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Film Summary The Wild Bunch (1969)


Film Summary The Wild Bunch (1969)


A landmark film in many respects, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was considered 
controversial not only because of its extreme, now legendary, slow-motion 
violence, but also because of the war started between the producer, Phil 
Feldman, and the director. 
Synopsis: The film is set in Texas in 1913, as progress, old age, and the onset 
of World War I are killing off the Old West and its outlaws. While children sit 
on the outskirts of the small town of San Rafael and play a game in which 
hundreds of red ants consume a scorpion, a group of men in Army uniforms rides 
by. Bank robbery The men enter the town and go to the bank. Before the clerk has 
a chance to ask what the men want, their leader, Pike Bishop (William Holden), 
pulls the man out of his chair and pushes him across the room. The rest of the 
men brandish their weapons before the patrons inside. Pike glances around to 
make sure all is secure. It is. He utters a simple, deadly command, "If they 
move—kill 'em." The "soldiers" are actually bank robbers. Dutch Engstrom (Ernest 
Borgnine), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates), Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins), and Angel (Jaime 
Sanchez) are dressed as cavalry; the rest of the gang is positioned throughout 
the town on the lookout for anything suspicious. 
Ambush Once the dozens of heavy canvas bags filled with gold have been packed 
up, the bunch prepares to leave. The men stop dead in their tracks when Angel 
observes three rifles on the rooftop across the street. Members of the gang who 
are stationed outside have noticed them as well, and it becomes apparent to all 
that they have been trapped in an ambush. Pike quickly decides to make a run for 
it and uses a Temperance Union parade for cover. As a brief diversion, Pike 
kicks the bank manager out of the building, and the man is immediately blasted 
to bits by the overzealous bounty hunters. A horrible gunfight ensues between 
the bunch and the bounty hunters—with innocent men, women, and children taking 
most of the bullets. During the battle Pike sees that one of the posse is Deke 
Thornton (Robert Ryan), an old friend. Deke raises his rifle to shoot Pike. Pike 
draws his pistol. Both men lose their nerve and aim for targets nearby, sparing 
each other's lives. 
After losing several men in the battle, Pike is able to gather his forces and 
escape. Those left of the bunch—Pike, Dutch, brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch 
(Oates and Ben Johnson), and Angel—ride to their hideout in Mexico, where the 
grizzled old desert rat Sykes (Edmond O'Brien) waits with fresh horses. When the 
men cut open the loot, they are shocked to discover that the canvas bags are 
filled with worthless metal washers. This nearly demolishes the delicate balance 
of the group, Lyle and Tector seriously questioning Pike's judgment. Realizing 
that the whole thing has been a setup by Pike's archenemy, railroad baron Pat 
Harrigan (Albert Dekker), the leader of the bunch informs his old friend Sykes 
that Deke was among the bounty hunters who participated. Sykes is surprised and 
saddened by the news—the three used to ride together—and the men decide to 
travel to Angel's village for a rest. 
Meanwhile, Deke argues with Pat about the ill-planned ambush that resulted in 
many bystanders' deaths. Bemoaning his being saddled with worthless, 
trigger-happy morons (the sleazy bounty hunters are picking over the corpses 
like vultures), Deke demands better men. Pat, relishing the power he holds over 
Deke (he got Deke out of prison to help track Pike), gleefully informs the man 
that he must make do with what he has. He then announces that if any of them 
tries to get away (a not-so-veiled reference to Deke), he'll pay a bounty to the 
man who kills the escapee. With that, the bounty hunters take off after the 
bunch. Respectful citizens In Angel's village, Pike's gang is afforded wary 
respect by the locals. The village elder Don Jose (Chano Urueta) tells the group 
that Mexico is in the throes of a civil war. A ruthless army general, Mapache 
(Emilio Fernandez), has recently invaded the village, killed all the young men, 
and made off with Angel's not-unwilling girlfriend. Angel wants to ride off and 
bring back the girl, but Pike forbids it. Having gained the respect of the 
people (who see the men as saviors who will deliver them from the hands of 
Mapache), the wild bunch, unaccustomed to such adulation, rides out of the 
village.
Tthe bunch decides to visit Mapache's compound, knowing that the bounty hunters 
won't dare follow. Suddenly a horn sounds, and the startled outlaws turn to see 
a bright red automobile carrying the general through the gate. Most of the men 
have never seen a car and are both scared and fascinated by it. By chance, Angel 
sees his girlfriend happily presenting a pony to Mapache. Overcome with rage, 
the impetuous Angel shoots his beloved while she is in the arms of Mapache. This 
sudden outburst of violence startles everyone, and the outlaws immediately raise 
their hands to avoid annihilation by Mapache's troops. The trick works, and the 
men are spared, although Angel is taken away and beaten. Gun robbery Mapache, 
who is being manipulated by a pair of German advisors, asks the bunch inside for 
a drink. There the Germans propose that the bunch rob a U.S. Army shipment of 
guns for the general. Once the price has been agreed upon and Angel has been 
returned to them, the bunch rides off to execute the robbery. The train robbery 
goes off without a hitch until Deke, his men, and a trainload of incompetent 
cavalry soldiers enter the fray. Anticipating just such an eventuality, Pike has 
laced the main bridge across the Rio Grande with a ton of dynamite, so Deke and 
his men are blown into the river. 
The haul, which includes a machine gun, is tremendous—and Pike agrees to let 
Angel take a few cases of rifles for his people back in the village. Eventually 
word of this deception leaks out; and when Angel and Dutch ride into the 
general's fortress to collect their share of the loot, Mapache has the young 
Mexican captured and tortured. Obviously outnumbered, Dutch feigns ignorance of 
the "thievery" and rides back to the bunch, where he pleads with the gang to 
rescue the boy. Pike rejects the idea, but he changes his mind when he sees that 
Deke and his men are hot on their trail—and have shot and seriously wounded 
Sykes. 
Back at Mapache's stronghold a wild celebration over the guns is taking place. 
When they arrive, the remaining members of the bunch—Pike, Dutch, Lyle, and 
Tector—are greeted by the sick sight of Angel being dragged around in the dirt, 
tied to the back of Mapache's car. Swallowing the urge to shoot it out, the men 
accept the general's invitation to join the party, and they all seek solace in 
the company of whores save Dutch, who waits outside. Turning point Disgusted 
with himself, his life, and the recent turn of events, Pike decides to get it 
over with. He enters another part of the whorehouse, where Lyle and Tector are 
dickering with a prostitute over price. Pike looks Lyle right in the eye with a 
steely determination and says, "Let's go." Lyle looks first at his brother and 
then at Pike, and responds gamely, "Why not?" The men gather their gear and meet 
Dutch outside. Gratified that a courageous decision has been reached, Dutch arms 
himself to the teeth. The four men, laden with every gun they can carry, march 
across town to where Mapache is holding court, the new machine gun proudly 
displayed on a table.
The drunken soldiers demand to know what the four want. Pike calmly states that 
they want the return of Angel. Mapache smiles and agrees. He walks a near-dead 
Angel over to the men, cuts the bonds that tie his arms, and then sadistically 
slits the boy's throat. Pike immediately pulls his pistol and shoots Mapache, as 
does Dutch. 
The drunken troops stagger to their feet and reach for their weapons, but the 
bunch has actually managed to get the drop on hundreds of men. The silent 
standoff is almost painful. As the men whirl around, expecting an attack, not a 
soldier moves. Tector and Dutch laugh at the thought that they may actually get 
away. Dutch smiles encouragingly at Pike, as if trying to convince his partner 
that they have won. Pike knows better. It is time to die. Last gun battle 
Choosing one of the German advisors as his next target, Pike takes deliberate 
aim and kills the man. This time all hell breaks loose, and the fortress erupts 
into an orgy of violence. The bunch eventually takes control of the machine gun, 
with which hundreds of Mapache's troops are slaughtered. After a long and brutal 
fight, the members of the gang begin to succumb—first Lyle and Tector and then 
Pike, shot in the back by a child who can barely carry his gun. Dutch stumbles 
to his friend's aid, but it is too late. He too is gunned down, and the men die 
side by side, Pike's hand still clutching the trigger of the machine gun. Bounty 
hunters' rewards With Mapache's troops wiped out, Deke and his bounty hunters 
ride into town. The men pick over the bodies with glee, but Deke looks sadly at 
the corpse of his fallen friend, seemingly in regret that he has not gone down 
the same way rather than sell out to the railroad. While his men are grabbing 
rifles and boots, Deke claims one trophy for himself, Pike's pistol. Hours 
later, with the remnants of the town leaving with what they can carry, Deke 
tells his men he does not intend to return to the States with them. They shrug 
it off and ride into the distance, the bodies of the wild bunch slung face down 
over their saddles. 
Deke sits alone, as the wind blows dust around him. In the distance a brief 
gunfight is heard, and Deke smiles in the knowledge that the bounty hunters 
haven't gotten very far. Moments later Sykes, the elder from Angel's village, 
and a few other men armed with the guns Pike gave them ride up. Sykes tells 
Deke, "Me and the boys here got a job to do. Wanna come along? It ain't like it 
used to be, but it'll do." Deke chuckles, mounts his horse, and rides off with 
Sykes and his men. 
Critique: Hatchet cutting job As with the majority of Peckinpah's work, the 
studios and producers hacked the film apart to suit their needs (to cut its 
length, to eliminate controversy, to prove their power over the ever-difficult 
Peckinpah) and distributed a film vastly different from the one the director had 
originally envisioned. The hatchet job on the film occurred while Peckinpah was 
on vacation in Hawaii, after his film had been shown uncut to reviewers on the 
East Coast. (Critic Vincent Canby expressed dismay when he went to see the film 
again and discovered scenes missing, but his protests were dismissed by Phil 
Feldman—who, in a stunning piece of logic, declared that if the critic had not 
seen the missing scenes originally, he wouldn't have missed them). Adverse 
reaction to the film did not spur Feldman to make the cuts (all the trimmed 
scenes contained important motivational information vital to the portrayals of 
the main characters, especially Willam Holden's, and none were particularly 
violent). They were made mainly to bring the film's running time down to two 
hours so that theater owners would be able to cram in another show and sell more 
popcorn. Leader's self-doubts 
Although The Wild Bunch is an incredibly violent film, it is also an honest one. 
Peckinpah's characters are bad, brutal men, and no effort is made to soften 
their crimes. What separates them from the bounty hunters, Pat, the railroad 
man, and "civilized" society is their sense of honor and commitment to 
themselves. Pike's character is not just a mindless killer; he is an insecure 
man, saddled with a mighty reputation but wracked with doubt and self-loathing. 
Pike is getting old and making ill-advised, thoughtless decisions that 
jeopardize the lives of those he is closest to. It is here that the mindless 
cuts by producer Feldman hurt the film most. Nearly every scene excised deals 
with Pike's guilt over his leadership (and all have finally been restored to the 
film in a new videotape release). The first scene details how Pike's 
overconfidence resulted in Robert Ryan's being captured by the law. While Deke 
is hauled off to jail, it is Pike who escapes. The second scene is a brief 
exchange in which Sykes reveals that Cracy Lee (whom Pike had forgotten about 
and left to die in the opening massacre) was Sykes' grandson. The old man asks 
whether the boy served the bunch well, and a nervous Pike says that the kid did 
"just fine." The third restored scene shows the origin of Pike's painful leg 
wound. When he was younger, Pike had an affair with a married woman whose 
husband had left her. Pike loved the woman, but his thoughtless disappearances 
put a strain on the relationship. One night the woman's husband returned to find 
the two together, killed the woman, and wounded Pike. Pike was unable to shoot 
back, and the man escaped with his life. Leader's motivation excised
These scenes are essential to explain Pike's motivation and subsequent actions. 
Pike feels that he has destroyed everything good in his life (his friendship 
with Deke, the love of a woman—and ultimately her life). The fiasco at San 
Rafael (where he thoughtlessly left one of his men behind) tends to confirm his 
negative view of himself. By accepting Mapache's assignment, Pike takes his one 
last chance to redeem himself in his own eyes and those of his men. The train 
robbery goes off beautifully, but once again bad decisions cause the deaths of 
people close to him (Angel's capture and torture, Sykes' apparently fatal 
wound). As the film reaches its climax, Pike has finally decided that the only 
way to redeem himself is to live up to his pronouncements on solidarity and 
friendship and to sacrifice his life for an honorable cause—he has been dead 
inside for years anyway. 
The rest of the bunch senses its obsolescence in the brave new world of 
automobiles, machine guns, and airplanes, so they willingly join the final 
battle. Without these flashbacks showing the events that have brought Pike to 
this place, his character is a meaningless monster, hell-bent on destruction. 
His willingness to sacrifice his life rather than escape makes no sense without 
the explanation that the cut sequences provide. Cuts create misperception Other 
cuts by Feldman contributed to the perception that the film was made up of 
disgusting characters and mindless violence. Two important scenes that shed 
light on the Mapache character were also excised. The first is a large battle 
scene (with little blood) showing the general and his troops besieged by Pancho 
Villa at a train station while awaiting word that Pike and his men have obtained 
the guns. Standing on the train tracks while his men are dying around him, a 
nervous Mapache suppresses his urge to flee, for the sake of a young boy who 
admires him. So as not to shatter the boy's illusions, Mapache stands his ground 
and bravely salutes the little soldier, and together they slowly march to the 
safety of the train.
The second scene shows a brief aftermath to the battle with Villa, where a 
concerned Mapache watches intently as the wounds of his soldiers are tended to. 
One of his men says, "With the new guns this wouldn't have happened." Both of 
these scenes present Mapache as more than a cruel, heartless opportunist. He is 
vicious and brutal but only to those who threaten his people. The general is 
shown to have a genuine concern for his men and their families; without this he 
seems a drunken buffoon unworthy of pity, respect, or understanding. Missing 
human side Although Feldman's other cut is fairly minor, a bit of dancing by the 
bunch in Angel's village, this too shows a more human side of the characters, 
which is missing from the butchered version. Peckinpah never softens his 
perspective on these men—they are killers and thieves—but he also shows their 
human side. Their desires are often indefensible, their judgements are 
frequently unwise, but the men have human and sometimes humane qualities too.