new era for cinema goers, it was a time for brave and intelligent directors to step up to the plate to deliver stark and emotive thunder, and with The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah achieved this by the shed load.

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The Wild Bunch doesn’t set out to be liked, it is a harsh eye opening perception of the Western genre, this is the other side of the coin to the millions of Westerns that whoop and holler as the hero gets the girl and rides off into the sunset. The Wild Bunch thematically is harshly sad for the protagonists, these are men out of their time, this is a despicable group of men, driven by greed and cynicism, they think of nothing to selling arms to a vile amoral army across the border.

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The film opens with a glorious credit sequence as we witness the Bunch riding into town, the picture freeze frames in black & white for each credit offering, from here on in we know that we are to witness something different, and yes, something very special. The film is bookended by carnage, and sandwiched in the middle is an equally brilliant train robbery, yet the impact of these sequences is only enhanced because the quality of the writing is so good (Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner alongside Peckinpah). There’s no pointless discussions or scene filling explanations of the obvious. Each passage, in each segment, is thought thru to gain credibility for the shattering and bloody climax. There is of course one massive and intriguing question that hangs over the film; how did Peckinpah make such low moral men appear as heroes? Well I’m not here to tell you that because you need to witness the film in its entirety for yourself. But it’s merely one cheeky point of note in a truly majestic piece of work. A film that even today stands up as one of the greatest American films ever made. 10/10

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Casting


Peckinpah’s first two choices for the role of Deke Thornton were Richard Harris (who had co-starred in Major Dundee) and Brian Keith (who had worked with Peckinpah on The Westerner (1960) and The Deadly Companions (1961)). Harris was never formally approached, but Keith was, and turned the part down. Robert Ryan was ultimately cast in the part after Peckinpah saw him in the World War II action movie The Dirty Dozen (1967). Other actors considered for the role were Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Ben Johnson (later cast as Tector Gorch), and Arthur Kennedy.

Mario Adorf was considered for the part of Mapache, but the role went to Emilio Fernández, the Mexican film director and actor and friend of Peckinpah.

Among those considered to play Dutch Engstrom were Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Alex Cord, Robert Culp, Sammy Davis, Jr., Richard Jaeckel, Steve McQueen, and George Peppard. Ernest Borgnine was cast based on his performance in The Dirty Dozen (1967).

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Robert Blake was the original choice to play Angel, but he asked for too much money. Peckinpah had seen Jaime Sánchez in the Broadway production of Sidney Lumet‘s The Pawnbroker, was impressed, and demanded he be cast as Angel.

Albert Dekker, a stage actor, was cast as Harrigan, the railroad detective. He died months after filming; The Wild Bunch was his final film.

Bo Hopkins played the part of Clarence “Crazy” Lee; he was cast after Peckinpah saw him on television.

Warren Oates played Lyle Gorch, having previously worked with Peckinpah on the TV series The Rifleman and his previous films, Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965).

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The Wild Bunch starts with a bang and ends with a bang. Easily one of the most violent Westerns I have seen, the movie focuses on a group of aging outlaws during the final years of the Wild West. The leader of the bunch is Pike Bishop (Holden), a grizzled veteran that has established a code of honor within his unit. They aren’t exactly model citizens, but they maintain a level of camraderie even when disagreeing about certain issues.

The opening “bang” shows the group robbing a railroad office that is purported to contain a significant amount of silver. The robbery attempt goes wrong, however, when Deke Thornton (Ryan), a former partner of Pike, and his posse of bounty hunters show up. A massive gunfight ensues with dozens of innocent casualties. This massacre is something to behold, as gunfire is coming from every direction, and innocent bystanders are running for their lives. The action is given a frantic sense of urgence thanks to the quick editing and multiple camera angles used by director Sam Peckinpah.

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Critical

Vincent Canby began his review by calling the film “very beautiful and the first truly interesting American-made Western in years. It’s also so full of violence–of an intensity that can hardly be supported by the story–that it’s going to prompt a lot of people who do not know the real effect of movie violence (as I do not) to write automatic condemnations of it.”He said, “Although the movie’s conventional and poetic action sequences are extraordinarily good and its landscapes beautifully photographed . . . it is most interesting in its almost jolly account of chaos, corruption, and defeat”. Among the actors, he commented particularly on William Holden: “After years of giving bored performances in boring movies, Holden comes back gallantly in The Wild Bunch. He looks older and tired, but he has style, both as a man and as a movie character who persists in doing what he’s always done, not because he really wants the money but because there’s simply nothing else to do.”  Time also liked Holden’s performance, describing it as his best since Stalag  (a 1953 film that earned Holden an Oscar); said Robert Ryan gave “the screen performance of his career”; and concluded that “The Wild Bunch contains faults and mistakes” (such as flashbacks “introduced with surprising clumsiness”), but “its accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belongs with the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.”

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In a 2002 retrospective Roger Ebert, who “saw the original version at the world premiere in 1969, during the golden age of the junket, when Warner Bros. screened five of its new films in the Bahamas for 450 critics and reporters”, said that back then he had publicly declared the film a masterpiece during the junket’s press conference, prompted by comments from “a reporter from the Reader’s Digest [who] got up to ask ‘Why was this film ever made?'” He compared the film to Pulp Fiction: “praised and condemned with equal vehemence.”

“What Citizen Kane was to movie lovers in 1941, The Wild Bunch was to cineastes in 1969,” wrote film critic Michael Sragow, adding that Peckinpah had “produced an American movie that equals or surpasses the best of Kurosawa: the Gotterdammerung of Westerns”.

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