Cinema’s Greatest Scenes: #1 The Wild Bunch
Every Friday I’m going to be highlighting and analysing some of cinema’s greatest scenes, or sequences depending on your definition. Some will be familiar, etched indelibly into the iconography of cinema, while others will be obscurer moments worthy of wider circulation and attention. To start this new weekly series off I’ve chosen an action packed start with Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 revisionist Western The Wild Bunch…
* Spoilers Ahead *
The Film: The Wild Bunch (1969)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
The Background: We find gang leader Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his ageing band of outlaws attempting to rescue their friend Angel (Jaime Sánchez) from the despotic Mexican General Mapache (Emilio Fernández). When Mapache reneges on his promise to release Angel, ‘The Wild Bunch’ are forced to administer their own brand of justice.
The Scene: Upon seeing Angel garrotted by Mapache, Bishop fires the first shot in anger leading to one of cinema’s most spectacular and infamous shootouts.
What Makes it Great?
Director Peckinpah can scarcely be mentioned without reference to his indulgence for on-screen violence. Such was his reputation for gratuitous action he, somewhat unfairly, garnered the sinister nickname ‘Bloody Sam’. The finale of The Wild Bunch, his most revered work, cemented his gory moniker.
The four minute long sequence, featuring a mammoth 112 deaths, is an intense combination of fast edits, bloody splatters, slow motion deaths and an almost infinite looping of gun shots. While the scene emphatically underlines the film’s themes of comradery, honour and the brutality of life on the frontier, it essentially laid out the template for modern day action sequence. Peckinpah’s distinct style has been plundered and reimagined endless times from Quentin Tarantino, via Steven Segal, all the way to the Marvel blockbusters. While The Wild Bunch’s finale can seem fairly ordinary these days, back in the late 1960s it was ground-breaking territory. Hot on the heels of Bonnie and Clyde (1966), the film that ushered in the New Hollywood era, The Wild Bunch presented violence as unflinchingly graphic. If Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho was the cleverest example of fooling the senses, and censors, then The Wild Bunch’s shootout merely blasted through subtlety with a hail of bullets and disregard.
In a 1972 interview with Playboy, Peckinpah explained his thoughts on violence; “The point is that the violence in us, in all of us, has to be expressed constructively or it will sink us. I’m a great believer in catharsis. Do you think people watch the Super Bowl because they think football is a beautiful sport? Bullshit! They’re committing violence vicariously.” Rather than simply amount to vapid revelling in the excess of violence, The Wild Bunch’s shootout is sadistically therapeutic. The intense carnage of the shootout, via the emphatic slow motion, is so spectacular and overwhelming it’s almost blissful in its execution – all the more so once the anachronistic Browning M1917 machine gun enters the fray.
You can see Peckinpah’s cathartic influence spread to the vicarious pleasures of video games, bloodthirsty news coverage and You’ve Been Framed style suffering. All these ubiquitous mediums allow us to express our repressed feelings of primal aggression without actually endangering ourselves or others. Perhaps violence has seeped so deeply into modern society it’s become blasé and meaningless. When our cravings for violence are no longer satisfied by moving images, what then? Panic on the streets of London? I’d direct you to JG Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise for the answer.
Our modern obsession with cinematic violence harkens back to The Wild Bunch’s spectacularly bloody ending. If nothing else, the finale is a technical masterpiece in innovating filmmaking techniques of the times. Until Peckinpah, mass murder had never been quite so stunning and satisfying on film.