Imagine being alive in 1969 and going to see The Wild Bunch when it was new. It was released in an era when American movies were changing, and when audiences were getting more and more used to seeing gruesome violence onscreen, like in Bonnie & Clyde. Granted, it was still a time when movies would tell us that a character was shot to death by showing us that character grabbing his chest and keeling over. Those audiences barely ever saw a rivulet of fake blood.
The Wild Bunch, however, was the beginning of something entirely different. It has shotgun bursts that send tremors through bodies, with blood-spatters and meat-chunks flying. Shootouts break out in crowded towns, where neither cops nor criminals are especially concerned whether innocent women are caught in the crossfire. (We never see any actual kids dying in the movie, but we always see them standing around when the shooting starts, so it seems likely that plenty of them didn’t make it to the end of the day, either.) The final shootout lasts maybe 10 minutes, and to 1969 audiences, it must’ve felt like Scarface multiplied by Hard-Boiled to the power of the Normandy Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan.
I don’t usually write about Westerns in this space for the same reason that I don’t usually write about superhero movies. Westerns have plenty in common with action movies, and many great action movies (especially Asian ones, interestingly enough) have the Western in their DNA. But the Western is its own distinct genre, and its virtues are not usually action-movie virtues. But that’s not the case with The Wild Bunch. Instead, this movie pioneered plenty of the tropes that I’ve come to love in action movies: The cold and grizzled and mostly amoral protagonists, the criminals who have their own system of ethics and defend that system passionately, the tense moments leading up to the volcanic gunfight, the everyone-dies-at-the-end finale. If Sam Peckinpah hadn’t mastered the huge roiling gun battles or the hardbitten honor-among-thieves brotherhood or the theatrical use of slow motion, what would John Woo have done? Would we even know who John Woo is?
One thing I wonder now: How many of the people involved in making The Wild Bunch knew they were making a revisionist Western, one that called into question every one of the genre’s articles of faith? Peckinpah, as the director and cowriter, certainly knew that he was doing something different, and I have to imagine that his cast knew, too. But people like the cinematographer, the location scouts, and the (Oscar-nominated) score composer might’ve just thought they were making a regular Western. For most of the movie, it looks and sounds like one, and we get triumphant old-school film music even when our heroes are stealing a shipment of guns just to sell them to a corrupt Mexican petty-dictator general.
Despite all the times it’s been imitated, that aspect of the movie still stings: Its characters are some nasty, mean fuckers. They care about each other, and they care about the idea of keeping their word, but they don’t care about shit else. They will happily shoot their way out of one town and shoot their way into another. In the movie’s famous railroad-station-robbery opening scene, William Holden, the leader of the gang, barks at an underling, “If they move, kill ’em!” He’s not playing. By the time the scene is over, some of them do try to move, and yes, they do get killed.
The forces of law and order are even worse, of course. The main villain, offscreen for most of the movie, is a money-grubbing railroad suit who had the idea to stage the shootout in a small town in the first place. The other main villain, the Mexican general, tortures one of the Bunch’s number for fun because he’s learned that he gave guns to some of Pancho Villa’s rebels. (He also has German military advisors.) The guy being tortured is named Angel, and presented here as the personification of the downtrodden masses of Mexico. But when he sees that his girlfriend has left him for the general, he murders her in cold blood. He’s a murderous asshole, too. They’re all murderous assholes.
But Peckinpah makes us like one set of murderous assholes and hate the other, mostly by presenting the ones we like as grizzled badasses. And they’re all so good. Holden finds a way to sweat bitterness and regret. Ernest Borgnine guffaws through the whole movie, and you totally buy that it’s just because he loves kicking ass so much. Peckinpah regular Warren Oates and rodeo champion Ben Johnson play bickering drunks, but they immediately put their game faces on when it’s time. The railroad sends former gang member Robert Ryan after the rest of them, forcing him to command a team of giggling-hick bounty hunters under threat of returning to prison; inevitably, he loses his temper with his new team, calling them “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash,” adding, “We’re after men! I wish to God I was with them.”
The Wild Bunch has a rep as a cinematic classic, but it’s so deep in the canon that you might not necessarily think of it as being something fun to watch, especially when you’re firing up Netflix after work some evening. And it’s not always the easiest thing to watch. The mass slaughters remain pretty fucked up, and Peckinpah’s tendency to only show women as silent and compliant prostitutes hasn’t aged well. Unless you’re a fucking Trump supporter, you might not love watching four white guys murder a whole battalion of Mexican soldiers. And it’s long; the version on Netflix has all the context-providing flashback scenes that the studio cut from the original theatrical release.
Still, this is a hell of a movie, and it’s a whole lot more entertaining than you might imagine, or remember. It has a streak of dark humor that’s evident from the first scene, when a group of little kids happily watch a colony of fire ants slowly killing some scorpions. Its desert vistas are beautiful, especially if you’ve got a decent-size TV. Peckinpah’s action scenes are big and epic and remarkably well-orchestrated, especially considering the era in which they were made. Most movies of that vintage tend to have clunky and perfunctory fight scenes, but Peckinpah always put real energy and craft into his. And then it has that cast, a group of lined and weathered old badasses who make it fun to root for a team of remorseless monsters.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.