The Wild Bunch

For the Genuine Article in westerns, check out this thrilling revival of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, first released in 1969 and now showing in a mint-fresh director's cut with 10 minutes of previously edited footage restored. The hard action, bracing wit and mournful grace of Peckinpah's cowboy classic shames every new movie around. It's a towering achievement that grows more riveting and resonant with the years.

Peckinpah has been dead for more than a decade, but the return of his masterpiece vindicates the director known as Bloody Sam. At the time of its release, The Wild Bunch drew fire for its violence. Blood erupted from bullet wounds in great, gushing spurts. Peckinpah used slow motion to create a ballet of death that was both horrific and gravely alluring. Despite the controversy, The Wild Bunch isn't about violence, it's about character. Pike Bishop, played by William Holden in a career-best performance, leads his battered bunch of aging outlaws out for one last score in Texas before fleeing to Mexico. The time is 1913, and the shrinking frontier is closing in on Pike and a group that includes Pike's right hand, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), old man Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), the whore-running Gorch brothers – Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson) – and their ally Angel (Jaime Sanchez), whose girl has dumped him for General Ma-pache (an unforgettably vile Emilio Fernandez). They're all killers, but the bunch has a code expressed by Pike: "When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished."

Peckinpah tracks the subtle factors that unite this dying breed. Much of the restored footage consists not of action but of dialogue scenes that pull us into the heads of these gunfighters as they discuss their past and the squeeze being put on their future in an era of motor cars and sophisticated weaponry.

Pike's plan for their final job is robbing a railway office. They ride into town past a group of giggling children who are viciously dumping scorpions into a hill of savage red ants. Besides the allegorical implications for the bunch, the scene – heightened by Jerry Fielding's haunting score – distills Peckinpah's bleak world-view. The heist is a setup. Bounty hunters led by Pike's former friend Deke Thornton (the great Robert Ryan) open fire.

Innocent bystanders are killed with impunity as cinematographer Lucien Ballard, with different cameras going at different speeds, captures a choreography of carnage with parallels that extend from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai to atrocities in Vietnam.

The action culminates in an attempted rescue of Angel from Mapache with the bunch taking on a Mexican army. One indelible image shows the mortally wounded Pike spraying machine-gun fire into a stockpile of explosives that ignites an orgy of death. Peckinpah, who wrote the script with Walon Green, will be hammered again for brutality that revels in excess, for misogyny that equates women with betrayal, for myth-making that finds a code of honor among murderers. Peckinpah is destined for eternal battle with the politically correct. He simply lets beauty and terror pour out of him in powerful, poetic bursts that mark him still as a film master and The Wild Bunch as a bruising and brilliant work of art.

From The Archives Issue 703: March 9, 1995