Preeminent among the Revisionist Westerns, The Wild Bunch also stands as an exemplar of the Twilight Western, elegiac films that explored the “closing of the frontier” theme, Sam Peckinpah‘s own The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1971) being another prime example.
Following Peckinpah’s humiliating experience of studio interference with his 1965 Charlton Heston vehicle Major Dundee (still underrated and lamentably little-seen, despite a recent restoration), he fell out of favor for a time, was fired from the set of The Cincinnati Kid (also 1965, eventually helmed by Norman Jewison), until the critical success of his TV movie Noon Wine the following year drove his stock back up.
Taking over an already extant script, Peckinpah fashions another rumination on two of his preferred leitmotivs–the ending of the Wild West era and the confrontation between two men, once friends and now the bitterest of rivals, owing to one’s betrayal of the other. Both these themes undergo significant modification. Whereas in Peckinpah’s other films the “closing of the frontier” is often met with somewhat rueful nostalgia (The Ballad of Cable Hogue  provides an excellent example), The Wild Bunch conveys an overriding feeling of exhaustion, enervation.
And if Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) now hunts the Bunch at the behest of the railroad company, his betrayal is both coerced (facing prison time if he doesn’t comply) and distasteful to him. The Bunch themselves, of course, are far from blameless–early on, they abandon Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) to a certain death; Pike (William Holden) is haunted by recurrent memories of the night he abandoned a wounded Deke to the clutches of law enforcement.
Essentially a series of brilliantly constructed set-pieces, The Wild Bunch‘s opening scene lasts nearly thirty minutes. The Bunch ride into town disguised as soldiers, but they aren’t the only ones in disguise–the peaceful setting is a trap, Deke and a cadre of hired guns are lying in wait, even their haul (sackfuls of loot) turns out be illusory, the sacks filled with steel washers. The town children–witnesses to and victims of the ensuing carnage–aren’t what they seem to be either, feeding scorpions to red ants and then burning the whole mess. (Innocence lost, they’d rather be experienced…) At the same time, there’s a Temperance tent revival going on, endless choruses of “Shall We Gather at the River?” (its frequent use in John Ford Westerns parodied here) culminate in the no-holds-barred shootout-cum-massacre between the Bunch and Thornton and his men. Peckinpah introduces his trademark aesthetic approach here–a slow-motion action begins (someone’s shot), the montage cuts away to another action (someone else is shot), then back, completing the first (person bites the dust). Cuts come blindingly fast (think Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde finale on crank), eschewing cut-and-dried causality for an impressionistic, sometimes temporally chaotic effect.
The Bunch lead Thornton and his men into an ambush, rigging a bridge with dynamite so it collapses beneath them. It’s an incredible moment: shot from about fifty vantage points, the bridge blows at least three times, leaving no doubt as to how it was done. (They blew a bridge out from under a gang of very brave stuntmen and their horses.) CGI couldn’t begin to capture the scene’s visceral impact; it would render the action cartoonish, patently false.
Eventually, Peckinpah’s film intersects with history–the 1913 setting allows the introduction of the “horseless carriage” (again, like Cable Hogue) that will almost overnight relegate the cowboy to myth, pop culture, sideshow attraction and coincides with the Mexican Revolution, aligning the Bunch with yet another subgenre, the Zapata or “Red” Western.
A deal with the devil–in the personal of Generalissimo Mapache (renowned director Emilio Fernandez)–exchanging guns for gold quickly turns into the Bunch’s Last Stand. Holding their compatriot Angel (Jaime Sanchez) hostage, Mapache figures on the Bunch’s avarice to outweigh whatever vestiges of honor or solidarity remain to them, but he figures wrong. Peckinpah and DP Lucien Ballard shoot their Long Walk into the heart of Mapache’s compound with telescopic anamorphic lenses, lending the visuals a wavery, heat-mirage quality, as well as flattening the depth of field, turning it into a literally iconic image.
Bonnie and Clyde are lured into their demise, waylaid and ambushed by the Law. The Wild Bunch, on the contrary, embrace theirs–a willed fatality that follows an incredible moment of silence, everyone tensed and prepared for action. With barely a nod of mutual acknowledgement, the Bunch begin blasting away–and for nearly ten minutes the screen is filled with riddled bodies, spurting bloody squibs and billowing smoke.
Aestheticized violence always epitomizes a double-edge sword, speaking at once to our principled, civilized horror and perhaps more fundamental, atavistic attraction to the spectacle. As much as the film wants deliberately to comment on American foreign policy, incursions of foreign soil from Latin America to Southeast Asia–in a similar fashion to Peckinpah’s earlier Major Dundee–it also cannot entirely focus or channel the viewer’s arousal by, or appreciation for, the rampant, wall-to-wall bloodshed.
After the last body falls and the dust settles, Deke Thornton and his men arrive on the scene. Coffer and TC–Peckinpah regulars Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones–scavenge the corpses, going right for the fancy boots and gold fillings. (It’s widely known that some American soldiers in Vietnam liked to take similar “souvenirs”.)
In the end, reluctant rebel Thornton joins old man Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) and a band of revolutionaries, not out of any political or ideological commitment, but because nothing else remains to be done. In the grand American tradition of Hawthorne and Melville, The Wild Bunch gives the lie to deep-seated Horatio Alger, “up by your bootstraps” balderdash, embracing resignation and defeat as mankind’s natural condition. Peckinpah rigorously and systematically engages a theme that is, as the critic A. Alvarez said about James Joyce’s later work, “aesthetically terminal”–in every sense of the phrase.