The Wild Bunch: A Gritty and Violent Western

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Wild Bunch is another game-changing Western and among the most violent and gritty films for the late 1960s in cinema.

“We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.” – Pike Bishop (William Holden)

This is what I call one of those better-late-than-never viewings. Because of its AFI honors, the film had been on my to-watch list for many years. It’s not particularly a title that’s evaded me especially with its availability through the years on TCM, HBO Max, and Max. It’s more or less just making myself sit down and watch it rather than a comfort film for the gazillionth time. From what I can tell, the cut I watched is the 145-minute Original Director’s Cut. Even if it weren’t for the AFI honors, I would have watched the film because of William Holden. Holden delivers one of the best performances of his career. If it were up to me, he would have earned an Oscar nomination. The same, too, for editor Lou Lombardo.

This film came along just a few years after Bonnie and Clyde. The plan was to release the film a few months ahead of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Talk about timing! While these films are violent, Sam Peckinpah’s film features the most violence. It was controversial back then as it still is today. But at the same time, Americans were watching the news from Vietnam every night. This film is no less violent than the war. Make no mistake that cinema was changing in the late 1960s. The MPAA rating system–now MPA–rose out of the ashes of the Production Code. If not for the then-new ratings system, there’s no telling how different The Wild Bunch would be from its final cut. Much as cinema was adapting to modern times, this film is about a group of outlaws struggling to do the same along the U.S.-Mexican border in 1913.

Pike Bishop leads a group of outlaws, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sánchez). Their railroad payroll office robbery turns out to be a wash after Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), ambushes them. Bishop would prefer retirement but Thornton keeps on them. They aren’t getting any younger but they don’t really appear to have any goals in mind. It also doesn’t help that the introduction of automobiles will lead to less transit by horse. Betrayal would be their downfall as the film ends with another shootout that kills Pike, Dutch, and the rest of the gang. This film is very violent even if one goes by today’s standards.

What filmmaker Sam Peckinpah did with the camera, let alone the film itself, is revolutionary for the late 1960s. As an audience, we know we’re in for a thrilling ride almost as soon as the initial shootout begins outside of the railroad payroll office. I’ve seen a number of Westerns before but don’t recall a sequence like this–not even in The Magnificent Seven. Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard use several cameras in filming the sequence. They make brilliant use of their time at Hacienda Ciénaga del Carmen. Using this many angles and camera speeds could be an editor’s dream or nightmare–depending on the film, of course. Beyond some of the technical categories, it’s a wonder that the design work didn’t get Oscar nominations.

To say that The Wild Bunch is a violent masterpiece would not be an understatement. As a filmmaker, Peckinpah went against cinematic standards at the time. He defined the Western once again, much in the same way that John Ford did decades earlier. Even with sound effects, he decided that each type of gun should have its own unique sound. Say what you will about violence on screen, the fact that all guns sounded the same, no matter the type, just doesn’t make any sense.

DIRECTOR: Sam Peckinpah
SCREENWRITERS: Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
CAST: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernández, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones

Warner Bros. released The Wild Bunch in theaters on June 18, 1969. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.