It’s interesting to think that 1969 saw two landmark westerns that covered much the same territory in vastly different ways. They were both set against the twilight of the old west and both dealt with train robbers for whom time had fatally passed them by. While Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a breezy, nostalgic comedy, The Wild Bunch is a mostly somber contemplation of violence and mortality.
Sam Peckinpah‘s signature film may have been shockingly violent for its day, but its actually fairly tame in that department compared to modern action movies like Die Hard. However, if the graphicness of the violence is not up to modern standards, the sheer body count of this picture, as well as the callous randomness of the death, is still capable of shocking.
The story begins just as World War I is beginning in Europe, with a team of robbers disguised as American soldiers robbing a railroad office in a Texas border town. In on the job are Pike Bishop (William Holden), Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) and Angel (Jaime Sánchez). There are a few other members of the gang but they quickly become unimportant to the story because of a reception staged by a posse of bounty hunters led by the robbers’ old cohort, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). The resulting gun battle leaves many dead, including innocent bystanders participating in a temperance march.
The survivors flee to Mexico, where they discover that they whole job was a setup and the bags of coins contain only worthless washers. Desperate for cash, they make a deal with a Mexican general to rob a train carrying rifles for the U.S. Army. The general, however, is responsible for an attack on Angel’s home village and the death of his father.
Therefore, Bishop’s men have to get the rifles off the train and back to Mexico while avoiding Thornton’s bounty hunters, the U.S. Army and a potential double-cross by the Mexican general. Additionally, to placate Angel, they have to set aside a case of rifles for Pancho Villa‘s rebels without the general getting wise.
As groundbreaking as a the violence was for an American film, it was fairly consistent with what you could find in the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” being made in Italy at the same time. Those films featured the same sort of amoral anti-heroes and excessive bloodshed found in The Wild Bunch. I can’t say for certain Peckipah was trying to make an American Spaghetti Western but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it was true.
The cast, feature a dean’s list of aging Hollywood “tough guys” does a superb job of creating some degree of sympathy for characters with a cold-blooded, flinty view of death and killing. You do have to care about these guys to follow them for more than two hours, knowing in your gut that they are probably dead meat by the end of the movie. Several of the Mexican characters emerge from the stereotypes to create indelible personas as well.
Peckinpah economically shows the encroachment of modern technology on the old west. Cars are replacing horses, semi-automatic pistols have arrived as well as a machine gun amongst the weapons stolen from the army. These weapons of the first modern war are like metallic grim reapers come for the way of life enshrined by the western, which dies in a hail of machine gun bullets by the time the credits have rolled.