5 out of 5 stars

The year is 1913. A posse of men with leathery faces, windswept hair, and downturned mouths stride into a railroad payroll office—guns drawn. These men are outlaws, remnants of a bygone era. They are not the heroes folklore has made them out to be. They are barely heroes at all: blood on their hands and dust on their clothes, there is nothing glamorous about their existence. These mythical figures are demystified before our very eyes.

Pike Bishop (William Holden) hoped this heist would have been his final job. Leader of a notorious gang, he guides his men through unforgiving terrain, desperately evading capture. His former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), is in close pursuit, leading his posse in a relentless chase. As Pike leads his ragtag crew from town to town, ceaselessly moving to stay ahead of the law, it becomes clear that these ageing outlaws are living on borrowed time…

No other film has shattered American mythology quite as comprehensively as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Genre tropes are unforgettably subverted. The heroes and villains that populate traditional Westerns are absent here; in this revisionist tale, heroism and villainy become one and the same. With heart-stopping action sequences, blood-splattering shootouts, and a character-driven narrative exploring age, family, and the passage of time, The Wild Bunch stands as one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

Unsurprisingly, such a film was considered highly shocking upon its release. Although the Hays Code had effectively crumbled by 1967, the graphic violence in Peckinpah’s tour de force still left censors speechless. Audiences were equally stunned. Genre icons were incensed by the criminality depicted, with John Wayne famously decrying how the film had destroyed the American myth of the Old West.

Indeed, despite starring in a multitude of Westerns throughout his distinguished career, Wayne had never encountered a film as incisive as this. Released just ten years prior, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) arguably embodies the quintessential Western: morally upright men thwarting self-serving, nefarious lawbreakers who threaten the very ethical system that ostensibly made the US great.  It is an American folktale, a traditional narrative of good vs evil, and a parable on the unequivocal distinction between good men from bad.

In contrast, The Wild Bunch takes those traits and characters, then blurs the lines until you can’t distinguish right from wrong. This was writer Walon Green and director Sam Peckinpah’s intention from the outset. Spurred on by the violence in films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Peckinpah wanted to create a film that realistically depicted the gritty, battle-hardened men who scraped a living in that period.

To achieve this, he would need to showcase the visceral methods such individuals employed. “I like Westerns,” Green explained, “but I always felt like they were too heroic. I’d read enough to know that Billy the Kid shot people in the back of the head while they were drinking coffee.” Indeed, the violence on display in The Wild Bunch is often decidedly unheroic, and our protagonists are frequently shown to be little more than desperate men trying to get out of a pinch.

This is probably what shocked audiences more than anything else. Revisionist Westerns existed before The Wild Bunch. We had watched and cheered for outlaws on the American frontier before Sam Peckinpah directed this bloody tragedy of a film. However, we had never seen our heroes using women as human shields. We had never witnessed them execute their lovers in a fit of passion. And while we had seen our heroes kidnap civilians, we had probably never watched our main protagonist instruct his comrade to shoot unarmed hostages: “If they move—kill them.”

It is for this reason that, at the beginning of the film, we are unsure who our story is going to follow. Is our protagonist the embittered lawman, trying to capture the rogue outlaw? Or are we supposed to be rooting for the men we’ve just witnessed rob a bank, murder innocents, and turn a peaceful town into a warzone of unfettered chaos? As it turns out, it’s the latter.

In addition to the characters, the landscape itself is demythologised. Life on the trail is not romanticised, nor are the Western plains depicted with John Ford’s sentimental touch. Instead, it is shown to be a harsh existence characterised by suffering. When one of their posse is blinded by buckshot, falling from his horse, he initially pleads: “I’m alright! I can’t see, but I can ride…” But then, recognising he’s incapable of riding further and realising the futility of his deceit, he relents: “Finish it…”

Pike doesn’t need to be asked twice: he shoots him in the head. The leader of this gang knows that to live this kind of life, you have to be able to keep up; there’s no tolerance for the weak. It’s for this reason that when Pike struggles to get on his horse, suffering from an old bullet wound in his left leg, his men look at him with questioning stares. Pike has become a wounded lion, with younger males looking at him and wondering if he is still fit to lead the pride.

In scenes like this one, age becomes a prominent theme of the story. There’s an adage that says: “Fear the old in a profession where men die young.” It can be said of all the principal characters in The Wild Bunch—they are uncommonly dangerous, even amongst dangerous men. However, their age is a factor they cannot ignore: “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns,” Pike muses. “Those days are closing fast.”

Pike and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), his right-hand man, speak about retirement early on in the story. Pike believes one good score would be enough for him to retire for good. But as Dutch inquires: “Back off to what?” These men know nothing else but the life of an outlaw; this modern world is too much, too soon for them to adapt suitably.

Though they occasionally demonstrate wishful thinking, they often showcase self-awareness in this respect; they all understand what fate has in store for them. Their ending was written long ago. When Dutch informs Pike that there will be soldiers waiting to shoot it out with them, Pike responds: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” It may not be a noble final chapter, but the rest of their story wasn’t all that noble either; at least their ending can be fitting.

In this, we can see how The Wild Bunch shares many similarities with another revisionist Western from the same year: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). George Roy Hill’s film features a similarly morbid tone of finality—our heroes must face the fact that they cannot forever scurry away from danger.

Times have changed, the Old West has all but vanished, and the way of life they once knew has evaporated. As Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey) informs the two charismatic outlaws: “It’s all over, don’t you get that? Your time is over and you’re going to die bloody. All you can do is choose where.”

In both films, our heroes refuse to integrate themselves into the present moment in history. Traditional Western fiction is set between the late 18th to late-19th-century; in The Wild Bunch, our story takes place in 1913. Though the Old West died a long time ago, our heroes refuse to accept the truth of the fact, tying the rotting corpse of the American frontier to their saddles and riding onwards to another adventure, another heist, another daring mission. As they ponder new ways around modern systems, they miss the point entirely: they are not outrunning the law, but attempting to outrun time itself.

It’s no accident that our primary characters are collectively referred to as the “Wild Bunch”—they hail from the Wild West. The title itself suggests they are the vestiges of a forgotten era. Black and white photographs of our protagonists in the opening credits indicate that they’ve already begun to fade into history. This idea is reinforced in other sequences, which show these men to be strangers in the 20th-century. Cars and planes are described as though they were machines of a distant, future civilisation, not the contemporary period. They are living perversely in the wrong epoch; they may have been legends once, but they have outlived their welcome. 

Because of this theme, as well as the capable performances that dramatise it, the work becomes quite melancholic at times. Their existence is shown to be achingly transient. As the gang leave a small village, a beautiful young woman gives a rose to Dutch. He exchanges glances with Pike, and their eyes speak volumes: they will not pass through such places again. Theirs is a journey with only one way out.

The idea that dangerous men are rendered toothless, smothered by their environment, is expertly symbolised at the beginning of the story. As the men ride into town, they pass a group of children who have captured scorpions and covered them with a horde of ants. Just as these venomous creatures are swarmed by smaller creatures, our heroes are relentlessly pursued until they see no viable escape. “I’m tired of being hunted,” Pike laments.

And just as the children bury the insects in straw and set them alight, scorpions enwreathed in fire, it is emblematic of how the gang are slowly being ensnared by an intangible threat. The next generation is passing them by without a second glance; they may have been idols of the Old West, but iconoclasts of the new world are steadily marching onward, and heroes from a bygone age will be destroyed as the relics they have become. With time against them, the only thing they can rely on is each other.

In this respect, The Wild Bunch exhibits the found family trope, much like Rio Bravo did. Walon Green said he wrote the film because he wanted to see a Western “that was as mean and ugly and brutal as the times, and the only nobility in men was their dedication to each other.” It’s a keen insight. Despite being ruthless killers, we empathise with them because their humanity shines through in their dealings with each other.

This is especially the case with Pike. Like a big brother or a father figure, he consistently reminds them that they must stick together, that they are a unit, and that without each other, they are all as good as dead: “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 animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!” William Holden plays the aged outlaw with a mature stoicism, lending such emotional outbursts both weighty significance and an air of hard-earned profundity; he knows all too well what happens when people don’t stand by each other.

Perhaps the only stalwart of every Western subgenre is the theme of justice, which is present even in a story about murderous thieves. In an intriguing juxtaposition of virtues, our heroes are shown to be reprehensible, yet more respectable than the men who are fast replacing them. This includes the principal antagonist, the Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernández), who has been stealing from nearby villages to aid his military campaign against the insurgent Pancho Villa.

Unlike the others, Dutch is unimpressed by the General: “He’s just another bandit grabbin’ all he can for himself.” When Pike humorously likens their behaviour to that of the Mexican officer, Dutch makes a strong distinction between their codes of conduct: “We ain’t nothing like him! We don’t hang nobody!” The Generalissimo’s cold, institutionalised violence is thrown into sharp relief. It’s suggested here that, though the gang may be killers, it’s an occupational hazard, not something done out of pure sadism.

Similarly, the corpulent hand of impersonal justice, personified by the corrupt railroad agent Pat Harrigan, is swiftly dispatching the heroes of the previous generation by hiring bounty hunters. It is painted as quite an ignoble means of obtaining victory. Deke Thornton is disgusted by his detached involvement in the killing of other men: “Tell me, Mr Harrigan, how does it feel? Getting paid for it? Getting paid to sit back and hire your killings with the law’s arms around you?”

Through Harrigan, we see how civilised society is steadily encroaching upon territory that once belonged to the outlaws. Opportunity for lawlessness is being snuffed out. Peckinpah and Green suggest it is due to figures like Harrigan that old heroes will be shot down, with traditional ideals of masculinity along with it. Men used to carry guns. Now, they carry wallets. Men used to sit astride horses and take what they wanted. Now, they sit in armchairs and have other men do it for them.

It’s worth noting that neither form of masculinity is venerated by Peckinpah; he’s critiquing the Wild Bunch’s conduct as inherently immoral. But it’s fascinating when you recognise that, as much as Green and Peckinpah wanted to portray traditional Western outlaws in an unvarnished light, showing them for the self-centred criminals they truly were, they censure everyone else just as much. Heroes and villains, good and bad—they are merely two sides of the same coin. On the turn of a dime, our heroes could murder their wives or sacrifice themselves for a friend; the complexities of the human soul are on full display. 

As if the weighty themes weren’t enough to turn Peckinpah’s film into an instant classic of the genre, the action is superb. The editing is ahead of its time, featuring fast, frenetic cuts; these feel like the fearful glances of our heroes keeping an eye out for trouble. Additionally, the camera work is stellar in these sequences: slow zooms on anxious faces, primed for battle, draw us into the story without us even realising it.

Peckinpah also expertly establishes tension through the use of diegetic sounds. A song chanted by a temperance union is a harrowing tune as the men nervously anticipate gunfire from above. Similarly, a steam engine becomes the pulsating rhythm for the train robbery. Perhaps most tellingly of all, Peckinpah positions these moments of thrilling successes as ephemeral highlights in lives of hardship, anxiety, and tedium.

As such, the Old West, the iconography of which is inextricably linked to national mythology regarding the founding of America, is crudely excoriated in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. In fact, it’s practically broken into pieces. Our heroes are often desperate, frequently immoral, and either driven by guilt or greed. Their one defining moment of heroism comes when they march headlong into battle for nothing more than loyalty.

Yet this is precisely what makes The Wild Bunch one of the best Westerns ever made; it feels uncommonly authentic. There are no pretensions about right and wrong, nor moralising odes to the good ole days. Though our protagonists long for a return to another time, Peckinpah not only shows this to be a chimaera but also a grotesque desire; these were not pleasant times. Some can’t adapt to the new world at all: they will leave this world the same way they have lived in it.

And then, those men with windburnt faces and calloused hands, hands that carved places for themselves in the annals of history, will be written about in books. They may not have been good, and they may not have been bad, but they were undoubtedly one thing above all else: they were the wild bunch.

USA | 1969 | 145 MINUTES | 2.40:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Sam Peckinpah.
writers: Walon Green & Sam Peckinpah (story by Walon Green & Roy N. Sickner).
starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones & Albert Dekker.