Sam Peckinpah fascinates me to no end. In 2006, about a year from finishing college, I stumbled upon a Facebook group called "I know more about movies than anyone I've ever met." It was full of the most pompous jerk off film snobs imaginable filling the group's message boards with cult obscurity my little 22-year-old brain could even possibly fathom. And they all seemed to be watching this movie called Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film I would immediately seek out and then instantly forget. I was into Bob Dylan at the time and working through some heavy 70s stuff anyway, so I thought why not try Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid while I'm at it. See where "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" came from. Same director. Same result.
Peckinpah seems like a classic sort of dirtbag wild man to me. I don't know him. I've hardly seen a picture of him, and I've never heard him speak. Heard he was into the booze and blow and didn't get along with the studio suits too well. He has been dead for years. Ahead of his time. He seems to have only made neo-Westerns or action flicks with dirtbags for characters, who do vile, violent dirtbag things within worlds filled with dirtbags. I guess the popular term would be that Peckinpah's films are "nihilistic." Some my even argue for the guy and say that they are about "characters trying to survive in a nihilistic world." I'm more on the former side of things. They're just nihilistic, and I just don't get much out of Peckinpah's films, certainly nothing intelligent or thought-provoking sticks out, but I can't say they're bad. (As of yesterday morning, I'd only seen the two unmemorable ones mentioned above.) But I can say with certainty that all three of his films I've now seen have two things going for them: They're cool as shit, and they changed cinema.
The Wild Bunch as a narrative doesn't add much to anything. I wasn't that compelled by it. It's about aged outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden), a man simply looking to hang on to his lifestyle in any way he can. The Wild West is being tamed hear in the early 1900s and the railroad tycoons' pockets are surely deep enough to never even consider backing down. As the film opens, one such tycoon has hired Bishop's former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), to hunt him and his crew down for an only decent bounty. Of course old Thornton was once spurned by Bishop, which gives him reason enough to agree to the hunt.
The one thing I noticed above all the violence though is the sharp sense of humor in this film. It's a dark comedy as much as it is an action picture or a Western or whatever it actually is. I laughed a lot, the same type of laughter that comes from something from, well, Tarantino, for lack of another example. The humor both mixes with and derives itself from the sheer nature of the excessive violence. (See Image 3.)
The Wild Bunch famously closes with a deadly shootout, a bloodbath. It opens with one too, which may be the most jarring thing about the film for its initial audience in 1969. This is what gets talked about most, it seems with this film over the years. Both sequences are brilliantly conceived and executed, making the overlong runtime fully worth it. All the details have been alluded to, so I won't go into it again. There is just top-notch, unique filmmaking happening here that echoes so loudly it the films I came to love growing up a generation and a half after it.