Often cited as one of the most violent Westerns ever made, and one of the most controversial, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) is arguably the director’s supreme achievement in the cinema; the film he had been leading up to in all his earlier work, and for many, a film that he never equaled in his later films. The film’s narrative is simplicity itself; Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the leader of a group of gunslingers who live by their wits in the final days of the Old West. When a payroll robbery goes awry and several of his band are killed, Bishop flees to Mexico and reunites with his fellow bandits. There, Bishop and his gang reluctantly agree to steal a load of rifles for the decadent “revolutionary” Mapache (Emilio Fernández, in real life also a superb director in his own right), a petty warlord who hopes to take advantage of the Mexican revolution to gain power and wealth for himself.
Hot on Bishop’s trail, however, is his former friend and gang member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who has been forced to work for the railroad to hunt Bishop down and kill him. In the film’s bloody climax, Bishop and his men, double-crossed by Mapache, kill nearly everyone in the warlord’s camp in a hail of slow motion bullets, and are killed themselves in the process. Only the aging Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) is left of the gang members, and when Thornton arrives to capture Bishop and his gang, he finds only their bodies in Mapache’s camp. As the film ends, Bishop and Sykes decide to ride on alone, seeking out whatever new adventure may await them.
The Wild Bunch was lavishly budgeted (for the time) at roughly $6,000,000, but almost immediately came under fire from critics for its (supposedly) excessive violence and its hyperkinetic editing style, which employed slow motion footage of the film’s most brutal moments intercut with normal speed footage, as well as using an array of different camera angles (all shot simultaneously) to create the film’s innovative visual structure. It was alternatively championed and pilloried by both critics and audiences alike, and was almost immediately cut from its original running time of 145 minutes to 135 minutes to excise some of the most brutal sequences; not until 1995, when a DVD restoration came out, more than a decade after Peckinpah’s death in 1984, was the director’s original vision restored for the public.
The Wild Bunch suffered through immense problems in production due to Peckinpah’s unwavering insistence on getting exactly what he wanted on the screen; in addition, the film’s view of humanity is undeniably bleak and nihilistic. The film’s opening sequence, in which a group of children watch a scorpion being devoured by red ants, in a metaphor for the entire film; the violent destroy the violent, and in the end of the film, the shootout at Mapache’s camp mirrors this framing device with all-consuming brutality. But Peckinpah’s “director’s cut,” now readily available on DVD, demonstrates that none of this violence is gratuitous. It is a vision of the Old West unlike any other, and the authentic statement of an American artist at the height of his considerable powers.