The Wild Bunch  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 English language western film directed by Sam Peckinpah, in which an aging group of outlaws hope to have one final score while the West is turning into a modern society.

Originally a controversial film because of its graphic violence, The Wild Bunch is also noted for making the use of slow motion shots in mainstream motion pictures acceptable. The technique of slow motion had existed since the earliest days of film, and was often used in avant-garde and New Wave films, but in the years following The Wild Bunch, slow-motion became a common method of emphasizing action sequences in movies, especially action-adventure movies.

In 1993, Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the MPAA ratings board prior to an expected rerelease. To the studio's surprise, the originally R-rated film was given an NC-17 rating.

In 1999 the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.



The movie takes place in 1913, during the height of the Mexican Revolution. In the town of San Rafael, Texas (a fictional town named after the military academy in California Peckinpah attended as a teenager), also referred to as Starbuck, the Wild Bunch - led by Pike Bishop (Holden), and also including Dutch Engstrom (Borgnine), Lyle and Tector Gorch (Oates and Johnson), Angel (Sanchez), Buck (Rayford Barnes), and Crazy Lee (Hopkins), among others - enters the town, with half of them dressed as cavalrymen. They ride past a group of children who are torturing a pair of scorpions by putting them on a hill of red ants, an image of the violent instinct inherited from nature. The gang enters the railroad company office and holds it up, but on the roof of a hotel across the street is a ragtag posse of bounty hunters. The gang's escape is interrupted by the local temperance union, which is holding a parade in the town.

A vicious, chaotic gunfight occurs, between the gang members and bounty hunters, as well as innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire, resulting in numerous deaths. The surviving gang members arrive at a small Mexican town, where another gang member, the aged Freddie Sykes (O'Brien), is waiting with horses and saddles. The robbery was a setup by the railroad - their loot is revealed to be nothing but bags of steel washers. We also learn as the film progresses that Thornton has been given his parole in exchange for his tracking down his old colleague, Pike.

Pike and his men return to Angel's village and remain there for a day and night. There, Pike learns from the village elder, Don Jose (Chano Urueta) that the village has been attacked by General Mapache (Fernandez), a Mexican general working for the government of Victoriano Huerta. The gang then heads to Agua Verde, Mapache's headquarters, to trade their horses. As they go to visit the General, Angel sees Teresa, his girlfriend, presenting a pony to Mapache. Angel shoots her in the arms of Mapache. They are hired by Mapache and his German military advisers to steal a US arms shipment for him, which they agree to for a price of ten thousand dollars in gold - but Angel insists that they allow him to take a case of rifles to his village to protect them from Mapache. Pike and Dutch agree.

The Bunch holds up the train, but Thornton and his posse are also on board the train and pursue them to a bridge over the Rio Grande, themselves being pursued by a squad of inexperienced and poorly-trained cavalrymen. After a confusing three-way shootout, the Bunch recrosses the border into Mexico. Thornton and his men are dumped into the river when dynamite wired to the bridge explodes.

While waiting for word of the Bunch's robbery at a telegraph station, Mapache and his entourage are attacked by forces led by Pancho Villa and routed. After more setbacks, Angel is captured by Mapache's men, and Dutch simply rides off, leaving him behind. The gang regroups at a canyon outside of town, waiting for Sykes to return with their pack horses, and they argue over what to do. Pike decides to make a stand. The four gang members load up shotguns and sidearms and in the famous "long walk", march through Agua Verde to Mapache's headquarters. After demanding Angel's release again, a drunken Mapache slits Angel's throat. A vicious gunfight results as the Bunch shoots their way through Mapache's officers and takes control of the machine gun. Pike is finally killed by a Mexican boy who shoots him in the back; Dutch is gunned down rushing to his side. The film ends with a brief scene of the aftermath.


Critics of The Wild Bunch made note of the film's storyline that depicted the end of both the Wild West and era of the American cowboy. Pike himself comments on this, "We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closin' fast." The Bunch also inspects General Mapache's latest purchase, a brand new, red automobile, an invention that marked the beginning of the end for horse travel. Also, among the guns that the Bunch steals from the U.S. Army is a M1917 Browning machine gun, a weapon that allowed the shooter formidable defense against even a small army, like Mapache's. Pike himself uses an M1911 automatic pistol, an obvious break from the traditional "six-shooter" that cowboys and gunfighters had used in the Old West and in its subsequent films of the 20th Century.

The film's on screen violence was heavily criticized. Critics have often noted that it was meant as an allegory for the violence of the Vietnam War, which had been broadcast nightly on television news programs.

Peckinpah made extensive use of Spanish dialogue with no subtitles. This requires the non-Spanish speaking viewer to pay close attention to the gestures and facial expressions of the actors, and to know the plot of the movie, to get a reasonable idea of what they the characters are saying. Also, this establishes further the idea of an alternative reality, which is raw and real, and not reprocessed and dumbed-down for audience consumption.


The film is widely renowned as a depiction of old-time outlaws attempting to come to terms with the inevitable onrush of technology (and its effects on the Wild West), such as the Bunch's use of semi-automatic pistols, the machine gun, and the automobile that Mapache takes great pride in displaying.

The most prevalent theme of the film is that of betrayal. Many of the characters suffer with the knowledge that at some point, they betrayed a friend and left them to their fate:

  • Pike encounters this several times during the film; he deserts Thornton (in flashback) when the law catches up to them; he ruthlessly kills Buck when he is blinded during their escape and cannot keep up (albeit at Buck's request), and deserts both Sykes (when he is shot in the leg by the bounty hunters) and Sykes' grandson, Crazy Lee (who gets left behind at the railroad office, ostensibly to guard hostages).
  • Pike and Dutch initially attempt to abandon Angel when he is captured by Mapache. Dutch--who had been saved during the train robbery by Angel--coldly dismisses Angel as a thief and leaves him in Mapache's hands.

Paradoxically, both the Gorch brothers make initial stands to save (or at least pay respects to) Sykes, Angel and Buck; this is particularly ironic as both Sykes and Angel angered the Gorches by mocking them after the bank robbery, nearly causing the Gorches to lose their tempers and initiate a shootout.

Although the main characters are ruthless outlaws, the film's only truly unsympathetic characters that are given substantial screen time are the railroad detective Harrigan (who is portrayed as a spiteful, ill-tempered man who cares only about getting the Bunch and his commission) and the bounty hunters (who are shown to be rash and incompetent in battle, and who scavenge the bodies of the fallen outlaws for whatever goods they can find, including gold teeth). The rest of the film's major characters are given scenes that show an insight to the contrast between their ruthless natures and their more human side:

  • Pike is shown to be genuinely remorseful at both the death of his former lover, and of his abandonment of Thornton. Notably, Pike somewhat redeems himself when he finally refuses to abandon Angel, an act that seals the Bunch's fate.
  • Sykes is given a moment for the audience to sympathize with him, when he reveals that Crazy Lee was his grandson (which distresses Pike, who decided to leave Crazy Lee behind).
  • Angel is shown to care very deeply for the people of his village, in marked contrast to his callous disregard for the innocents who were killed during the railroad robbery.
  • Dutch, even after having delivered the famous sarcastic "I'd like to say a few words for the dear dead departed" speech, is shown to be pained at having left Angel behind (after Angel earlier saved his life); Dutch also adamantly claims there is a difference between the Bunch (who killed those who were in the way of their profit) and Mapache (who, as a despot, kills for the sadistic pleasure of it).
  • The Gorch brothers, in between the fighting and whoring, are shown to playfully and respectfully flirt with a girl from Angel's village (Don Jose remarks that "even the worst of us" have the desire to be childlike from time to time).
  • Thornton is obviously pained that he has to hunt his old friend, Pike (at one point, both men have a clear opportunity to shoot the other and deliberately avoid doing so).
  • Even Mapache, vividly portrayed as a particularly brutal and repulsive killer, shows a glimmer of humanity at one point: during the attack by Villa, Mapache stands out in front of his men, even as explosions take place nearby, disregarding the danger.

During this scene, Mapache's aide tells Mapache that they must leave the town and their other soldiers behind, because they have no guns or artillery to fight Pancho Villa. Mapache refuses to leave, saying, in Spanish, that the men are "nos compaƱeros, nos hermanos," "our comrades, our brothers." This is in clear contrast to Pike Bishop, a supposedly more noble person than Mapache, but who has deserted many whenever it seemed necessary.

It is only when a young boy, in a uniform similar to his, comes up and salutes Mapache that the general offers a saddened smile before advising the boy that they should fall back to safety (implying that Mapache does not want the boy to end up getting killed for trying to emulate him). A later scene showing a distraught Mapache watching his wounded men being tended to in Agua Verde reinforces this depiction of his character.


  • Hong Kong action director John Woo got his slow motion inspiration from The Wild Bunch, as Woo loved watching Westerns during his youth (Another western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is among his favorites). It should be noted however that Peckinpah's use of slow motion death scenes was influenced by the Japanese film's of Akira Kurosawa (see Seven Samurai).
  • The final gunfight in The Wild Bunch is believed to symbolize "The death of the Wild West".Template:Fact
  • Quentin Tarantino based the opening of his film Reservoir Dogs on this movie's opening bank heist / shootout.Template:Fact Also, early on in the movie From Dusk Till Dawn, written by Tarantino, George Clooney's character tells a convenience store clerk that he will turn the store "into the fucking Wild Bunch" if he doesn't get rid of a Texas Ranger using his restroom.
  • Guy Ritchie's Snatch opening sequence with the characters walking around and acting normal before they suddenly turn to violence is similar to "The Wild Bunch". Template:Fact
  • Joss Whedon included the Bunch's Gorch brothers as vampires, enemies of the heroine namesake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Additionally, Whedon cites Peckinpah in the DVD commentary as the influence on the episode "Innocence".
  • The Wild Bunch is the name of the outlaw gang in the movie My Name is Nobody.
  • Jim Reardon's infamous animated student film, Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown, explicitly parodies the final shootout and even incorporates the soundtrack from it.
  • The Bristol group Massive Attack grew from a small dj collective named "The Wild Bunch".
  • The climactic scene of John Milius's The Wind and the Lion (1975) is inspired by the final shootout; at certain points it is an almost shot-by-shot reproduction. The film also features a scene where Marc Zuber, as the Moroccan sultan, test-fires a machine gun while his colleagues leap out of the line of fire.
  • The James Bond film GoldenEye (1995) has Sean Bean's character, Alec Trevelyan, appropriates Pike's line (to a soldier holding Alan Cumming's Boris character at gun-point): "If he moves, kill him!"
  • In some countries, this movie is called "Pipe Dreams." This causes confusion, as the 1996 movie "Down Periscope" is also called "Pipe Dreams" in several countries, particularly the Middle East.
  • A banned television spot for the release of Microsoft's XBOX 360, which is appropriately titled "bang" consists of a large-scale shootout, with the guns being created by extending two fingers from a fist. The advertisement contains several allusions to the final shootout scene.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Wild Bunch" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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