A review requested by Scott D, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I say this as someone born 12 years later, but it's probably not possible for anyone who wasn't around in 1969 to genuinely grasp the enormity of The Wild Bunch upon its initial release. We can bone up on the state of the Western and Hollywood filmmaking generally prior to that, and appreciate what a massive gap there is between that tradition and this film, but we can't truly appreciate what an unprecedented step forward it was. Thanks in great part to this very film, the "Death of the Wild West" genre sprouted up all over the 1970s up to the point where most Westerns made in the last 45 years explicitly or implicitly make that their subject, so we can't be quite as amazed by this film's angry and full-blooded commitment to what was, at the time, a fairly unexplored time period; screen violence has gone beyond even the maddest excesses of director Sam Peckinpah's blood-soaked career.

And yet, even as a spectacular victim of its own success, The Wild Bunch retains a primitive, raw, vulgarly masculine power that leaves it powerful in all the right ways, and surprisingly un-dated. But then, that's not necessarily a coincidence. One of the most important developments in the history of American film was the abandonment, in 1968, of the old Production Code in favor of the MPAA rating system. It was the end point of an evolution that stretched from Otto Preminger provocatively stuffing that filthy word "virgin" into" 1953's The Moon Is Blue, through Alfred Hitchcock's structurally audacious murder of Janet Leigh in a show in 1960's Psycho, up to the storm of bullets that closed Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. In the wake of that film, the MPAA basically gave up and conceded that adults would make films for other adults no matter what the censors had to say about it. Exactly where we set the line that divides "modern cinema" from "classic cinema", assuming we want to be that arbitrary, is debatable, but the first wave of films to fully take advantage of this previously unimaginable freedom in 1969 are fully and truly Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. And The Wild Bunch was not merely part of this wave, it was arguably at the vanguard of it; it was the sacred avatar of Movie Violence, even as Midnight Cowboy, released in the same summer, was the avatar of Movie Sex.

That is to say, we have in The Wild Bunch the film that taught the American film industry how to depict violence. And oh! oh! the skill and intensity and creativity of that violence cannot possibly be overstated. It is as bold and radical an expansion of the climax of Bonnie and Clyde as that film was from a Three Stooges skit. Gunshots bellow on the soundtrack with confusing, hectic rage; editor Lou Lombardo dashes from shot to shot in some of the most feverish editing that had been seen anywhere in the world up to that point, cutting between images with no clear intention, passing by exploding squibs so quickly that all we can register is the bluntness of the red, barely allowing us to get a sense of which characters are where. The film practically opens with one such scene, and it effectively closes with another; the second is still a jaw-dropping sequence even generations later, going on for what seems like an eternity of noise and visual chaos and death. In later years, as the film became a lightning rod for controversy, Peckinpah clarified that he'd intended for the sheer volume and intensity of the violence to be a disorienting turn-off, his way of re-acquainting an audience that watched Vietnam on the nightly news with the fleshy, bloody hell of gunshots and killing; he also conceded that he plainly had failed in that goal, given the widespread adoration of the action in The Wild Bunch as exhilarating by those who loved it, and condemnation as exploitative by those who didn't. But this is, I think, an example of the audience failing the film and not the other way around - the way that the gun battles are slashed together, with the fury of a whirlwind and an angry focus on explosive moments of death and suffering, is nothing so much as the film itself twisting and writing, trying to rip itself into pieces before our eyes. Obviously it is possible to find all of this exciting: people have been since 1969. But for myself, I can only find it hellish and brutal.

Those are the two best adjectives to describe the bulk of The Wild Bunch, which notwithstanding its reputation as the movie with the violence, is mostly a character study of an old gunslinger, Pike Bishop (William Holden), the gang he's working with on the One Last Job they pick up while hiding out in Mexico, and his former partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), hired by the railroads to track Pike's wild bunch down and bring them back. Preferably dead. Antiheroes being the hot new thing in 1969, it's not surprising that Pike is a rather bleak and nasty fellow, without even the charisma that Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway brought to Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker; Holden was more than capable of playing a vicious bastard when he had to; it was maybe even what he was best at, going as far back as his coming-out year in 1950, with the sardonic asshole he played in Sunset Blvd. registering far more deeply than his charming newspaperman in Born Yesterday. Here in The Wild Bunch, he barks and snaps, fixing his leathery face in a perpetual grimace - when he laughs giddily in one scene, it's stunning and almost grotesque, even in its warmth - and asks for none of our sympathy. He even rejects it, perhaps, when he takes glee in musing about how money is more important than family, or when he treats the usual Western topics of being true to your word and having dignity as a man by shouting the words out in a bullying rage.

There are other great performances in the film that persuasively argue that it's an indictment of the era whose death it depicts, and nervous condemnation of the kind of men who drove it; Ernest Borgnine, as Pike's second-in-command Dutch Engstrom, seems congenitally incapable of wearing a non-threatening expression for virtually all of the film. But Holden is the film's heart; its flinty, curdled, black heart. He is our Great Western Hero, with a fixed moral code and a thousand-yard stare of haunted nobility, and no matter how clearly Peckinpah prefers his killers to have a strong sense of duty, instead of the randomly violent gangs that implicitly take over (the film begins with children in an act of capricious, needless cruelty - animals were harmed in the making of this movie - and that sense that the Old West is giving way to a generation given to more barbarism, not less, echoes over the whole thing); no matter how much depth and nuance is granted to Pike and Deke in the flashback scenes that were cut after the film's premiere and not restored until 2002; through it all, Peckinpah remains clear-eyed about the basic brutality of his protagonists and the lives they lead. He sympathises with them as men without forgiving them their sins.

The overriding sense of The Wild Bunch is not, however, nihilism; nor moral outrage. It is a sense of profound weariness. The longueurs between action, the drooping faces of the cast, the sand-blasted color palette in Lucien Ballard's cinematography, all of these contribute to that sense. This is a film about something old and exhausted collapsing and passing away, presented objectively and without sentiment in either direction. Some Westerns eulogise this passing as a sorry loss of a braver and more manly sensibility; some sweep away the old order as the savagery that had to be abandoned if civilisation was to take over. The Wild Bunch does neither: it bluntly supposes that the violent nature of men continues to perpetuate itself, even as one generation's particular form of violence gives way to the next. It's not a comforting film in the least, nor is it hopeful. But it reflects a society that hadn't all that much reason to hope, and it does so with a potency that still hits hard almost a half-century later.