The Wild Bunch directed by Sam Peckinpah, is a Western film about an aging outlaw gang at the Texas-Mexico border trying to exist in the modern world of 1913. The film was controversial because of its violence and the crude men trying to survive the era.
The Wild Bunch is noted for intricate, multi-angle editing, using normal and slow motion images, revolutionary cinema technique in . The writing of Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner, and Sam Peckinpah was nominated for a best-screenplay Academy Award; Jerry Fielding's music was nominated for Best Original Score; director Peckinpah was nominated for an Outstanding Directorial Achievement award by the Directors Guild of America; and cinematographer Lucien Ballard won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography.
In , the U.S. National Film Registry selected it for preservation in the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. The Wild Bunch was ranked 80th in the American Film Institute's best hundred American films, and the 69th most thrilling movie. In 2008, the AFI revealed its "10 Top 10" of the best ten films in ten genres, The Wild Bunch is the sixth-best western.
The gang takes refuge in Angel's old village, where the Mexican Revolution has evidently taken its toll on the people; a corrupt warlord named Mapache (Emilio Fernández), a General serving under the Mexican Federal Army, had been stealing food from numerous villages to feed his troops. They eventually head to Mapache's base town — a den of senseless debauchery — to trade horses, but once Angel spots his former girlfriend in the arms of Mapache, he shoots and kills her in the Generalissimo's lap out of jealousy. To defuse the situation, Pike then decides to work for Mapache, who hires him and his men for $10,000 in gold to steal an arms shipment from a U.S. Army train running near the border; he seeks to resupply his army and appease his German military advisers, who wish to attain some examples of American weaponry to bring home. Angel is eager to send some of the guns to his village, and convinces Pike to let him smuggle some for his share of the gold. The heist goes as planned, but Deke and his posse are waiting for them in the train and give chase, only to be foiled again after falling into an explosives trap that sends the posse down a river. Deke, nonetheless, continues the pursuit.
The gang then devise a careful way to send the guns back to Mapache without risk of betrayal, but during one of their transactions Angel is captured, having been found out for his theft of some of the guns. Later, with Sykes wounded by another encounter with Deke's posse, the rest of the gang decide to head back to Mapache for shelter, where they find Angel being badly tortured. Out of a rare moment of conscience, they decide to rescue him. Once they confront Mapache, he is promptly shot after he slits Angel's throat; the violent gun battle that follows has Pike and his men killed, but not without a massacre of nearly the entire Mexican garrison.
Deke finally catches up to Pike, only to find his bullet-riddled corpse; he thus allows the remaining posse to take the bodies back and collect the reward, while electing to stay behind and watch Mapache's base town being abandoned. Sykes later arrives with several rebel partisans from Angel's village (who had apparently killed off the posse along the way), and asks Deke to fight in the revolution. Laughing, Deke and Sykes ride off together.
The part of Deke Thornton originally was offered to Brian Keith (who had worked with Peckinpah on The Westerner  and The Deadly Companions ). Keith, working in Family Affair, declined; also considered were Richard Harris, Arthur Kennedy, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson (later cast as Tector Gorch) and Van Heflin. Robert Ryan was cast per his performance in The Dirty Dozen.
Among those considered to play Dutch Engstrom were Steve McQueen, George Peppard, Jim Brown, Alex Cord, Robert Culp, Sammy Davis, Jr., Charles Bronson and Richard Jaeckel. Ernest Borgnine was cast per his performance in The Dirty Dozen.
Robert Blake was the original choice to play Angel, but he asked too much money, per his success with In Cold Blood (1967). Peckinpah had seen Jaime Sánchez in the Broadway production of Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, was impressed and demanded he be cast as Angel.
Albert Dekker, a stage actor, was cast as Harrigan, the railroad detective. He died months after filming, The Wild Bunch was his final film.
By the fall of 1967, Peckinpah was rewriting the screenplay and preparing for production. Filmed on location in Mexico, Peckinpah's epic work was inspired by his hunger to return to films, the violence seen in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, America's growing frustration with the Vietnam War and what he perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time. He set out to make a film which portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period, but the crude men attempting to survive the era. Multiple scenes attempted in Major Dundee, including slow motion action sequences (inspired by Akira Kurosawa's work in Seven Samurai), characters leaving a village as if in a funeral procession and the use of inexperienced locals as extras, would be perfected in The Wild Bunch.
The film was shot in the anamorphic wide screen process. Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, also made use of a wide angle camera lens, one that allowed for objects and people in both the background and foreground to remain in sharp focus. The effect is best seen in the shots where the Bunch make their "long walk" to Mapache's headquarters to free Angel. As they walk forward, a constant flow of people pass between them and the camera, yet are as sharply focused as the Bunch. The editing of the film is notable in that shots from multiple angles would be spliced together in rapid succession, often at different speeds, placing greater emphasis on the chaotic nature of the action and the gunfights.
Lou Lombardo, having previously worked with Peckinpah on Noon Wine, was personally hired by the director to edit The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah had wanted an editor who would be loyal to him. Lombardo's youth was also a plus, as he wasn't bound by traditional conventions. One of Lombardo's first contributions was to show Peckinpah an episode of the TV series Felony Squad he edited in 1967. The episode, entitled "My Mommy Got Lost," included a slow motion sequence where Joe Don Baker is shot by the police. The scene mixed slow motion with normal speed. Peckinpah was reportedly thrilled and told Lombardo, "Let's try some of that when we get down to Mexico!" The director would film the major shootouts with six cameras, all operating a different film rates including 24 frames per second, 30 frames per second, 60 frames per second, 90 frames per second and 120 frames per second. When the scenes were eventually cut together, the action would shift from slow to fast to slower still, giving time an elastic quality never before seen in motion pictures up to that time.
By the time filming wrapped, Peckinpah had shot 333,000 feet of film with 1,288 camera setups. Lombardo and Peckinpah remained in Mexico for six months editing the picture. After initial cuts, the opening gunfight sequence ran 21 minutes. Cutting frames from specific scenes and intercutting others, they were able to fine-cut the opening bank robbery down to five minutes. The creative montage became the model for the rest of the film and would forever change the way movies would be made.
In 1993, Warner Brothers resubmitted the film to the MPAA ratings board prior to an expected rerelease. To the studio's surprise, the originally R-rated film was given an NC-17, delaying the release until the decision was appealed. The controversy was linked to 10 extra minutes added to the film. Warner Brothers trimmed some footage to decrease the running time to ensure additional daily screenings. Today, almost all of the versions of The Wild Bunch include the missing scenes. Warner Brothers released a newly restored version of The Wild Bunch in a two-disc special edition on January 10, 2006. It includes an audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars, two documentaries concerning the making of the film and never-before-seen outtakes.
Sam Peckinpah and the making of The Wild Bunch was the subject of the documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996) directed by Paul Seydor. It was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary Short Subject.
Peckinpah stated that one of his goals for this movie was to give the audience "some idea of what it is to be gunned down." A memorable incident occurred, to that end, as Peckinpah's crew were consulting him on the "gunfire" effects to be used in the film. Not satisfied with the results from the squibs his crew had brought for him, Peckinpah became exasperated; he finally hollered, "That's not what I want! That's not what I want!" Then he grabbed a real revolver and fired it into a nearby wall. The gun empty, Peckinpah barked at his stunned crew: "THAT'S the effect I want!!" He also had the gunfire sound effects changed for the film. Before, all gunshots in Warner Brothers movies sounded identical, regardless of the type of weapon being fired. Peckinpah insisted on each different type of firearm having its own specific sound effect when fired.
The violence that was much criticized by critics in 1969 remains controversial. Director Peckinpah noted it was allegoric of the American war against Vietnam, whose violence was nightly televised to American homes at supper time. He tried showing the gun violence commonplace to the historic western frontier period, rebelling against sanitised, bloodless television westerns and films glamourising gun fights and murder. The point of the film is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut . . . It's ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It's a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we're all violent people. Peckinpah used violence as catharsis, believing his audience would be purged of violence, by witnessing it explicitly on screen. He later admitted to being mistaken, that the audience came to enjoy rather than be horrified by his films' violence, something that troubled him.
Betrayal is the secondary theme of The Wild Bunch. Characters suffer their knowledge of having betrayed a friend and left him to his fate, thus violating their own honour code when it suits them. Such frustration leads to the film's violent conclusion, as the remaining men find intolerable the abandonment of Angel. Pike Bishop remembers his betrayals, most notably when he deserts Deke Thornton (in flashback) when the law catches up to them; and when he abandons Crazy Lee at the bank after the robbery (ostensibly to guard the hostages).
Moreover, there have been several versions of The Wild Bunch:
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