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In 1913, an aging group of outlaws look for one last score in a frontier that is quickly becoming modernized. When a railroad office heist goes awry, the gunmen flee to Mexico, tracked by bounty hunters and a former member of their gang. Once across the border, the five man outfit attempts to sell stolen rifles to an enemy of Pancho Villa but the plan ends in a bloodbath.

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Phil Feldman
Screenplay: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah; Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner (story)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Original Music: Jerry Fielding
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Film Editing: Louis Lombardo
Sound: Roger J. Miller
Assistant Directors: Clifford C. Coleman, Fred Gammon
Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O'Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Jaime Sanchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Emilio Fernandez (Gen. Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L.Q. Jones (T.C), Albert Dekker (Pat Harrigan), Bo Hopkins (Clarence 'Crazy' Lee), Dub Taylor (Rev. Wainscoat), Paul Harper (Ross).
C-144m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

Why THE WILD BUNCH is Essential

The Wild Bunch (1969) is not only an essential Western but a seminal work of violence and artistry that forever changed the landscape of motion pictures. What audiences saw before The Wild Bunch, in brief but glorious forays into violence such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was nothing compared to what they saw after it. Before The Wild Bunch, violence existed only in complete service to the plot, never as a visual motif in and of itself. After The Wild Bunch, violence on film would become something to be choreographed, not unlike a Busby Berkeley musical number, only in slow-motion and with plenty of blood splatter. In Sam Peckinpah's own words, "The Western is a universal frame within which it is possible to talk about today," and The Wild Bunch was made during the turbulent sixties when the Viet Nam War was at its height.

The movie employed techniques that may seem clich├ęd today but that's only because practically every action/adventure director since 1969 has used those very techniques to the point where audiences have seen them employed time and time again. These techniques included the double-printing of action moments, seen in succession from different angles, to make them last longer. These were often employed with the liberal use of slow-motion and blood-bursting squibs in ridiculously high numbers. All of these techniques had been used before, including in the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde, but none of them had been used so much, so often and so relentlessly. They worked together to become the storytelling device, almost more than the script. Peckinpah biographer Paul Seydor wrote that the director always commanded his editors to "Introduce, develop, finish." This approach is vividly expressed in The Wild Bunch. "For all its violence, he saw in it a story of reunion, renewal and redemption."

But The Wild Bunch is essential for reasons outside its artistic accomplishments. It represented a new sense of cinematic freedom and change, one that emerged after the Production Code fell and the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system was enacted. The Wild Bunch was there to test it and show that a movie filled with violence and profanity could be released and succeed.

The Wild Bunch also demystified the western. Walon Green, who co-wrote the screenplay, said, "I always liked Westerns, but I always felt they were too heroic and too glamorous. I'd read enough to know that Billy the Kid shot people in the back of the head while they were drinking coffee." Sam Peckinpah couldn't have agreed more. This was expressed beautifully in the unforgettable opening credit sequence. The characters are presented alternately as living, breathing colorful characters, riding into town disguised as a small military unit, and then, with each freeze-frame, as mythic figures, etched in grainy black and white, representing a dusty and lawless past. The credits build up a slow tension as the men approach the railroad office they plan to rob. We even see their would-be captors - bounty hunters - hovering above on the rooftop of an adjacent building. When the credits end, the leader of the bunch, Pike (William Holden) draws his gun and tells his men, "if they move, kill 'em." The gunfight that follows resembles almost nothing from the westerns that came before save the costumes and horses. The violence, and the horrific way that violence is achieved (using people as shields; multiple bystanders slaughtered) signaled a demystification years in the making. Peckinpah later said, "I wasn't trying to make an epic. I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. I was trying to make a few comments on violence and the people who live by violence."

In addition, The Wild Bunch was a salute to the genre, paying tribute to classic western archetypes, like the grizzled old prospector type or the older, world weary men that keep fighting on long after their obsolescence. But this time, more than ever, the dirt and grit and filth was more emphasized, the colors, outside of the blood, were dull, brown and dingy.

The Wild Bunch received nominations for its evocative musical score by Jerry Fielding as well as nominations for Walon Green, Roy Sickner and Sam Peckinpah for Best Original Screenplay. Peckinpah was also nominated by the Director's Guild of America for Best Director and in 1999, the movie was selected for The National Film Registry by The National Film Preservation Board.

by Greg Ferrara

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch Edited by Stephen Prince (Cambridge Film Handbooks)
Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah by Marshall Fine (Donald I. Fine, Inc.)

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