The Wild Bunch at 50: the enduring nihilism of Sam Peckinpah's western

the Guardian | 6/18/2019 | Charles Bramesco
Present day audiences remember Sam Peckinpah’s off-the-wall western The Wild Bunch for its blood, but no less shocking is the film’s moral carnage. Two orgies of bullets bookend the adventure of an outlaw gang on the Mexican border, setting a new standard for the depiction of violence in its day that persists as dizzyingly intense now, 50 years out from the initial release in 1969. Rapid-fire cutting, whiplash zooms and tricks with repetition could combine to dilate a single moment in time and make gunfire into a symphony of wanton destruction. All the glorious slow-motion shots of smoking barrels and spurting entry wounds had been mounted for a loftier purpose than base titillation, however. As stated in David Weddle’s Peckinpah biography If They Move … Kill ’Em!, the film-maker himself found it disturbing, the tooth-gnashing glee with which audiences received what he had intended as a cathartic purging of violent impulses. He thought he was making something closer to a morality play; he didn’t count on the public’s thirst for arterial spray.

Legend goes that in 1967, an on-the-skids Peckinpah (squabbles with studios on his last feature led to a temporary exile in the bush leagues of TV) went to see Bonnie and Clyde and upon re-entering the light of day, figured, “I can do that.” Indeed, his grand return to moviemaking one-upped the convulsive shootout that brutally ended the bank robbers’ spree, and yet he was just as preoccupied with the moment’s social significance. Like that film’s Arthur Penn, he saw America at a chaotic crossroads epitomized by the ongoing warfare in Vietnam and unrest on the home front. In another story of thieves with questionable honor even among themselves, he planted a signpost at the end of an era.

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