Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.
The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.
William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.
And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.
Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”
But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.
The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.