Some movies come along and deconstruct a genre so thoroughly that their mission statement might as well be: Things are gonna change around here. Such is the case with The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece of cinematic bloodletting that laid the headstone on a generation of family-friendly cowboy movies, disabused the audience of its own myths about why the Wild West was so named, and redrew the boundaries on what levels of violence would be acceptable in Hollywood filmmaking.
The story begins in southern Texas, 1913, as Pike Bishop leads his gang of mostly aging outlaws into a small town to rob the railroad office. But it’s all an ambush set up by the railroad and Pike’s former partner (and now bounty hunter) Deke Thornton that results in a chaotic shootout that leaves plenty of men, women and horses—bystanders and combatants alike—littering the streets. Pike and the remains of his gang flee to Mexico, and hole up in a small town where one of the gang was born. There, they encounter General Mapache, a savage and corrupt officer of the Mexican army who runs the town like his little fiefdom when he and his troops aren’t getting their hides whipped by Pancho Villa. Mapache makes Pike a deal: steal a shipment of U.S. arms and ammo, and there will be payment of a bunch of gold coins. Pike and his crew are in need of one last, big score so they can quit their rough riding and enjoy what few years they have left, so they take the job. But treachery abounds, nobody is a good guy, and pretty soon what should be a simple job turns into a complicated double-cross that ends in torture, execution and a final shootout that involves so many bullets half the population of Mexico probably got lead poisoning just from the sound of it all.
Released in 1967, the Wild Bunch shocked audiences with its brutal depiction of violence, which by today’s standards would rate a bog-standard R rating. But for the time, it destroyed conventions on what was an acceptable level of violence in cinema. Whether you like the Wild Bunch or not, if you enjoy action movies at all, their modern style descends directly from this particular film, both in its tone and in its delivery.
Perhaps just as importantly, the Wild Bunch slams the lid closed on Hollywood’s era of postwar, saintly cowboy movies meant to excite mildly and offend none. Peckinpah famously thought that if you’re going to feature shootouts, you should at least try to give the audience an idea of what to really expect instead of the tepid stage violence of bygone films. The Wild Bunch does that and more, and along the way, it utterly demolishes the notion of a sympathetic Western outlaw, a romantic bounty hunter, or even the certitude that moral uprightness and a code of honor will secure victory. They sure as hell don’t in Peckinpah’s Western, just as they never really did in reality, either.
And perhaps that’s one of the greatest gifts this movie gives its audience: a strong countermyth not just against the safe Western adventures of yesteryear, but of the notion that the Wild West was like that at all. Life in a lawless frontier is nasty, brutish and short, and the Wild Bunch portrays that in any number of ways, as its setting is a frontier where law and chaos, right and wrong, violence and peace, savagery and civilization all live so closely to each other that they tend to overlap more often than not. And when they do, the results are gruesome to behold. It’s hardly a coincidence that the story takes place just a year before World War I begins in Europe, a nod that the sixgun shootouts of the past are about to give way to the industrialized carnage of the future. It’s all a grim wake-up call to Pike’s Bunch that the West they remember ended a long time ago. They’re just still living in it.
But that goes for the audience, too. It’s no coincidence that Peckinpah released this at the height of the Vietnam War, when people’s notions of war were about to become a lot less sanitized and a lot more immediate. If they were going to pay money to be entertained by the spectacle of bloodshed, then they’re wandering into territory where one should be careful of what they wish for.
The outcry over this movie seems quaint nowadays, but the casual cruelty shown throughout the Wild Bunch can still be a tough watch, even today. When Pike takes over that rail office and orders the execution of his prisoners if they cause trouble, he means it. That he leaves behind his most psychotic gang member to follow through is chilling by anyone’s standard. Women and children are fair game, and even participants in the mayhem. It’s all part of an unabashedly cynical worldview that dares to romanticize nothing for the sake of its audience, practically daring them to leave if they don’t like it. One wonders if the moralizing temperance union caught in the movie’s opening crossfire is meant to stand in for the hand-wringers just waiting to pillory Peckinpah’s work. There are worse metaphors, one supposes.
Those who called for the Wild Bunch’s censure surely must have been thinking of how much this movie might damage the frail psyche of its audience’s more delicate members. But the last laugh is Peckinpah’s, who has the courage to admit that something deep within us delights in violence. It’s just as much a reason why we go to movies like this one as it is that the Wild Bunch’s moment of truth comes in its opening scene, when we watch a group of children torture scorpions by dropping them on a hill of red ants, and later pretend to shoot the corpses in the street. We are all killers. We just don’t like to say it out loud.