Sunday, 12 July 2009


“There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness.” - Sam Peckinpah

At the weekend we watched one of those Hollywood genre films that made Hollywood what it is, for better or worse. It was rather nostalgic watching it and seeing some of the actors that have long since passed away, such as William Holden Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and one of the old school who has good genes and is still hanging on at 92 years, Ernest Borgnine. The film was Sam Peckinpah’s Western of 1969, “The Wild Bunch”. The film was very violent as far as Westerns go, but I guess it had to cater to late 1960s tastes (remember the violence in “Bonnie and Clyde”?).

Pike Bishop (Holden) and his ageing gang of outlaws have staged a daring train robbery at Starbuck, South Texas in the first decade of the 20th century. The robbery goes awry and the gang head south across the Rio Grande and into Mexico. They are being pursued by Deke Thornton (Ryan, a former partner of Pike’s who doesn’t want to go back to jail and for whom killing the bunch is the one unpleasant means of securing his freedom) and his men, made up of bounty hunters. They had been hired by the railroad to stop Bishop and his gang from robbing the rail depot and now have 30 days to track them down and kill them. Bishop and his men plan to spend only a short time in Mexico and then cross back into Texas to continue their banditry. However, a violent Mexican generalissimo who wants them to rob a U.S. train carrying arms persuades them to stick around and reap the $10,000 in gold. They carry out the robbery successfully, but it leads to a terrifying final confrontation.

The film is one of the last big Westerns to come out of Hollywood seeing how the genre had its heyday in the 40s, 50s and early 60s. In the 70s, the traditional Western gave its place to the offbeat one and in a way, the plot of “The Wild Bunch” is an indication of the end of an era in Hollywood. The myth created by John Wayne as the “Good Cowboy”, the shining angel-like presence of Shane, the heroism of Gary Cooper in “High Noon” are all negated by the immorality and gross realism depicted in this demythologising movie. Peckinpah takes every opportunity to “tell it like it was” and the bloody, violent images assault the senses of the viewer with their grimness. One of the most disturbing images for me was in the opening sequences of the film with some children torturing scorpions and ants. This sets the scene for the horrors that follow and prepares the viewer for the bloodbath of the ending.

The movie is acted superbly and the direction is masterly. Cinematography is wonderful and the colours fresh and brilliant (OK, the blood was a bit too red!). The scenes in Mexico are extremely authentic and the poetry of some of the faces Peckinpah shows us is quite amazing. In fact the Mexicans in the background observing the action and who become unwittingly involved are almost like a silent Greek chorus in a tragedy.

The film is loved and hated equally vehemently, and personally I enjoyed seeing it, although violence for its own sake, gratuitous violence is abhorrent. There was a similar controversy about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. We also watched this recently and I must admit that I felt that the violence in the Gibson film was too much and detracted from the plot. Too much violence loses its power and in the case of “The Passion”, the gratuitous violence made one believe that the film was a vehicle for sadists rather than as a demonstration of man’s inhumanity to man and the condemnation of an innocent to a terrible death. Oddly, I did not have the same feeling with “The Wild Bunch”, although I admit that the faint-hearted would find this film challenging.

Peckinpah depicts violence graphically in his movies and with the release of “The Wild Bunch”, easily the most violent Western made and one of the most violent movies of all time, he earned his nickname “Bloody Sam”. A drunk, a coke addict, a sentimental romantic, possibly schizophrenic, a little man with a big chip on his shoulders, Peckinpah was said to be many things. By the end of the 1970s, he disappeared into obscurity; yet after he died, he began to re-emerge as an influential director who left a rich cinematic legacy (“Straw Dogs”, “The Osterman Weekend”, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”, “The Getaway” and many more).

Have you seen this film? What did you think?


  1. I haven't seen it since 1969 but it isn't a classic for nothing.

    Cable Hogue was a softer Peckinpah - David Warner physically fabulous as the biker preacher, Stella Stevens in the hipbath, and the tinplates nailed to the table.

    Hannie Caulder was a violent western around the same time - Strother Martin had yet another memorable line when burying his brother, shot from the coffin's POV : "Frank ... you're dead ... "

    Anything with SM in it is a good film.

  2. re Sam and coke use: the 1970's in Hollywood was a positive schuss of coke use - he would have been conspicuous if a non-user.

    Graphic violence easier to take than melodramatic violence I think, but we are all different - some are more shocked by appalling table manners than by brutal stabbings - go figure.