In every sense of the word Sam Peckinpah was a true maverick. He created a trove of films mirroring the turbulent and violent society he knew to exist, reflecting his own sense of beliefs, codes, and ethics as an outcast, both in Hollywood and personal life. The stigma created behind the violence in his films was the focus of many criticisms when addressing his work, when in actuality the gruesome nature of his films was appropriate, punctuating the divisiveness and descent happening in America. Greed, power, corruption, and nihilism. A large part of his stories were about outsiders – fallible, and broken men attempting to redeem themselves amidst these obstacles, not only fighting bloody battles but fighting emotional battles as well.
Peckinpah had already received accolades, rising to the top in television with the success of The Westerner. He broke out as a formidable force with the film, Ride The High Country. After the success of such a small budget western as High Country, Peckinpah was given the opportunity to direct his first big budget feature , Major Dundee with Charlton Heston. Dundee was considered a flop, and Peckinpah’s career was almost over before it really began. During this period Peckinpah went through a lot of changes mentally and emotionally. Given his rebellious nature and his disgruntled disposition with society and the studio system at large, he was ready to make a new kind of western. What came from that was The Wild Bunch.
Disillusioned by his feelings of how unrealistic the American Western had become, he set out to make a film that would separate itself from the pack. The Wild Bunch would turn the film making world on its head, completely changing the genre, and influence generations to come.
The Wild Bunch illustrates the true dichotomy of its characters and their relationship to the cruelty, violence, and social unrest of that period in the 20th century. John Wayne’s persona as the tough, stoic, individualist was already established as the western archetype. At the time of The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah wanted to relate more of a complex outlook on the American western by exploring the psychological dynamic of that archetype, not glorifying, not vilifying, but honestly portraying these characters and how that environment dictated their behaviors. He illustrates the the duality of man, Who these characters truly are behind their rough exterior. Addressing moral ambiguity and what semblance of conscience leads each man to their motives and decisions. Even among these characters who are supposed bad men, there is no black or white. They respect one another, giving their allegiance to whom they ride with. It’s classic honor amongst thieves. At the heart of The Wild Bunch, I believe what Peckinpah emphasizes as the most valuable, more valuable than any treasure the characters pursue, is friendship. Their bond as a group is what carries them throughout. William Holden’s character , Pike, puts it best “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!”