The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 06/15/2005

One of the great movies of all time. I’d never seen it, holding out for a chance to see it on the big screen than on a little television screen, but finally I broke down and decided to watch it. And guess what? It’s a great movie.

Something that is interesting about film, literature, maybe life in general, is the context in which one is first exposed to things influences one’s perception of them. For this film, nothing so profound struck me, but having just watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), a Western set in a similar era and released in the same year, a number of points of comparison arose.

Please note that I am basing my observations on overall historical knowledge, not on research.

The late 1960’s and the 1970’s were an interesting time for the Western. The century and popular media had grown up with the Western genre, one that was based in history but even more so in legend. Legend and American history are almost inseparable in the case of the genre, as is often acknowledged in historical knowledge of the period. As a genre form, legend seems to speak louder, creating mythoogies about how America was built, the character of the heroes of this period, and of the land itself. Of course, from any period, such recollection or story-telling is often influenced by the social commentary of the time that a film was made or a book was written.

Both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch focus on the late period of the Wild West, some 30 years after the Transcontinental Railroad was created and the America crossed threshhold of the 20th Century. It was a period of change for the West, the period that spawned the legends which the Western would expand upon. 1969 was also a period of change for the Western, as many of the standards of the genre were turned around and the legends were beginning to be seen as seperate from history. Perhaps there was some deliberate choice in developing stories around this reflexive transition.

Again, I haven’t done any research here to know whether or not the two films were in any way paralleled at the point of production, but they do seem to developed their narratives from similar seats of legend. Along their narrative paths, there are many points to note: both films focus on renegade gangs of bank and train robbers, both films have a significant scene each depicting a train robbery and a bank heist, and both films end in a bloody shootout in which all gang members are killed.

Whereas Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is lighthearted action on the verge of comedy, The Wild Bunch is bloody and manly, serious adventure, with anti-heroes ultimately more heroic. This film is widely considered director Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece and probably with good reason. In some ways, it’s more accessible because the protagonists, while ruthless killers and outlawas, bear a strong sense of dignity ultimately, going back on a suicide mission to try to rescue their companion than taking off with their gold from the train heist. Though this could also be argued as their escapist option, heading in for doom because their way of life was on the verge of ending, ultimately, there is a manly bond to which they are adhering that ennobles them. As opposed to some other Peckinpah films, in which protagonists are often even more suspect in the typical qualities of heroes, here the gang is more understandable than not.

It’s an iconic film, even if the icons are new to a viewer. The film has many powerful sequences and excellent performances, particularly by William Holden, who is totally amazing. It’s one of those classic films that earns its reputation, that is easy to appreciate, that would seemingly get more and more interesting with further analysis and multiple viewings.

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