One of the greatest Westerns ever also birthed the John Woo shoot-’em-up

One of the greatest Westerns ever also birthed the John Woo shoot-’em-up

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

In the decades before Bullitt, before modern action movies grew into something like maturity, Westerns served a lot of the same functions. Like action movies, they were two-fisted tales of (stereotypically male) heroism. But their focus was different. The Western was consumed with the American myth, with establishing a sense of place and atmosphere. Its heroes were romantic manifestations of American self-image. That can be true of action movies, too, but it doesn’t have to be. In action movies, the focal point isn’t these larger-than-life archetypes so much as it is the violence itself. Action movies are built around set pieces, around bursts of violence absurd and severe enough to push them beyond the bounds of the everyday.

In so many old Westerns, the action scenes are weirdly obligatory. The mechanics of the gunfights in, say, Rio Bravo don’t matter as much as John Wayne’s reaction to what’s happening around him. With something like Bullitt, the car chase is, in a lot of ways, the movie’s primary reason for existence. And so Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, from the year after Bullitt, is the Western that spelled out the end of the Western. It totally dismantles old ideas of Western heroism, and along the way it revolutionizes the gunfight, providing a brutal blueprint that action movies would use for decades.

When I wrote about The Wild Bunch for my old Deadspin column last year, I focused on how jarring the movie must’ve been to watch when it was new. The violence is so brutal and all-consuming and physically tangible that it seems light-years beyond anything that was happening in movies at the time. Bonnie And Clyde, released two years earlier, showed a world where bullets actually draw blood and where the main characters might not make it to the end of the movie. But The Wild Bunch showed blood spurting and soldiers being gunned down by the dozen. Talking about seeing it years later, my dad still sounded shaken.

Peckinpah famously opens the movie with a scene of little kids giggling while they watch an army of ants slowly killing a couple of scorpions. That’s a stark piece of voyeur implication, but by the end of the movie, he’s turned whoever’s still watching into those kids. Maybe Peckinpah made the movie to condemn the sort of violence he was showing. But as with so much of what the guy did, it’s hard to tell. The action scenes, especially the Grand Guignol final shootout, are so beautifully, thrillingly staged that we end up exhilarated, not appalled.

Peckinpah’s heroes aren’t chiseled paragons of virtue; they’re amoral, bloodthirsty bandits who never even discuss the sort of devastation they’re causing. A few minutes into the movie, they’re already using innocent people as human shields. When they aren’t robbing and killing, they’re getting drunk, taking wine-barrel baths with prostitutes, and demanding bigger shares of the hypothetical loot. The Mexican freedom fighter Angel is the gang’s one tragic, heroic figure, and even he guns down an unarmed ex in cold blood.

The only thing that makes the gang seem even halfway admirable is that everyone else is just as bad as they are, if not worse. A railroad official tries to set a trap for them in a town full of bystanders, and he refuses to take responsibility for all the civilians killed. The bounty hunters chasing them are, with one big exception, giggling sociopathic bottom-feeders. The corrupt petty-dictator Mexican general who hires them makes a living by plundering his own people. Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch Engstrom character keeps justifying his gang’s behavior by pointing out that at least they don’t hang people, and the fucked up thing is that he’s sort of right.

In any case, we end up liking the gang for a few reasons. Peckinpah knows how to use Western iconography—the surging music, the breathtaking vistas—to paint these guys as heroes, even when he’s making a point to show us how nasty they are. He uses the notion of the romantic old gunslinger—the fighter who knows he’s only got a few rides left in him—to build sympathy. All the actors are grizzled, ugly character-actor types, and they seem to know how to carry themselves. And most of all, they’re just so good at what they do.

The movie’s single most exciting set piece probably isn’t one of the shoot-outs; it’s the silent and precise train robbery halfway through the movie. By moving like a machine, the gang swipes a whole railroad car’s worth of U.S. Army munitions right from under their noses, without even having to kill anyone. Right when he’s about to blow up a bridge full of bounty hunters, William Holden, as Bunch leader Pike Bishop, doffs his cowboy hat to the old partner who’s now chasing him—a timeless no-words-needed badass gesture. (There’s plenty of competition, but I’d say the movie’s best line is an exchange between Borgnine and Holden: “They’ll be waiting for us.” “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”) And when they finally make up their minds to go off to battle, to certain doom, they do so in near-wordless agreement. The sight of the four of them sauntering off to their deaths is one of the great bad-motherfuckers-walking scenes in movie history.

It’s hard to overstate how important that final shootout is to the action movies that would follow. Peckinpah didn’t rush to get through his action scenes. Instead, he put incredible care into planning them, bringing in armies of stuntmen and buckets of fake blood. He used slow-motion and realistic gun sounds the way directors still do. He had his heroes manning a machine gun in ways that anticipated your Rambos and your Terminators. And he let it go long, creating the sort of context of excess that you’d see, decades later, in something like the hospital gunfight in Hard Boiled. In fact, with its slow-mo, its Byzantine gunfire, and its criminals dying heroically for one another, The Wild Bunch is practically a John Woo shoot-’em-up, made 20 years early. So while the movie may be a Western—one of the best Westerns ever made, in fact—it’s also an action movie, one that was crucial to action movies becoming what they would eventually be.

Other noteworthy 1969 action movies: Action was still a genre in its infancy in 1969, but the year does represent a big jump forward for the James Bond franchise. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service represented the first time someone other than Sean Connery would try out the iconic role, as the unknown male model George Lazenby stepped into the role for his one and only outing. The movie attempted to show Bond as something like a three-dimensional being, doing normal-ish things like getting married and grieving. Bond would quickly return to his breezy super-spy status, though the Daniel Craig Bond movies would later, once again, attempt to give him some inner life.

Still, the runner-up movie for this year isn’t a Bond; it’s something equally British. The Michael Caine caper The Italian Job is more of an antic comedy than an action movie; it literally gives Benny Hill a starring role. Still, its closing car chase, featuring a trio of Mini Coopers, was so elaborate and groundbreaking that even the movie’s 2003 remake was still playing catchup. (That remake, incidentally, kept nothing from the original beyond “heist” and “Mini Coopers.”) In that chase scene, we see those Coopers speeding through tunnels, over rooftops, and finally onto a moving truck. It’s really something. The only things about the movie that have really aged well are the chase, Caine in the middle of his great arrogant-Cockney-badass run, and the baffling literal-cliffhanger ending. But that’s enough to earn it a place in history.

Next time: Jimmy Wang Yu helps set the kung-fu cinema template with The Chinese Boxer.