Wild Bunch, The (1969): Peckinpah’s Masterpiece–Decade’s Most Signifcant Western

Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” was arguably the most important Western of the decade. “A Western that enlarged the form aesthetically, thematically, and demonically,” wrote critic Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic. “It is the first masterpiece in the new tradition of the ‘dirty Western,'” noted Richard Schickel in Life magazine, “a film that may emerge as one of the most important records of the mood of our times.”

“The Wild Bunch” was perceived by some critics as a political allegory of the American political involvement in foreign countries–specifically Vietnam–despite the fact that it was nominally set in Mexico in 1913.

Peckinpah claimed that he was “just trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times, or what happens when killers go to Mexico.” However, the group leader’s name, Pike Bishop (William Holden), alluded to California’s Bishop James Pike, the conscientious, humanistic drop-out known for his anti-War views. Peckinpah’s apocalyptic vision of the Old West, with its anarchism and violence, was a perfect evocation of Vietnam.

Aiming at demythologizing the American West, no character is romanticized or glamorized, and this applies to the outlaws as well as the railroaders and businessmen. Holding that life in the Old West was violent, Peckinpah felt it was necessary to depict it graphically in order to condemn it as a way of life. Using death in slow motion, “The Wild Bunch” was, as the critic Pauline Kael noted, “a traumatic poem of violence,” consisting of images of “great subtlety and emotional sophistication.”

The narrative offered commentary about men who had helped to build the West but time is now passing them by. It’s l9l3 and the end of the frontier era, a case of running out of space, physically and emotionally. Wanted for murder and bank robberies, the outlaws realize that the country is running out of tolerance for their way of life. “We gotta start thinkin’ beyond our guns,” says Pike, “those days are closin’ fast.”

But the film also explored the values of male camaraderie through the deep, ambiguous relationship between the leaders of the two groups, Bishop Pike and Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who are mirror protagonists. The chief message is that of group loyalty in treacherous times. “We’re gonna stick together, all of us,” Pike orders, when a youngster wants to get rid of an older member. “When you side with a man you stick with him till he’s finished, or else you’re nothing but some kind of animal. You’re finished. We’re finished. All of us!”

The tone is ambiguous, advocating nihilism and elemental heroism in the men’s ultimate commitment to their group. This portrayal also influenced the viewers’ attitude toward the outlaws: a mixture of relief and sorrow when they are killed, exhilaration and condemnation of their violent conduct, admiration and contempt for their individualism. The film is not ambiguous, however, in its commentary on the community, depicting its citizenry as passive, apathetic, foolish, and ignorant–another allusion to the apathy of the average American during the Vietnam era. It may be significant that the only active members are children, though they are seen playing, torturing, and burning scorpions and ants. Thus, violence permeates the everyday life of every member, including children, customarily viewed in American films as naive and innocent. In Peckinpah’s world, just as in Vietnam, no one could remain innocent.

The critic Michael Sragow summed up poignantly the appeal of the movie, describing it as ”a masterpiece that’s part bullet-driven ballet, part requiem for Old West friendship, and part existential explosion.”

Detailed Plot

In 1913 Texas, Pike Bishop (William Holden), the leader of a gang of aging outlaws, is about to retire after one final score: the robbery of a railroad office with its silver. They are ambushed by Pike’s former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), and a posse of bounty hunters hired and deputized by the railroad. Pike uses a union parade to shield their getaway, but many citizens are killed in the crossfire.

Pike rides off with Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), the brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the gang’s only survivors. They are dismayed when the loot from the robbery turns out to be a decoy: steel washers instead of silver coin. Reuniting with veteran Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), they head for Mexico.

Pike’s men cross the Rio Grande and take refuge in the village where Angel was born. The townsfolk are ruled by Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a corrupt general in the Mexican Federal Army who has been stealing to feed his troops. A jealous Angel spots a former lover in Mapache’s arms and shoots her dead, which angers Mapache, but Pike defuses the situation and offers to work for him. Their task is to steal a weapons shipment from a U.S. Army train so that Mapache can resupply his troops and appease Mohr (Fernando Wagner), his German military adviser, who wishes to obtain America’s armaments.

Angel gives up his share of the gold to Pike in return for sending one crate of the stolen rifles and ammunition to a band of rebels opposing Mapache. The holdup goes as planned until Deke’s posse turns up on the very train the gang has robbed. The posse chases them to the Mexican border, only to be foiled by an explosive booby trap which blows up a trestle and sends the entire posse into the Rio Grande. The posse regroups at a riverside camp and takes off again after the Bunch.

Pike and his men, knowing they risk being double-crossed by Mapache, devise a way of bringing him the stolen weapons, including old machine guns. However, Mapache learns from the mother of Angel’s former lover that Angel embezzled a crate of guns. Surrounded by Mapache’s army, Angel tries to escape but is captured and tortured, and Engstrom escapes to rejoin Pike’s gang.

Sykes is wounded by Deke’s posse while securing the  horses. The rest of Pike’s gang returns to Agua Verde for shelter, where a bacchanal celebrates the weapons transfer; they see Angel is being dragged on the ground by a rope tied behind the General’s car. After a brief frolic with prostitutes, Pike and the gang try to persuade Mapache to release Angel, but instead the general cuts his throat. Pike and the gang gun Mapache down in front of his men. Pike kills the German, too.  A violent, bloody showdown ensues, in which Pike and his men are killed, along with Mexicans and Germans.

Deke allows the posse’s remaining members to take the bullet-riddled bodies of the gang members back and collect the reward, while staying behind. Sykes arrives with a band of the Mexican rebels, who have killed off what’s left of the posse. Asked by Sykes to join the revolution, a smiling Deke rides off with them.

Oscar Context:

The film received two Academy Award nominations, for Best Original Screenplay (Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner, Sam Peckinpah) and Best Original Music Score (Jerry Fielding).

At Oscar time, another, inferior Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, won two Oscars: screenwriting to William Goldman and score to Burt Bacahrach.

Peckinpah was nominated by the Directors Guild of America (DGA) for Outstanding Direction of Feature Film.


William Holden as Pike Bishop

Ernest Borgnine as Dutch Engstrom

Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton

Edmond O’Brien as Freddie Sykes

Warren Oates as Lyle Gorch

Jaime Sanchez as Angel

Ben Johnson as Tector Gorch

Emilio Fernandez as General Mapache

Strother Martin as Coffer

Albert Dekker as Pat Harrigan

Bo Hopkins as Clarence ‘Crazy’ Lee

Jorge Russek as Major Zamorra

Rayford Barnes as Buck

Paul Harper as Ross

Bill Hart as Jess

Stephen Ferry as Sergeant McHale

Jorge Rado as Ernst

Aurora Clavel as Aurora