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TitleSam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (Cambridge Film Handbooks)
ISBN 139780521586061
CategoryArts - Film
File Size26.9 MB
Total Pages241
Document Text Contents
Page 2

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one of the most influential
films in American cinema. The intensity of its violence was un-
precedented, while the director's use of multiple cameras, montage
editing, and slow motion quickly became the normative style for
rendering screen violence. Demonstrating to filmmakers the power
of irony as a narrative voice and its effectiveness as a tool for ex-
ploring and portraying brutality, The Wild Bunch fundamentally
changed the Western, moving it into a more brutal and psycho-
pathic territory than it had ever inhabited before. This volume in-
cludes freshly commissioned essays by several leading scholars of
Peckinpah's work. Examining the film's production history from
script to screen, its rich and ambivalent vision of American soci-
ety, and its relationship to the western genre, among other top-
ics, it provides a definitive reinterpretation of an enduring film

Stephen Prince is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is the au-
thor of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultra-Violent
Movies; Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film; and Visions of
Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film.

Page 120


to draw a connection between the children's actions and those of
the Bunch, we should recall at this point Don Jose's comment dur-
ing the fiesta in Angel's village. "We all wish to be a child again,"
Don Jose says, "even the worst of us - maybe the worst most of all."
Yet the childlike nature to which Don Jose alludes, by which he
seems to mean a state of innocence, is not present in the film. The
children whom we see in The Wild Bunch are associated with cru-
elty and brutality. Aside from the children torturers, there are the
youngsters who "replay" the Starbuck massacre, circling a dead
man and "shooting" him with their hands; the infant suckled by
a Mexican woman whose bandolier strap lies between her breasts
(according to Peckinpah, then, violence and dependency are yoked from
the time of early childhood; perhaps there is the suggestion here
that violence is itself a form of dependency); and the young boy
who delivers the coup de grace to Pike at the end of the Agua
Verde massacre. The only other child of note is the baby of the
woman with whom Pike has sex toward the film's end. Yet this
child represents not a peaceful reality but a life involving love and
family that for Pike and the Bunch never was and never could have
been. We thus feel a strong sense of limited possibilities and ob-
scured self-awareness in the film, which is communicated via its
imagery, its ethics, and, as will be seen, its attitude toward capi-

In one of the monochrome freeze-frame shots during the film's
opening titles, the Bunch, after passing by the children at the ant
cage, are seen headed down a row of railroad tracks that seem to
represent a narrowing of possibilities, especially given their asso-
ciation with Thornton, who is being blackmailed by the railroad
man Harrigan. That the freeze-frame shot emphasizes the tracks'
diminishing perspective also suggests a tie-in with Harrigan, whose
steely adamancy and lack of humanistic response typify not only
the narrowness of his character but also, by extension, the capi-
talist organization that he represents, which, like all railroads, was
doubtless ruthless in its appropriation of land and its manipula-
tion of manpower. Thus, in the film's opening moments, some of
its major meanings have already been suggested: enclosure as a

Page 121


metaphor for physical, psychological, and ethical limitation; en-
trapment; arbitrary violence; fateful inevitability; and capitalism.
The relations among these notions will be developed as the film

The opening sequences's freeze-frame monochrome images do
more than merely relegate the Bunch to a black-and-white news-
paper/historical past; they also have a spatial suggestiveness, since
when the image shifts to a stylized black and white, the majority
of its depth disappears.3 The repeated collapsing of physical space
in the film suggests a further thematic: that violence involves a
type of enclosure that has not only psychological but also ethical
ramifications, that it is part of a realm that lacks moral depth, and
that it can only be enjoyed if it is abstracted from the context in
which it occurs, a realm in which brutality causes real death, real
pain, real suffering.

It's quite likely that in making the violence in The Wild Bunch
so graphic, Peckinpah did indeed intend (as he often claimed) to
show people how terrible it really is, and that the only people who
could find the film's violence entrancing are those who fail to draw
a connection between its reality and its fictive representation. Just
as people who are themselves violent may to a degree see their
own acts of violence as somewhat unreal (which thereby helps to
make its continuation possible), filmgoers who do not treat The
Wild Bunch's violence as real may see it as fictively unreal because
doing so suits their desire for an aesthetic appreciation of violence
that only someone at a safe and pleasant distance from it could
achieve. However, in doing so, these individuals fail to react in
the complex way that the director wanted them to. As Peckinpah
once commented:

The point of the film is to take this facade of movie violence
and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are start-
ing to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syn-
drome, 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
fucking awful... and yet there's a certain response that you get
from it, an excitement that we're all violent people.4

Page 240


Oswald, Lee Harvey, 140
Ox-Bow Incident, The, 185

Paint Your Wagon, 64
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 23,

30, 31, 148, 159, 184, 190, 192,
193, 194, 196, 197

Payne Fund Studies, The, 132
Peckinpah, Sam

and screen violence, 25-32,

and the Western, 19-25,

and Wild Bunch screenplay,

career of, 4-7,29-31
Penn, Arthur, 27, 130, 139, 140,

141, 142, 143, 145, 146, 147,

Pickens, Slim, 162
Planet of the Apes, 7
Porter, Edwin, S., 130
Point Blank, 174
Point Break, 150
Private Hell 36, 5
Production Code, 133, 135, 137,

Professionals, The, 41, 84, 100
Public Enemy, The, 132
Pulp Fiction, 31

Querelle, 91

Raimi, Sam, 150
Rambo: First Blood Part II, 148, 149
Rashomon, 44
Raw Deal, 134
Reed, Rex, 210
Red River, 166
Redford, Robert, 83
Ride Lonesome, 167
Ride the High Country, 6, 20, 21,

23, 86, 161, 195, 201, 205
Rifleman, The, 5, 160
Rio Bravo, 166, 167

RioLobo, 167
Rio Grande, 167
Riot in Cell Block 11, 5
Rodriguez, Robert, 150
Ruby, Jack, 140
Ryan, Robert, 86, 162, 163, 187,

203, 204, 208

Saboteur: Code Name Morituri, 41
Sanchez, Jaime, 84, 163
Sanjuro, 143, 144
Scarface, 132, 133
Schidor, Dietor, 91
Schwarzenegger, Arnold, 26
Scorsese, Martin, 2, 4, 148
Scott, Randolph, 6, 162, 167
screen violence, 25-32, 175-99

history of, 130-54
Searchers, The, 6, 84, 96, 165, 167
Seven Samurai, 27, 44, 71, 138,

Seydor, Paul, 82
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 166,

Shooting, The, 185
Sickner, Roy N., 7, 40, 42, 44, 45,

46, 47, 48, 72, 145
Siegel, Don, 4-5
Silke, Jim, 62, 66, 67
Slotkin, Richard, 95, 100
Soldier Blue, 148
spaghetti Westerns, 136-38
squibs, 131, 142-43, 145, 148
Stagecoach, 6, 155, 166
Stalag 17, 202
Straw Dogs, 29, 30, 31, 82, 109,

173, 180, 184, 196
Stone, Oliver, 150
Sudden Impact, 148

Tales of Wells Fargo, 5
Tarantino, Quentin, 79, 80, 150
Taylor, Dub, 143
Taylor, Rod, 40
Taxi Driver, 148, 149

Page 241


Territorial Imperative, The, 118
They Came to Cordura, 84
They Live By Night, 134
Three-penny Opera, The, 98
Tin Star, The, 92
Tompkins, Jane, 164, 171
Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The,

44, 97, 186
True Grit, 209
True Romance, 150
Turner, Frederick Jackson, 112-13,


Valenti, Jack, 146, 147
Verhoven, Paul, 150
Vera Cruz, 84, 136, 168
Villa Rides, 6, 48, 162
Viva Zapata, 84

Walking Tall, 149
Wanted: Dead or Alive, 92, 160
Warriors, The, 148
Wayne, John, 84, 166, 184

Webber, Robert, 90
Weddle, David, 47, 50, 178
Wellman, William, 185
Westerner, The, 5, 50, 201
White Heat, 134
Wild Bunch, The,

production of, 6-19
screenplay of, 37-78
vision of the West, 19-25,

92-97, 112-27, 155-74
violence and, 25-32, 175-99

Winchester 73, 135
Wolfe, Robert, 69
Woo, John, 79,80, 150

Yellow Sky, 134
Yojimbo, 136, 137, 143
Young, Gig, 90

Zabriskie Point, 83
Zone Grey Theater, 5
Zapruder film, 141
Zinnemann, Fred, 157, 173

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