So completely have The Wild Bunch’s innovations been absorbed that today it’s hard to believe that the film was radical upon release. The Wild Bunch obviously was not the first western to challenge the tropes of the good guys vs. bad guys, frontier story, marshals vs. outlaws, whites vs. Native Americans, etc. that were synonymous with American film for half a century or more, but it is perhaps the most overt. The Last Wagon portrayed women in leadership roles, John Ford’s The Searchers questioned the western myths purported largely by his previous works, High Noon delivered a preachy but hugely revisionist take on camaraderie, posturing, and gender roles. There are doubtless more, but with Bonnie & Clyde paving the way for the MPAA, Sam Peckinpah could question violence in the western in a way that was not possible before.
It should come as no surprise, then, that The Wild Bunch is an exceptionally violent film—when it has to be. It is bookended by massive shootouts that kill more civilians than gunslingers. But after the first shootout, in which Pike (William Holden), Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), the Gorch Brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sánchez) get away, Peckinpah inserts a shot that makes his anti-violence stance clear: When the killing has subsided, all the kids who just narrowly escaped death are running around pretending to shoot each other. Violence is passed down from generation to generation, just as it has been in Western films themselves, and as we all know (to Peckinpah’s credit, nobody ever has to say it), our children are our future. If The Wild Bunch is a tragedy, the tragic heroes are not the outlaws whose way of life is quickly becoming outdated or Pike’s old partner who is forced to hunt down his former colleague in order to stay out of jail, but the children who must either stand by as their village is destroyed or else take aim and fire at the bad guy when he does not expect it. Sadly, it’s their elders that push them into it, which conflicts with the positioning as the Pike and his gang as sympathetic outlaws, but then again, after telling the story from the point of view of the “good guys” for so long, making us immediately aware that Pike is one of the “bad guys” and then, after a chaotic shootout, making us sympathize with him is a potent move on its own.
But where The Wild Bunch really shines is in Lou Lombardo’s editing. The shootouts are shot from a variety of angles, utilize extremely quick cutting (even by today’s standards), and a number of different frame rates, an innovative technique so effective that today it is among the most overused tropes in action films. Peckinpah and Lombardo, unlike their followers like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and even Paul Greengrass, doesn’t emphasize violence or blood-splatter so much as capturing the chaotic and disorienting nature of massive gunfights. Less effective are the choppy dissolves to flashbacks, but these are mercifully kept to a minimum and they are frontloaded at the film’s beginning.
Still, these flashbacks make for choppy storytelling, it is initially unclear as to which group of characters we will be following (the bounty hunters or the robbers), and at first The Wild Bunch is an episodic stretch of one set-piece after another. After its clears and theses are put on the map, though, things begin to move along. A spectacular train robbery kicks off the film’s tense and rich second half, and the editing once along captures both tension and chaos through a variety of camera angles and frame rates. From there, tension remains high even during the subdued moments.
As such, The Wild Bunch is able to overcome a few early missteps, and its refusal to adhere to formula in any sense remains novel; even 44 years later, in the age of Unforgiven, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dead Man and a variety of other great anti-westerns, The Wild Bunch is delightfully unpredictable. For the most part, it’s as relentlessly entertaining as the classic westerns it critiques but also breaks new ground thematically.
Unfortunately, Peckinpah’s s subversive tendencies do not extend to the film’s treatment of Mexicans and women. The women in The Wild Bunch are whores and nothing more, and the Mexicans are never portrayed as intelligent or especially civilized people. When they acquire a machine gun, we are treated to a full minute of them shooting randomly and destroying the entire village…only for the same thing to happen once again. The Wild Bunch succeeds in not enforcing violence because of its portrayal of the damage—physical and otherwise—it causes to women and children. Similarly, the chaotic editing de-emphasizes the violence and draws attention to the confusion it creates. With the treatment of women and of Mexican, there is no equivalent. It’s hardly the first western to simplify all but the whitest and manliest of white males, but in a film that takes so much pride in deconstructing western tropes, it failed on two of the most significant fronts. That doesn’t take away from its other successes, but it does reveal itself as an imperfect piece of genre revisionism in spite of its status and significance.