Review: The Wild Bunch

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One of the challenges of reviewing the films I grew up with is trying to share what made them great in the first place while acknowledging their obvious flaws. Case in point – Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

A ground-breaking classic western film that has been praised for its brutal realism and intense action sequences. However, the film has also been criticized for its depiction of male misogyny. The portrayal of women in the film is limited and they are mostly relegated to the background as objects of sexual desire or as victims of violence. The male characters, particularly the main protagonists, are portrayed as macho and violent, with little regard for the consequences of their actions.

The film’s portrayal of women and their role in society is problematic at best. At the same time it’s an extremely well-made and thrilling film. So the challenge remains, to continue to enjoy the film for it’s obvious strengths or kick it to the curb of history?

For myself I chose to continue to enjoy it while acknowledging its negative representations of women when viewing it. The film itself is a product of it’s time and the sensibilities of the artists who created it. That’s not an excuse of course but it does show how far we have progressed since it was made.

The fact that during my viewing after so many years the misogyny was readily apparent to me didn’t ruin it but rather struck a cautionary note to take off the “nostalgia glasses” when looking at what came before and instead focus on what they mean in today’s context. In that spirit here’s my review of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

I grew up watching westerns on television and in the theater. The great American myth about it’s own past romanticized to match the morals and dreams of a post-war epitomized by John Wayne, Gary Cooper and many others. But the 50’s ended, the 60’s kicked in, turned on and dropped out. Vietnam started off nibbling at the American dream but by the end of the 60’s it was a wholesale slaughter. Enter the revisionist western to turn the world on it’s head and expose what the world as it was.

Peckinpah wrote the screenplay and directed a story of hard men at the end of their era in the world torn between a desperate struggle to survive and the moral code they follow with each other. The story follows Pike (William Holden) and the bunch as they flee from a former gang member hunting them for a bounty.

As a (very) young man what impressed me was how Peckinpah managed to create so much excitement, tension and movement through innovative camera work (he used an anamorphic camera approach). But what was so amazing to me then (and still is) was the fact that I was invested in the inevitable journey they were on towards the redemption they sought. Reviled for it’s extreme (for the day) violence I was captivated by the unearthly camera edits (Peckinpah had shot 333,000 feet of film with 1,288 camera setups.). But what he also captured was the quiet beauty and timelessness of the landscape, the only ugliness existing when man was involved. You could tell he loved the land and how it set a perspective on the character’s as they moved through it.

Sold as a traditional western it was enormously successful and represented the greatest international success of Peckinpah’s career. Peckinpah held up a mirror he found in the dust, wiped the dirt off it and showed the America it’s true face. Still relevant today.

More info & links:

  • Director: Sam Peckinpah
  • Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
  • The Wild Bunch on IMDB

Blair Campbell

Film Reviewer

Blair Campbell is a graduate of the television broadcasting program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. A long-time fan of everything film-related, he is passionate about independent films and works as a producer focused on providing support to local, independent filmmakers. Production credits include A Clean Slate, The Gift, Pot Bound, Heartless, and Claire and Joseph.  Blair is also a board member of Ottawa Festivals where he advocates for emerging film festivals in Ottawa.