The Wild Bunch
A Round-Up of Anti-Westerns
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 7/10/13

Despair, detachment, violence: Welcome to the anti-Western, the genre that inverted the classic Hollywood Western, with its clearly drawn lines of right and wrong, good and evil, white hat versus black. The blood-drenched Man With No Name films that made Clint Eastwood famous, along with The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Western-style gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde, had 1960s audiences cheering for the bad guys and reveling in the gore.

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The Wild Bunch  (Sam Peckinpah (dir.) | film | 1969)
to  Man With No Name Trilogy  (Sergio Leone (dir.) | film series | 1964–1966)

Italian director Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy of “spaghetti Westerns”—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)—turned the old-style Hollywood Western on its head, and American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) followed suit. The films forsake the good guys in white hats and their spotless morality for outlaw antiheroes motivated by self-interest, steeped in corruption and bent on revenge and, most notably, violence. “If they move, kill ’em,” barks Pike Bishop (William Holden) during a bank robbery in one of the early scenes of The Wild Bunch, and that dictum pretty much describes the action of all four films. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said of Leone’s movies, “It was the spaghetti Westerns…that first eliminated the morality-play dimension and turned the Western into pure violent reverie…. [They] stripped the Western form of its cultural burden of morality.” Peckinpah said he hoped the blood-soaked massacres in The Wild Bunch would cause “a wave of sickness in the gut.” Actually, viewers seemed to enjoy the carnage; Peckinpah also commented, “There’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement.”

Man With No Name Trilogy  (Sergio Leone (dir.) | film series | 1964–1966)
to  Unforgiven  (Clint Eastwood (dir.) | film | 1992)

Clint Eastwood is the anonymous protagonist in Sergio Leone’s trilogy of “spaghetti Westerns.” Wrapped in a dirty serape, unshaven, cigarillo clenched between his teeth, the Man With No Name is an antihero, scheming and thieving for his own ends yet occasionally showing a glint of compassion and even morality. “Why do you do this for us?” asks a woman he rescues in A Fistful of Dollars. “Because I knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help.”

Nearly 30 years later Eastwood directed and starred in Unforgiven, in which the Man With No Name has morphed into the weary William Munny, a once-notorious gunfighter who has lost his taste for killing but picks up his guns to avenge the disfigurement of a prostitute and collect the attendant reward to support his kids. Our flawed hero triumphs, but violence is not honored in Unforgiven, and the Wild West portrayed so lovingly in traditional Westerns—and tweaked by Leone—has become a brutal, sadistic, heartless place. Munny understands his actions carry a cost, even when they right a wrong. He kills without the ease or swagger of the Man With No Name, knowing there is no walking away unscathed.

The Wild Bunch  (Sam Peckinpah (dir.) | film | 1969)
to  Unforgiven  (Clint Eastwood (dir.) | film | 1992)

At the end of Unforgiven, we learn that the film’s hero, William Munny, has moved to San Francisco and is prospering in the dry goods business. The former bandit and gunslinger has become a city slicker—surely a sign the days of the Wild West are ending. Sam Peckinpah delivers a similar message in The Wild Bunch, despite many of the film’s actors—Ernest Borgnine, William Holden and Robert Ryan among them—having been stars in the traditional Hollywood genre The Wild Bunch overturns. His nine scruffy outlaws are out of place in early-20th-century Texas, where automobiles are replacing horses and machine guns make the quick draw an anachronism. As the movie’s poster proclaimed, “Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time.… Suddenly a new West had emerged. Suddenly it was sundown for nine men.”

In addition to portraying the waning of the Old West, each of these films also, in its way, sings a swan song to the Western genre. Clint Eastwood, who became a household name with Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name movies, has not made another Western in the two decades since Unforgiven.

El Topo  (Alejandro Jodorowsky (dir.) | film | 1970)
to  Man With No Name Trilogy  (Sergio Leone (dir.) | film series | 1964–1966)

Like the Man With No Name films, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo follows the meandering quests of a silent gunman. If El Topo is reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Westerns,” it is a dish served with an exotic sauce dosed with hallucinatory ingredients. El Topo (the Mole) and his naked son ride across deserts littered with corpses and peopled by dwarfs, amputees, deformed troglodytes and women with the voices of men. The action climaxes with a biblical slaughter of the innocents and the hero’s self-immolation. Antiwar messages, references to the tarot, Luis Buñuel–like surrealism and the backing of John Lennon launched El Topo as a cult classic and packed stoned moviegoers into theaters for midnight showings.

Not all viewers cared to waste time sussing out the film’s underlying messages, however, and it was savaged by critics the way Leone’s films had been several years earlier. Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas wrote El Topo off as “a dreary, protracted exercise in sadomasochism,” and The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called the film “a horror circus.” But Jodorowsky set his critics straight: “If you’re enlightened, El Topo is a great picture. If you don’t understand it, you’re a limited asshole.”

The Wild Bunch  (Sam Peckinpah (dir.) | film | 1969)
to  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (George Roy Hill (dir.) | film | 1969)

American audiences of the late 1960s who sat through the massacres of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch went home to TV screens filled with grisly footage of battle scenes from Vietnam and reportage of gut-wrenching assassinations. The antidote, it seems, was a return to some good old-fashioned Hollywood escapism, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid filled the bill. Like their grizzled brethren in The Wild Bunch, Butch and Sundance are outlaws, out of luck and out of time in the vanishing Old West of the early 1900s. Unlike the Wild Bunch gang, though, Butch (played by Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) are handsome, square-jawed heroes of the old Western variety. The smooth, saccharine Burt Bacharach score helped moviegoers remain blissfully detached from the reality of the pair’s violent crime sprees and their remarkably unperturbed demeanor as bullets fly around them.

We watch the antiheroes meet their grisly end in The Wild Bunch, but we don’t see the torn-up bodies of Butch and Sundance after the Bolivian military ambushes them. We’re left with the fantasy that the boys may just pop up again, full of their coy old tricks. Now, that’s escapism.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  (George Roy Hill (dir.) | film | 1969)
to  Bonnie and Clyde  (Arthur Penn (dir.) | film | 1967)

Watching charismatic couples do bad things and get away with them (for a while) accounts for part of the appeal of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In real life, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were as adept at self-promotion as they were at armed robbery, delighting newspaper readers with snapshots and ballads they submitted to document their adventures. Stories about an unmarried couple on the lam were sure to keep the prurient 1930s public enthralled.

While Sundance has a female love interest, Etta Place (Katharine Ross), he and Butch really have eyes only for each other, and it is their relationship (one the actors would re-create a few years later in The Sting) that interested audiences. But while they joke, bicker, look glamorous, jump from a perilously high cliff into a rushing river, cutely fracture the Spanish language and generally act like adorably mischievous schoolboys, their portrayal remains skin-deep. With Arthur Penn’s humanistic treatment, the carelessly vicious Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde (Warren Beatty) evoke much more empathy than Butch and Sundance do. It would be nearly 40 years before another cowboy couple, in Brokeback Mountain, would so effectively pluck at our heartstrings.

The Wild Bunch  (Sam Peckinpah (dir.) | film | 1969)
to  Bonnie and Clyde  (Arthur Penn (dir.) | film | 1967)

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, one of the greatest gangster films ever made, could be titled “Son and Daughter of the Wild Bunch.” Bonnie and Clyde is set 20 years after The Wild Bunch, and the sun has set on the Old West. With the new dawn have come the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and horseback-riding bandits are now car-driving gangsters. Like the worn-out old outlaws of The Wild Bunch, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are doomed right from the start.

The characters in both films are nasty pieces of work, but touching insights into their psyches temper our perception of their violent streaks. Clyde expresses some deep wound when he apologizes to Bonnie for his failure in the sack: “I ain’t no lover boy.” The couple meets Bonnie’s family for a picnic, and Bonnie reveals her dream to settle down near her mother. When mom sets her daughter straight, telling her that’s never going to happen, we actually feel sorry for the little girl inside the gun-wielding moll. Even grizzled old Pike in The Wild Bunch inspires a tinge of pity when he says, “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.”