“We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” – Pike Bishop
No one made films like Sam Peckinpah. Tough, uncompromising, violent, nihilistic. He was a filmmaker unafraid to explore the darker aspects of human nature and often with a romantic streak. The Wild Bunch (1969) is all this and more – a no holds-barred western about a group of men being pushed to the margins of society because of the changes of the modern world circa 1913. Their way of life was no longer tolerated by the powers that be – if it ever was. The film follows a tight-knit group of outlaws with nowhere to go, pursued by one of their own to the inevitable bloody conclusion.
When The Wild Bunch debuted in 1969, Peckinpah’s innovative use of multi-angle, quick-cut editing that mixed normal and slow motion imagery was recognized as revolutionary. Along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Peckinpah’s film also helped usher in a new era of explicitly-depicted on-screen violence – something that we take for granted now but shocked audiences at the time. More importantly, The Wild Bunch is a romantic lament for an era that was no more – the life and times of the Outlaw Gunfighter.
Right from the get-go, Peckinpah establishes a cruel and uncaring world as symbolized by a group of children that delight in torturing a scorpion by immersing it among hundreds of ants. This imagery is meant to foreshadow the film’s protagonists who will soon find themselves surrounded on all sides by forces determined to destroy them. The film cuts back and forth from the children to a group of outlaws disguised as soldiers robbing a bank, the posse of bounty hunters waiting to ambush them, and a temperance union parade.
Peckinpah cleverly uses editing to increase the tensions until the inevitable confrontation when everyone is caught up in the ensuing chaos of the shoot-out. He doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the violence even if the slow motion carnage gives it a stylish, cool vibe. We get innocent civilians gunned down (one is shot multiple times) in the middle of the street. Both outlaws and bounty hunters meet untimely ends. Amidst all the pandemonium, Peckinpah lingers on one outlaw – Clarence “Crazy” Lee played with memorable zest by Bo Hopkins – who forgets about the carnage raging outside the bank and decides to lead his hostages in a song. By the time he realizes what’s going on he’s killed but not before taking a few bounty hunters with him.
Unlike many of his imitators, Peckinpah lingers on the aftermath of the shoot-out. There are bloody dead bodies littering the street while women cry and wail over loved ones. He even injects some grim gallows humor as two of the bounty hunters (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones) argue over who shot whom and therefore entitled to the spoils only to quickly make-up (“C’mon, T.C. Help me get his boots.”). They take great delight in pillaging the dead bodies.
Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) leads the bounty hunters and gets into a heated argument with Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the railroad representative who sprung the hired gun from prison to catch the outlaws he used to ride with, and gives him an ultimatum: “You’ve got 30 days to get Pike or 30 days back to Yuma. You’re my Judas goat, Mr. Thornton.” I love the fiery exchange between these two men because it not only illustrates Harrigan’s naked greed but also that Deke isn’t an amoral mercenary like the other men in his crew. He follows his own code or at least tries to as it conflicts with Harrigan’s mandate. At least Deke has the balls to tell Harrigan what he thinks of the man: “How does it feel? Gettin’ paid for it? Gettin’ paid to sit back and hire your killings with the law’s arms around you. How does it feel to be so goddamn right?” Harrigan gives a smug smile and simply replies, “Good.”
Emerging from the deadly shoot-out is Pike Bishop (William Holden), the leader of this tight-knit group of outlaws, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), his right-hand man, the Gorch brothers – Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the newcomer. They attempt to put as much distance between them and the bank robbery as possible with Deke and his bounty hunters in hot pursuit. They cross the border into Mexico and take refuge in Angel’s village. Peckinpah not only uses these sequences to convey his love for the Mexican people and their way of life but also make a political commentary on how the corrupt government, as represented by General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), exploits and oppresses the people.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of levity as we see the Gorch brothers enchanted by a beautiful Mexican girl, which even makes Pike laugh. The town elder wisely tells him, “We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” These scenes are important because they humanize Pike and his gang and show that they are much more than just hardened killers. They are capable of enjoying the simple pleasures in life.
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Wild Bunch is the dynamic between the outlaws. With the exception of Angel, these men have been together for a long time, through thick and thin and this is evident in the way they interact with each other. For example, Lyle and his brother feel that they should get more of the loot than Angel because he’s new to the group. It goes against the way they’ve always done things and Pike confronts them by saying, “I don’t know a damn thing except that I either lead this bunch or end it right now.” As dangerous as Lyle is, not even he dares cross Pike and the look he gives him leaves little doubt that Pike can back up his threat.
Pike is barely keeping his gang together and life isn’t getting any easier as they discover that their “loot” is a bunch of steel washers instead of silver coins. Pike realizes that they have to re-think the way they do things as he tells his gang, “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” The situation eventually defuses itself and everyone ends up laughing about it all. These guys bicker and fight amongst themselves but at the end of the day they are loyal to each other because in this world that’s all they have. These men have spent their lives killing and robbing – it’s all they know but they have no regrets about it either.
The Wild Bunch becomes a battle of wills between two former friends now antagonists, both with their own personal code and something to prove. With Pike, it is the desire to pull off one more lucrative score like he did back in the day. For Deke, it’s to prove that he can outsmart his former cohort in crime and a chance to be a gunfighter for a little longer.
William Holden does some excellent work in this film as a tough man struggling not only with his own mortality but keeping a group of Alpha Males together. In private moments, the actor portrays a man who has doubts and fears. Pike is a dying breed. He’s getting old and knows that he doesn’t have many heists left in him. He has to make these last ones count. He is a man who’s led a tough life but on his own terms. He also has his own personal code, which he says during another dispute with the Gorch brothers: “We’re gonna stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man you stay with him and if you can’t do that you’re like some kind of animal. You’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!” It is this personal code and a strict adherence to it that ultimately leads to the demise of him and his gang for he’s bound by a sense of honor.
Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are very good as the fun-loving Gorch brothers. They love drinking and carousing with women almost as much as they love stealing money with one feeding off the other. Always the memorable performer, Oates, in particular, is quite colorful as the irascible, unpredictable half of the duo and just as adept at spouting period dialogue as he is using body language as evident in the scene where everyone in the gang takes a swig from a bottle of alcohol while he watches in mounting frustration until he’s finally given it – now empty. Ernest Borgnine turns in another solid performance as Pike’s confidante and best friend. He also acts as a sounding board, not afraid to give Pike an honest opinion. Like his friend, Dutch believes in loyalty and the actor’s natural charisma helps make his character likable.
Special mention goes to L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin as the dirtiest and most cowardly mercenaries. They attack their respective roles with gusto and without a hint of vanity. They look horrible and provide a lot of comic relief, always blaming each other when their gang makes a mistake, which is often. Bo Hopkins has a memorable cameo as an enthusiastic psychopath working for Pike. He’s unhinged in a darkly humorous way and it’s fun to watch the actor chew up the scenery for his brief amount of screen-time.
The climactic battle is a master class in editing and an impressive orgy of slow motion carnage that is a spectacle to behold. From the point of Angel’s death, there is little dialogue, no catchy one-liners or cheesy puns – just full-on, unadulterated mayhem as only Peckinpah could orchestrate. The body count is extensive: people are shot and blow-up with men and women killed – some intentionally and some caught in the crossfire. It is also a fitting conclusion for men that led violent lives. There’s something simultaneously fatalistic and heroic about the Wild Bunch’s march towards certain death. It is also very influential, going on to inspire similar epic showdowns in action films like John Woo’s Hard-Boiled (1992) and Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun (2000), but they all pale in comparison.
In 1967, Sam Peckinpah needed work. Producer Kenneth Hyman asked him to rewrite a screenplay entitled The Diamond Story. If his work was accepted he could direct it as well. Instead, Peckinpah submitted another script he had re-written to Hyman entitled The Wild Bunch, written by Walon Green from a story by Roy Sickner, a stuntman and a longtime friend of Peckinpah’s. Green and Sickner had spent a couple of years trying to get their script made with no luck until the latter gave it to Peckinpah. Warner Brothers decided to have Peckinpah direct The Wild Bunch rather than The Diamond Story.
According to Green, Peckinpah polished the dialogue, making it “saltier,” and gave it a “more authentic Western ring.” Green wasn’t happy with the changes Peckinpah made to the Mexican village scene, which was originally done entirely in Spanish and featured Angel without the rest of the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah also added two flashbacks: the capture of Deke in a whorehouse and Pike’s love affair with a married woman.
When it came to casting, Hyman wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike and Peckinpah agreed. According to the director, the actor wanted to do it but was offered a “fucking million-dollar contract to do Paint Your Wagon,” and did it instead, much to Peckinpah’s chagrin. The director liked William Holden’s performance in Stalag 17 (1953) and cast him as Pike. For the role of Dutch, Hyman wanted Ernest Borgnine and at first Peckinpah disagreed because he hadn’t worked with him before and wanted to “be sure of everybody,” but the producer convinced him to cast the actor.
Peckinpah hired Lucien Ballard for director of photography and together they screened footage of the 1913 Mexican Revolution so that when they scouted locations they picked ones that captured the dry, dusty look he wanted. Another crucial collaborator was editor Lou Lombardo who had worked on an episode of the television show Felony Squad that featured a death sequence rendered in slow motion. Peckinpah liked that and the two men talked about shooting gunfights at various speeds and intercutting normal speed with slow motion.
At the end of February 1968, Peckinpah left for Mexico to finish up casting and a last few production details. This included meeting his good friend Don Emilio Fernandez who suggested Jorge Russek and Alfonso Arau to play Mapache’s lieutenants. Even more significantly, Fernandez read the script and offered a suggestion for the opening scene as Peckinpah recalled: “…suddenly he says to me, ‘You know, the Wild Bunch, when they go into that town like that, are like when I was a child and we would take a scorpion and drop it on an anthill…’ And I said, ‘What!’ And he said, ‘Yes, you see, the ants would attack the scorpion.’” Peckinpah loved this idea and rewrote the opening scene to incorporate it.
Not surprisingly, Peckinpah was a demanding director and there are many anecdotes of his antics during principal photography. Strother Martin remembered before the opening shoot-out Peckinpah wanted him to kiss his rifle. Martin refused because he thought it had been done too many times in films and the director yelled at him to do it. Martin did what he was told and when he finally saw the finished scene realized that “Sam had managed to get a different kind of kiss of a rifle than anybody else has ever gotten. He got it, of course, because I was scared shitless and mad at the same time.”
For the opening shoot-out, Peckinpah used as many as six cameras at the same time with some going 24 frames per second and some going faster to create the slow motion effects. Lombardo began editing a work print of this sequence and when he was finished it ran 21 minutes! Peckinpah took a pass at the sequence and cut it down to five minutes, retaining “the essence of every action we had but fragmented and intercut it all,” Lombardo remembered.
Peckinpah was a director that didn’t suffer fools gladly as William Holden recounted in an interview regarding a scene that featured Pike and his gang, which was particularly challenging. It was a long scene and everyone had dialogue but nobody knew their lines, assuming there’d be plenty of time to get it right on the set. Holden recalled:
“Sam said in this very calm but menacing voice: ‘Gentlemen, you were hired to work on this film as actors, and I expect actors to know their lines when they come to set. Now I’m willing to give you twenty minutes, and anyone can go wherever he wants to learn his lines. But when you come back, if you can’t be an actor, you will be replaced.’”
Holden remembers that this sent the cast scurrying to learn their lines and it was a memorable example of Peckinpah’s demand for professionalism.
The climactic shoot-out took 11 days to film. Peckinpah employed five cameras at the same time. It was very challenging because of the interlacing action that involved filming the foreground and then repeating it again for the background so that everything would match up. It was a very complex sequence to orchestrate due to the amount of action and the large number of extras.
Initially, the MPAA gave The Wild Bunch an X rating but Peckinpah and Lombardo argued that if they took a “particular segment out, it thrown off something else. They somehow understood most of that and allowed much of what we argued for to remain.” The studio previewed the film in Kansas City and Lombardo remembered, “The crowd turned out to be either completely for or completely against the film. And the ones who were against it were more violent than the film itself!” The Wild Bunch underwent final editing before general release.
The film was then shown at a special screening for the press in the Bahamas in June 1969. Not surprisingly, it polarized the audience with some people walking out in protest during the screening. At the press conference the next day, it continued to garner divisive reactions with Roger Ebert calling it “a masterpiece,” while Reader’s Digest’s Virginia Kelly saying, “I have only one question to ask: why was this film ever made?’ The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote, “In The Wild Bunch, which is about men who walk together, but in desperation, he [Peckinpah] turns the genre inside out. It’s a fascinating movie.” In his review for Time magazine, Jay Cocks wrote, “The Wild Bunch contains faults and mistakes, but its accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belong to the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.” The New Republic’s Stanley Kaufman wrote, “[There is] a kinetic beauty in the very violence that his film lives and revels in…The violence is the film.”
After The Wild Bunch was given a general release, the studio decided to cut 20 minutes out because it wasn’t doing as well as they had hoped. All the flashbacks were cut, removing “the thing which humanized the characters. I couldn’t believe it,” Peckinpah said. In 1995, the flashbacks were restored to the film thereby allowing audiences to see his intended vision.
The Wild Bunch is about a group of men facing their own mortality. Their way of life is rapidly ending and they plan to go out doing it their way or die trying. In contrast, Deke’s gang are a bunch of filthy liars and cowards that are loyal to no one but money. They’re lazy and Peckinpah makes a point of showing close-ups of their leering faces full of grungy, missing teeth and beady eyes.
The Wild Bunch has all the elements of a rousing western: exciting gun fights, chases on horseback, a daring train heist, colorful characters, and the shoot-out to end all shoot-outs. Epic shoot-outs bookend the film. The first one sets the tone for the rest of the film and establishes the protagonists and the antagonists. The last one is their last hurrah – aging gunfighters with nowhere else to go and making a choice to go out on their terms. In the first one, they killed for money and in the last one they killed for one of their own. This is summed up beautifully towards the end when Pike decides to rescue Angel from insurmountable odds and tells the Gorch brothers, “Let’s go.” Lyle sizes him up for a beat and then replies, “Why not?” That’s all that needs to be said because we’ve watched these men through the entire film fight, laugh and get drunk together. They’ve been in life or death situations that bond them forever.
The Wild Bunch is about men willing to die for what they believe in and for Pike it is loyalty. His gang of outlaws are like brothers. That’s why nothing explicitly has to be said at the end. It is understood that when Pike says, “Let’s go,” that means let’s take on General Mapache and his army knowing that they will die in the process but at least they will do so on their own terms.
Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Limelight Editions. 1998.