|In 1969 three Westerns vied for supremacy. “True Grit”, the first to be released, was a nostalgic throwback. It featured a veteran star of the saddle, John Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed lawman who comes out of retirement to help a precocious little girl (it won Wayne his only Oscar). “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, which arrived a few months later, had a more modern sensibility. Its pair of outlaws—Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the two most watchable heartthrobs of the era—were transformed into fun-loving folk heroes; it went on to become the highest-grossing film at the American box office that year. But it was “The Wild Bunch”, released 50 years ago on June 18th 1969, which blew fist-sized holes in the genre. It was the least commercially successful film of the lot, but it did the most to change the trajectory of the Western.
At the time, cowboys and gunfighters were dominating the small screen on popular shows such as “Gunsmoke”, “Bonanza”, “Rawhide” and “The Westerner” (and providing Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen with their first glimpse of fame). But on film, the Western had begun its long adios in the 1950s. “High Noon” (1950), “Shane” (1953) and “The Searchers” (1956) all charted the end of the Wild West, the arrival of civilisation and the hero’s final walk into the sunset. The Spaghetti Western briefly reinvigorated the genre with cheap, nihilistic and stylistically ambitious films, but even Sergio Leone, the maestro of the subgenre, had released the elegiac “Once Upon a Time in the West” in 1968.
The ageing outlaws of “The Wild Bunch” are likewise coming to the end of the road. “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns,” says Pike Bishop (William Holden), as “those days are closing fast.” Pike leads his gang into one last hold-up, which turns into a massacre when they are ambushed by bounty hunters. The shootout is bloody, bizarre and indiscriminate. Along with the outlaws and lawmen, women, civilians and a tuba player are blown away or trampled by horses. There are no goodies and baddies, just violent, greedy, immoral men and innocents caught in the crossfire.
Sam Peckinpah, the director, spoke of violence as “ugly, brutalising and bloody fucking awful”, but he found an aesthetic appeal in it, too. He showed blood spurting from bullet wounds in slow motion. He made use of quick cuts and cacophonous sound design to put the viewer in the middle of the horror and the excitement. The final shootout, between the four remaining members of the Bunch and a Mexican army, surpasses the first in bloody carnage, portraying an ultraviolence unseen in war films—let alone Westerns—at that time. While the movie was being shot in Mexico, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and riots had broken out from Detroit to New Jersey. The Vietnam war had entered its deadliest period for American troops. The film’s violence reflected that of its time.
Peckinpah’s outlaws are neither countercultural folk heroes like Butch and Sundance nor noble old-timers like Cogburn. Early in the film Pike utters a starkly murderous command: “If they move, kill ‘em!” He pays lip service to the code of the outlaw—“when you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished”—but he uses one of his group as a decoy to save his own skin, killing another when the man can’t ride a horse. Pike has alienated and betrayed other friends. In other words, he fails even by his own lax standards, let alone the moral sureties that had once underpinned the genre.
The three Hollywood Westerns released the following year, in 1970—“A Man Called Horse”, “Little Big Man” and “Soldier Blue”—were similarly brutal, and they also began to unpick the racist myths that underpinned the genre. Peckinpah’s movie had set a new standard for action cinema. Drink and self-destruction would take their own toll on Peckinpah’s talent, but with “The Wild Bunch” he left an indelible bloody thumbprint on the history of cinema.