The essays I write for the Turner Classic Movies website all come to me as assignments. I don’t get to the pick the films, which means I get a variety of titles coming my way, some of which I’ve seen and a few that I haven’t. But there is a real pleasure in revisiting classics that you think you know but haven’t seen in years, perhaps decades. Such is the case with The Wild Bunch (1969), which I last saw on the theatrical re-release of the restored cut. I hadn’t forgotten much in the way of story, but the rhythms and the characters seem fresh, or at least refreshed, seeing it again for this piece. This time through it became clear just how Pike Bishop’s pronouncements of a code were simply empty words that had lost all meaning to him. “This time we do it right” means something after he’s been getting it all wrong all along and trying to fool himself into thinking it wasn’t so. It’s not revenge, it’s atonement, and it feels right for this bunch.
The film that branded Sam Peckinpah with the nickname “Bloody Sam,” The Wild Bunch (1969) exploded in the era when Bonnie and Clyde (1967) redefined the portrayal of screen violence in a major studio production with glamorous movie stars and brought a more cynical attitude and bloodthirsty spectacle to the landscape of American westerns. In fact the original screenplay by Roy N. Sickner (a stuntman in the westerns) and Walon Green was influenced by the violent Italian genre known as “the spaghetti Western.” In their story, a brutal gang is ambushed during a heist and chased to Mexico by a posse led by a former member of the gang. They agree to steal American rifles from a military transport for a Mexican General but end up facing the General and his entire regiment, fighting to the death in a hopeless attempt to rescue one of their own. The title was borrowed from the name of the gang led by real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but they had nothing on this bunch. The script was short on character and narrative development and big on violent set pieces. Lee Marvin was interested in playing Wild Bunch leader Pike Bishop — he had attached himself to the project even before it was sent to Peckinpah—and the studio saw the film as another macho action picture along the lines of previous Marvin pictures The Professionals (1966) or The Dirty Dozen (1967). Peckinpah saw something more and began rewriting the script, fleshing out the characters, enriching their stories with defining flashbacks and giving a dramatic foundation to the action and the spectacle of violence.
It’s not exactly a romantic portrait of the outlaws of the west — these men are killers and thieves who think nothing of using civilians for hostage or cover – yet Peckinpah favors these men over the ruthless, hypocritical forces of law and order such as the “gutter trash” bounty hunters who see dollar signs rather than people and fire on anyone who wanders into their gun sights: civilians, railroad employees and even American soldiers. His vision never denies the brutal reality of their lives or their actions, but it does recognize their humanity under the gristle, as well their faults. Pike is a man who professes a code — “When you side with a man, you stay with him,” he lectures his gang, “and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal!”; it’s a code he has failed to live up to with his own actions and by the end of the film, he faces his own hypocrisy and sets out to “get it right,” in his own words.
Read the complete feature on TCM here. It plays on Friday, August 13, as part of a Robert Ryan tribute, and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.