“When the legend becomes fact,” says the canny newspaper editor in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” Sam Peckinpah is a filmmaker dedicated to telling truths and still preserving the legend of the American West. In feature films (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee) and television shows (The Westerner), his characters are eminently fallible, their deeds frequently inglorious. They are legends both because and in spite of themselves. The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s most complex inquiry into the metamorphosis of man into myth. Not incidentally, it is also a raucous, violent, powerful feat of American filmmaking.
The script — which Peckinpah wrote with Walon Green — has the sound and rhythm of a rambling campfire yarn. Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the aging leader of a ragtag bunch of bandits who ride through the Southwest trying to scrape together an honorably illegal living. The money from previous jobs has just about run out, and the bunch is being trailed by a group of murderous bounty hunters. After an unsuccessful stick-up in which two of them are killed, the rest light out for Mexico, with the bounty hunters hard on their trail, looking to make what Bishop calls “one good score.”
The score turns out to be a crazy scheme to steal a U.S. armaments shipment for a free-booting Mexican general named Mapache, a slowwitted executioner fighting a losing battle against Pancho Villa’s army. “We share very few sentiments with our government,” Bishop explains lightly as his men prepare to take the required rifles from a U.S. Army supply train. In 1913, this sort of activity is already anachronistic and doomed to failure. Trying to fulfill the terms of the contract, the bunch get doublecrossed. At the same time, they are caught in the vise of their own simplistic code of honor (“When you side with a man, you stay with him,” Bishop says). Mapache betrays them from one side while the bounty hunters attack from another, and they are all finally wiped out in the bloodiest battle ever put on film.
‘Listen,” Peckinpah says, “killing is no fun. I was trying to show what the hell it’s like to get shot.” Using a combination of fast cutting and slow motion, Peckinpah creates scenes of uncontrolled frenzy in which the feeling of chaotic violence is almost overwhelming. Where the slow motion murders in Bonnie and Clyde were balletic, similar scenes in The Wild Bunch have the agonizing effect of prolonging the moment of impact, giving each death its own individual horror. Peckinpah repeatedly suggests that the true victims of violence are the young. Children watch the scenes of brutality and carnage wide-eyed, with little fear; a Mexican mother nurses her child by holding her bandolier aside, the baby’s tiny fists pressed up against the cartridges. Finally, with mounting excitement, one boy gets to participate in his first fight — and excitedly shoots Pike Bishop in the back.
Peckinpah is sometimes guilty of over-kill himself. Action sequences – like an attack by the Villa forces on Mapache – occasionally destroy the continuity of the elaborate story, and flashbacks are introduced with surprising clumsiness. These, happily, are not typical moments. More characteristic are the sweeping visual panoramas of the whole film (stunningly photographed by Lucien Ballard) and the extraordinarily forceful acting from a troupe of Hollywood professionals. Holden hasn’t done such good work since Stalag 17, and the bunch — Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Jaime Sanchez — all look and sound as if they had stepped out of a discarded daguerreotype. As the reluctant head of the band of bounty hunters, Robert Ryan gives the screen performance of his career.
For all this, The Wild Bunch is Sam Peckinpah’s triumph. His hardedged elegies for the West come from a life spent absorbing its folkways. Born into a California pioneer family, Peckinpah is a hard liver who has found some of his script ideas by doing research in barrooms and bordellos. Because he is scrappy and unwilling to compromise, he has spent a good deal of his professional time warring with the money men in the front office who truncated Major Dundee and fired him from The Cincinnati Kid after three days of shooting. “You have to worry and fight until you get what you want,” he once said, and if Peckinpah has battled more than most, his tenacity has finally paid off.
The Wild Bunch contains faults and mistakes, but its accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belongs with the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.
Time magazine, June 20, 1969