The Wild Bunch: Violence Sam Peckinpah Hoped Would Repulse Us

Entertainment | June 30, 2019

Left: Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch, 1969. Right: William Holden. Sources: (Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images, IMDB)

In 1968, director Sam Peckinpah set out for Mexico with a cast and crew to film The Wild Bunch. At the time, his back was against the wall. His most recent films had failed to connect with audiences, and his reputation as a difficult director was growing -- he had been fired from The Cincinnati Kid after a few days of production. The Wild Bunch wasn’t just Peckinpah’s attempt to make a hit, he wanted to make a point about America’s comfortability with violence.

In the late ‘60s, footage from the Vietnam War was streaming into homes on the nightly news. Meanwhile, westerns like the John Wayne movie The War Wagon were offering bloodless shootouts. Peckinpah saw both of these things as symptoms of the desensitization of the American public. With The Wild Bunch, he hoped to shock moviegoers and cure them of their need for violence -- cure by overdose. He failed at this goal, but along the way, he made one of the most important films of the 20th century. 

Peckinpah Escaped To Mexico To Make The Last Western

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, Peckinpah escaped from the prying eyes of the Hollywood studio system and absconded to Mexico with his cast and crew to make a film about aging outlaws searching for one last score in the final days of the old west. Peckinpah sought to stick the audience directly inside the violence of lawless vigilantism. 

People are sweaty, they cough, and everyone needs a shave. You can practically smell the old west while watching the film. The Wild Bunch is a love letter to early westerns and a farewell to them at the same time. Gone are the battles without implications and the outlaws who ride off into the sunset. While making the film Peckinpah wanted to make it clear that the outlaw way of life had its costs. 

Gallons Of Fake Blood Were Used In The Film

Source: (Warner Bros.)

To capture the gruesome bloodshed of the old west, Peckinpah and his crew engineered some of the best looking visual effects of the day. Rather than simply show a cowboy fall down after a gunshot or paint his shirt red, the actors were fitted with exit wounds, the cameras held on limbs as they exploded on contact.

In order to achieve the realism that Peckinpah desired, the crew used hundreds of squibs and thousands of rounds of blank ammunition. The director was so invested in getting things to look how he wanted, he helped apply much of the stage blood himself. Many of the crew members were nauseated by the realism they achieved in the film, something that Peckinpah hoped would translate to the audience. 

The Action Scenes Were Painstakingly Filmed

Source: (Warner Bros.)

In order to capture the multi-angled and hectic action sequences such as the film’s opening and its climactic battle, Peckinpah used the cutting edge technique of filming with multiple cameras to capture as much of the scene as possible in order to keep from resetting. According to wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson, even though the multi-cam set up helped cut down on the amount of takes Peckinpah used, it still took weeks to film these massive scenes. He explained:

[There were] five or six cameras side by side, shooting the whole master shot, with various lenses, but shooting the whole thing. And moving the entire setup five feet. And then shooting it all again. And then moving it five feet, and shooting it all again…

All the blood hits on the wall had to be cleaned up every time. All those people who just ran in and got shot, now we’re going to shoot it again, and they’re going to get shot again. They’ve got to come back in, in clean clothes. I don’t know. It was like five or six days this way. And then they say, ‘OK, boys, turn it around, we’re going back the other way.’

The Editing Of The Movie Changed The Way Films Were Made 

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Influenced equally by the French New Wave’s rhythmic editing style, and the chopped up news footage that was coming back from Vietnam, Peckinpah sought to infuse The Wild Bunch with a hectic pace that both kept the action of the film streamlined while allowing the viewer to draw connections between the characters and their actions on screen.

During the shootouts in the film, Peckinpah and his editors often cut to women and children in the vicinity in order to illustrate that innocence is fleeting in such a violent era. There are also the extreme close-ups on bullet wounds as if to force the audience to think about why they enjoy these kinds of films.

Oscar-nominated film editor Paul Seydor explains:

Any discussion of The Wild Bunch implicitly acknowledges the editing by Lou Lombardo and Robert Wolfe, so integral is it to the style, meaning, and effect of the film. Still, one should at least observe that the art and craft of film editing know no higher peaks than The Wild Bunch, and very, very few that are anywhere near its summit.

Peckinpah Wanted To Present Violence As Realistic And Shocking, Not Cinematic

Source: (Warner Bros.)

With The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah really thought that he’d stripped all the romanticism out of the western. Gone were the cowboys who always got the girl, there were no more white or black hats, and when characters were shot they bled out onscreen in gruesome fashion. By covering the actors in gore he thought that there was no way the audience would enjoy what they were seeing.

Actor Ernest Borgnine reportedly broke down on the set because the violence was realistic and it reminded him of his time serving in Europe during World War II. Rather than turn off audiences from violence, The Wild Bunch increased their appetite and created a new visual language for violence in film.

Peckinpah later explained the violence in The Wild Bunch as something that impossible to detach oneself, that it’s something audiences either love or hate:

We wanted to show violence in real terms. Dying is not fun and games. Movies make it look so detached. With The Wild Bunch, people get involved whether they like it or not. They do not have the mild reactions to it.

Test Audiences Weren’t Wild About 'The Wild Bunch'

Lef: Sem Peckinpah with William Holden. Right: William Holden. Source: IMDB

When The Wild Bunch was shown to test audiences it didn’t receive the same rapturous response that it does now. While audiences liked the movie enough to allow it to go into theaters there were some people who couldn’t fathom how a movie so brutal could be made. One comment card from a screening read, “This movie was TOO DAMNED BLOODY,” while another missed the point entirely. It read, “No story, just gore, filthy, repulsive = blood, blood, blood!”

Certain members of the audiences hated the film in ways that Peckinpah didn’t expect, but what better way to signal the dawn of a new era of the western by making a movie that’s too damned bloody?

Peckinpah Thought The Violence Would Shock The Audience. He Was Right And Wrong

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Even though The Wild Bunch is a true cinematic achievement, Sam Peckinpah felt he failed to accurately get his point across. The central idea behind the film was to shock audiences and purge them of their need to see onscreen violence. He wanted to show human violence with realistic stakes, and he did that but he also had an endearing cast of characters that appealed to the outlaw spirit of Americans.

Long after the release of The Wild Bunch Peckinpah explained his failure as a complete misreading of the audience:

I made The Wild Bunch because I still believed in the Greek theory of catharsis. I was wrong… 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Sam Peckinpah | The Wild Bunch | Westerns | William Holden

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.