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The Wild Bunch
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Wild Bunch is a 1969 Western directed by Sam Peckinpah, a filmmaker known for cynical and violent cinematic tableaus that underscore the worst in human nature. This film features several balletic, slow-motion massacres in which men, women, and children are killed, sometimes in close-up, with maximum use of fake blood, to a degree that may look to today's audiences like parody. The "heroes" are members of a thieving, murderous gang who drink and consort with prostitutes, and there isn't much to redeem them other than Peckinpah's nostalgic romanticization of them. A killer holds hostages at gunpoint and sticks his tongue in a female hostage's ear in an act of sexual humiliation. Killers use people as human shields against flying bullets. Language includes "bastard," "bitch," "hell," "damn," and "ass." The breast of a nursing mother is seen in close-up. A man reaches into a woman's shirt for her breast. Men smoke cigars. People drink whisky and wine and become obviously drunk. The MPAA originally considered giving the film an X rating for its extreme violence.
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What's the story?
Set in the last days of the Old West, THE WILD BUNCH opens with a hold-up of a mall town's railroad office. Five thieves, disguised as American soldiers, are ambushed by railroad-hired gunmen. A bloody gunfight ensues and the town's men, women, and children are caught in the crossfire. After, the railroad owner fumes that Pike Bishop (William Holden), ringleader of the renegade "wild bunch," has escaped with most of his gang. There's no thought given to the dead and maimed townspeople and this establishes the movie's cynical premise, that people are selfish and interested only in power, money, and sex and -- for the few individualists still left in the waning days of the Old West -- autonomy. Pike's ex-partner Deke (Robert Ryan) has been sprung from jail by the railroad to kill Pike and he may be the only person in the movie with anything that resembles a conscience. Pike and his gang hijack weapons from the American army for a group of corrupt Mexican federal army officers who are trying to put down the Mexican revolution. Soon the Americans and the railroad's bounty hunters are chasing Bishop and the gang, sending them into the den of the untrustworthy Federalis for protection. An inevitable climactic massacre bathes their dusty encampment in dark red movie blood.
Is it any good?
Watching this 145-minute movie may seem like the longest year of your life; although it was declared a masterpiece when first released, it was also critically reviled. One thing is certain: the violence is plentiful and, although less shocking today than when it came out, it will still both repel and mesmerize. Peckinpah said that he wanted audiences to feel the true horror of violence and to refute the sanitized movie clichés of the heroic Old West. But he made his point by abandoning artistic subtlety and hitting the audience over the head. The movie opens on a group of laughing children gleefully watching thousands of ants devour some unlucky scorpions. What kind of kids are these? Peckinpah's answer? "Ordinary children." The rest of the movie is his defense of that conclusion. More than two hours later, two murderous men laugh uncontrollably after surviving a massacre that killed their criminal friends, corrupt soldiers, and innocent women and children. So which of the many impulsive and violent groups here does the title reference? The sadistic children, the "wild" Federalis, or the "wild" railroad bounty hunters? Or is it the romanticized aging renegades? The term "wild" reverberates with too endearing a connotation. These groups are not "wild." They are bad to the bone.
The Wild Bunch was made soon after the release of the groundbreaking, violent Bonnie and Clyde, and at a time when news footage of the Vietnam War's carnage was broadcast into American living rooms every night. With its montages of slow-motion, closely-edited carnage, this movie elevated the ugliness of such violence into a paradoxical form of beauty, working against Peckinpah's attempt to display the true horror of violence. The overall effect raises enduring questions about whether exposure to movie and game violence fosters violence in real life. In any case, kids may be left wondering who among us are the ants and who are the scorpions.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the effect that watching artsy violence might have on viewers. Do you think The Wild Bunch's use of slow motion and bright red "blood" makes violence more horrible, or does the use of flashy cinematic technique direct the viewer away from the carnage and toward admiring the filmmakers' artistry?
The movie suggests that everyone is corrupt and violent, including children. Do you agree?
The movie was considered extremely violent when it first came out but today many movies have copied the movie's approach to violence. Do you think exposure to movie violence makes viewers less horrified when confronted with actual violence and more likely to be violent?