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EMPIRE ESSAY: The Wild Bunch Review

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Outlaws on the Mexican-U.S. frontier face the march of progress, the Mexican army and a gang of bounty hunters led by a former member while they plan a robbery of a U.S. army train. No one is innocent in this gritty tale of of desperation against changing times.

★★★★★

Few films can claim to do something that is truly original. But in the summer of 1969, while NASA was making the final preparations to put a man on the moon, Sam Peckinpah took his own small step for cinematic innovation. Exit wounds.

From the earliest days of cinema when ink-soaked pieces of rubber were fired from starting pistols, to Arthur Penn's groundbreaking Bonnie And Clyde with its explosive dance-of-death finale, numerous films had charted the destructive impact of the bullet to increasingly realistic effect. But it was Peckinpah who first showed on a cinema screen the morbid route taken by a bullet as it made its way into and out of a body. American television audiences, ironically, had already witnessed this most extreme lesson in ballistics the previous year with Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's summary execution of a Viet Cong suspect.

The Wild Bunch did much to change the popular conception of the western. With a team of world-weary outlaws led by Pike Bishop (Holden) supported by loyal lieutenant Dutch Engstrom (Borgnine) and pursued by a relentless posse, fronted by Deke Thornton (Ryan) it shares more than a passing similarity with that other western of 1969, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (Cassidy's real gang were in fact known as The Wild Bunch). Peckinpah's producer on The Wild Bunch, Phil Feldman, had read William Goldman's screenplay and urged Warners to buy it, but they baulked at the $400,000 asking price. Similar material perhaps, but diametrically different in approach, The Wild Bunch made little effort to be likable, with its heroes a group of cynical, greedy, washed-up outlaws supplying guns to the despots of a foreign country (Vietnam parallel, anyone?) before redeeming themselves in an orgiastically violent finale.

Peckinpah sought to breathe fresh life into the outlaw myth by focusing on Bishop's moral bankruptcy and redemption (an antidote to Butch Cassidy's idealised, comic take). But just as that film is now best remembered for a song and a bike ride, The Wild Bunch has gained immortality through the two enormous gun battles which bookend the drama. The opening fight, when the gang ride into the town of Starbuck to rob the railroad offices where a posse of bounty-hunting gunmen await, is notable for the utterly indiscriminate carnage which follows. A Temperance Union group (surely no coincidence given Peckinpah's lifelong love of the bottle) march into the line of fire and innocent men and women are graphically gunned down along with the outlaws. Goaded later by a journalist at a press conference as to why he hadn't shown any children being torn apart, Peckinpah replied, "Because I'm constitutionally unable to show a child in jeopardy."

What Peckinpah could show, however, was a group of children laughing as they watched a scorpion being eaten alive by ants before setting them on fire, suggesting that violence is our innate original sin. (Look in vain for the "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer). Even this unsettling opening, however, was eclipsed by the firepower of the film's climactic shoot-out in Agua Verde, filmed in a disused winery near the Mexican town of Parras, an apt setting for such an inundation of claret. Having initially allowed one of their gang, Angel, to be captured and tortured by local warlord Mapache, the gang belatedly decide to rescue and the four walk into the tyrant's stronghold.

What ensues is unprecedented cinematic slaughter, the most visceral display of carnage ever committed to film. The promotional material for The Wild Bunch boasted that it used more bullets than the real Mexican revolution. Slightly tasteless, but it had a point. An estimated 90,000 rounds of blank ammunition were employed, and when the first day of shooting wrapped the company had run out of both ammo and fake blood. During the course of the shoot, Peckinpah sacked 22 crew members, pour encourager les autres. He raged that the squibs (small explosive charges filled with fake blood to simulate a gunshot) were not sufficiently realistic and demonstrated what he wanted with live gunshots. The props department responded by filling the squibs with more of the red stuff and raw meat.

Satisfied, Peckinpah insisted that actors wore them front and back to mark the entry and egress of every bullet. Although the film was cut behind Peckinpah's back, its set-pieces (marshalled by the director, but edited by Lou Lombardo and making extensive use of slo-mo) became the template for three decades of action.

From The Godfather to Heat, the stamp of The Wild Bunch is self-evident. Italian director Carlo Carlei summed up the debt owed to the film and its director when he said, "There is a chain of inspiration like The Bible... Everything comes from Peckinpah."

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