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Movie Review

The Wild Bunch

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

Extremely Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Western Drama
2 hr. 24 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
June 18, 1969
Relevant Issues
Cover art for “The Wild Bunch”

How does viewing violence in movies affect the family? Answer

Featuring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Jaime Sanchez, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O'Brien, Emilio Fernandez
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Phil Feldman, Roy N. Sickner
Distributor: Warner Bros./Seven Arts

This film is widely regarded as the “Western to end all Westerns” and as the nest step after Bonnie and Clyde in the escalation of film violence (not to mention continuing the tradition of having murderers as the lead characters). It exists in several versions—Director’s Cut, short version (with the violence intact but ten minutes of “male bonding” removed), and in-between. When the Director’s Cut (on which this review is based) was about to be re-released to theaters in 1999, it was threatened with being re-rated NC-17. I’d never seen this film until the day before writing this review, but I wondered how a Western this old could be considered that offensive. Now I know.

The story is set in Mexico and southern Texas in 1913. The “Wild Bunch,” led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), are bandits. Pike has no problem with killing hostages, leaving one of his men as a decoy to die, or finishing off his own wounded. There are several other groups/gangs, all at odds with each other and none on high moral ground: (1) Pancho Villa’s forces; (2) The army of Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), which terrorizes villages; (3) General Pershing’s U.S. Army troops, who appear more inept than evil; (4) A railroad baron (Albert Dekker) and his hired mercenaries, who want to kill the Wild Bunch for the reward money and don’t care if they also kill innocent bystanders. The mercenaries are led, reluctantly, by Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of Pike’s gang who’s earning himself a pardon by turning against his friend. The only group with a semi-justifiable motive for their violence is the leaders of the home village of Angel (Jaime Sanchez), a Mexican member of Pike’s gang. Not everyone from that village is innocent; but those who are, simply want to obtain better weapons in order to protect their families from attacks by the warring Mexican factions.

The film has something to offend just about everyone. In the opening sequence some of the Wild Bunch, dressed as U.S. Army troops, is about to rob the South Texas Railroad office. They ride past a group of boys and girls who are inducing a fight between a couple of scorpions and a nest of fire ants (later, the children burn both the scorpions and the ants). Other members of the gang are hanging out on the street, dressed in civilian clothes. The railroad knows about the robbery plans, and the mercenaries are posted as snipers on rooftops. But the Wild Bunch spots the snipers, and decides to make a run for its horses while shielded behind a group of Temperance Union demonstrators singing “Shall We Gather at the River.” what’s going to happen is obvious, but the suspense drags on for several unnerving minutes before it does happen.

From that opening until the final sequence, in which the remnants of the Wild Bunch decide to rescue one of their members or die trying, the film is a series of extremely gory gunfights (some of the bullets-thudding-into-flesh sequences are choreographed ballet-style). Some reviewers say that the fight sequences look tame compared to today’s films, but I disagree. They have a special emotional quality. Since every major character is a criminal, it doesn’t matter who wins; but the viewer is strongly pressured to “side” with someone. Either choice—identifying with murderers, or considering the fighting meaningless—is a victory for Hollywood. The film succeeds in debunking the Western myth of the “glorious gunfight,” but puts nothing positive in its place. Remember that it was made while the U.S. was bogged down in the Vietnam War and many Hollywood liberals were pushing the idea that war is ALWAYS meaningless. Biblically, there’s a time for justifiable war and killing (Eccl. 3:1-8); but there are no examples of it in this film.

Profanity consists of oaths/curses—some containing God or Jesus—and uses of s.o.b. There are no female lead characters in this violent “men’s world.” There’s partial female nudity and some visible foreplay. There’s sexual violence—but not in the sense of rape, which is “unnecessary” since all the women seem “easy.” There are a couple of scenes of a jealous husband or former lover blowing a woman away. There are sequences where the men either go straight from a prostitute’s bed to a gunfight, or else have the fight come to them before they’re even dressed. And there are gunfights in which innocent people, including women, are caught in the crossfire.

The Spanish dialog occasionally runs to some length. I thought it was strange that the standard English version has no subtitles.

Now that I’ve watched the original, I can see that the 1987 Nick Nolte/Powers Boothe/Michael Ironside film “Extreme Prejudice” is a second-rate remake; similar plot elements and violence, but no emotional grab.

I don’t recommend this film. But if you do see it as a first-time viewer, and you have the 30th anniversary edition video containing the “making of” documentary and a new introduction by Borgnine, I suggest you skip to the actual film first and watch the other stuff afterwards. The “making of” explains that as a kid, director Sam Peckinpah was so fascinated by the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” that he had up to 50 neighborhood kids act it out each week, and that in a sense this film was a continuation of that activity. “The Wild Bunch” is a powerful piece of work. Remember that because a film is good at what it does, doesn’t necessarily mean that what it does is good.

Viewer Comments
…There is nothing beautiful about death in this film; in fact, I’m more offended by films where people are shot without showing the aftermath of the bullets hitting them. In those cases it seems more like killing them is just a fun thing to do, since the audience never sees the result of the violence and therefore becomes ingnorant to the consequences of such actions. The men in this film are all pathetic murderers who live by there own perverted code of honor, and while we feel sorry for them in the end, it is more then obvious that THEY ARE NOT HEROES. Their actions aren’t to be commended, but condemned. And I think that Peckinpah did so by showing the horror that these desperadoes inflict, on both unarmed innocent bystanders and even heavily armed soldiers. And it’s for that reason that I think that this is a great movie.
My Ratings: [Very Offensive / 4½]
—Stephen Payne, age 20