Sam Peckinpah

The Wild Bunch (1969) - Peckinpah's bloody masterpiece

The Wild Bunch (1969) - Peckinpah's bloody masterpiece

  • Born:  1925
  • Died:  1984
  • Rank:  76
  • Score:  526.25
  • Nominations:  DGA
  • Feature Films:  13
  • Best: The Wild Bunch
  • Worst:  Convoy

Top 5 Films:

  1. The Wild Bunch – 1969
  2. Ride the High Country – 1962
  3. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – 1973
  4. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – 1974
  5. Straw Dogs – 1971

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1962 – 5th – Ride the High Country
  • 1969 – 1st – The Wild Bunch
  • 1970 – 7th – The Ballad of Cable Hogue
  • 1971 – 10th – Straw Dogs
  • 1973 – 7th – Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
  • 1974 – 10th – Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
  • 1977 – 10th – Cross of Iron

In his Great Movies listing for The Wild Bunch, Roger Ebert says “the message here is not subtle but then Sam Peckinpah was not a subtle director.”  This was true right from the start, even before he was a director.  Peckinpah was a drunk, a prideful, boastful man and it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.  He claimed to be far more involved with the direction of Invasion of the Body Snatchers than anybody remembers (he was an actor in the film).  He made one early movie (The Deadly Companions) before coming on like a force with Ride the High Country, the movie that should have started to prepare everybody for the amazing new vision that was about to come upon the Western as anyone knew it.

Peckinpah made six Westerns in all.  They are all good films and in fact the only good films he made that can’t be classified as Westerns are Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron.  Peckinpah was a man made to bring a stark new vision to the old American West.  His films were existential, bleak and above all, violent.  It takes a certain bent brain to truly enjoy watching Peckinpah’s films (except for Ride the High Country which is more accessible) but it is hard to argue against the artistic merits and influence.

The Wild Bunch #1 film of 1969 – #1 Western of All-Time

John Wayne supposedly complained that this film ruined the romantic notion of the Old West.  Ironically, it was released in the same year (along with two other Westerns which surely contributed to that idea – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Once Upon a Time in the West) that John Wayne won his Oscar (one of the worst choices ever).  John Wayne gave two really good performances in his career – both as flawed men out for revenge (in Red River and The Searchers).  His best work was more in line with this film, a film anchored by the performance that should have won the Oscar that year: William Holden’s.

Holden, like Wayne, was a big star for many years.  But Holden was also an actor, one who gave some of the finest performances in film history (Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Network).  The cynicism from his early Billy Wilder films combined with his hard living made him the perfect person to play Pike, the violent outlaw who has reached the end of his line (could anyone else have so perfectly uttered the now immortal line “If they move, kill ‘em.”).

For the opposite number, the former partner abandoned by Pike and now forced to hunt him down, Peckinpah cast Robert Ryan.  Ryan became one of the best character actors in Hollywood by constantly playing incredible scumbags and doing it better than anyone.  The Wild Bunch gave him an interesting position – the person on the side of the law who we must root against.

Are people today better prepared for the kind of violence on display in The Wild Bunch?  They certainly weren’t ready for it in 1969, not even after Bonnie and Clyde.  Yet, when cuts were made to make the film fit a better running time, it was back story and narrative that was cut (at the cost of the story) rather than the violence itself.  Even then they knew the violence was going to be a selling point.  And over the years we have seen worse and worse.  But this wasn’t mindless violence.  There is a point a person reaches and that point is reached and Pike mutters “let’s go,” and no one questions him.  They all know that moment has come, when they can no longer live by their guns.  And the American West was over.  And it was time for film to embrace that.  For if this is the greatest Western ever made (and it is), then Unforgiven is the second and without this film there never would have been Unforgiven.  And Eastwood should be grateful to Peckinpah for his Oscar.  Because Peckinpah never got one.

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