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Sam Peckinpah

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The Wild Bunch (1969) is director/co-writer Sam Peckinpah’s provocative, brilliant yet controversial Western, shocking for its graphic and elevated portrayal of violence and savagely explicit carnage, yet hailed for its truly realistic and reinterpreted vision of the dying West in the early 20th century. Peckinpah had earlier directed another classic western about the West’s passing, Ride the High Country (1962) and the epic western film Major Dundee (1965). Many of the film’s major stars, including William Holden, Edmond O’Brien, Robert Ryan and Ben Johnson, were veterans of westerns with a more romantic view of the West in the 40s and 50s. This hard-edged, landmark masterpiece of the Western film genre was beautifully shot in widescreen by cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Its unrelenting, bleak tale tells of aging, scroungy outlaws (the ‘wild bunch’) bound by a private code of honor, camaraderie and friendship, but they find that they are at odds with the society of 1913. The lone band of men led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) have come to the end of the line and no longer are living under the same rules in the Old West. They are relentlessly being stalked by bounty hunters, one of whom is Pike’s former friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who would rather side with the outlaws if it weren’t for the threat of being sent back to Yuma Prison. [The outlaws represent an unidealized version of the ‘western’ Japanese samurai warriors in Akira Kurosawa’s epic The Seven Samurai (1954) - a film that Peckinpah used as a model. The antiheroic ‘bunch’ also represents contemporary American soldiers in the late 60s, out of place in the jungles of Vietnam.] The much imitated, influential film is book ended by two extraordinary sequences, both massacres. The gang of desperadoes are first assaulted in the film’s opening ambush following a failed bank robbery in a Texas border town, and then brutally destroyed in the film’s conclusion – as united comrades in a selfless, redemptive act – by a savage and vindictive Mexican warlord after a double-crossing arms deal. The two scenes include some of the bloodiest, most violent shoot-ups ever filmed. Peckinpah choreographed each of the film’s two bloodbaths as a visually prolonged, beautiful ballet – a slow motion, aesthetically breathtaking, nongratuitous, lyrical, extreme celebration of bodies being torn apart by bullets. The film’s lasting influence has been seen in the imitative graphic violence of the films of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and others.

 

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