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The Wild Bunch (1969)

Director and co-writer Sam Peckinpah dragged the Western into the era of Vietnam and political protest with his revisionist view of an outlaw band looking to make one last score. It wasn’t just that he transformed violence from occasional garnish on a tale of action and heroism into an essential part of the world depicted on screen, or that he photographed it with unprecedented realism. The Wild Bunch also dismantles many of the noble fantasies about the American West and, with it, America’s past and present.

William Holden stars as Pike Bishop, head of a group of aging outlaws whose last job is scotched by bounty hunters headed by former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). These aren’t the heroic outlaws of past films. They’ll gladly use innocent bystanders as shields and sacrifice hostages to ensure their own well-being. Pike and his surviving comrades escape to Mexico, where they’re caught between innocent villagers and a corrupt general out to squash the rebellion headed by Pancho Villa.

Peckinpah had been pursuing a more realistic approach to the Western for years, most notably in his 1960 TV series The Westerner, starring Brian Keith, and the 1962 feature Ride the High Country. When stunt man Roy Sickner approached him with the idea for The Wild Bunch, he saw the chance to carry his vision to its ultimate expression. He emphasized the violence in gun battles by showing blood spatter from bullet wounds, double-printing shots or showing them from multiple angles in succession, and even using slow motion to extend the sequences. And he worked with screenwriter Walon Green to show the less-than-heroic actions of his characters, a reflection of the real brutality of life in the American West. With all that, many critics described the film as beautiful—but they also pointed out the parallels between its tale of a dying West and America’s political situation.

d. Sam Peckinpah, 145 minutes, 70mm

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics and Park Circus LLC