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When it was first released, The Wild Bunch became the subject of heated controversy among critics and the public alike due to its extraordinary level of violence. Following close on the heels of Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch surpassed the slow-motion death balletics of that film by quantum leaps, shocking and/or revolting large numbers of viewers. (At the Kansas City test screening of the 190-minute rough cut, over 30 members of the audience walked out in disgust, some reportedly throwing up in the alley behind the theater.) Twenty years later, in an age inured to graphic screen violence and gore, the violence of The Wild Bunch is still remarkably provocative and disturbing. This is partially because the violence is not gratuitous, as some have claimed, but central to the film's vision of human experience: it posits a world in which degrees of violence provide the only standards, and violent death the only liberation. If it is a world not predicated entirely on human evil, it is one at least in which there is very little good or hope for change. It seems clear today that what many people object to in Peckinpah's extravagant depiction of violence in The Wild Bunch is actually his dark view of human nature.
Another reason the film's violence still shocks and scintillates is its rendition by Peckinpah's stylized, optically jolting montage. Not since Eisenstein has a filmmaker so radically explored the conventions of traditional editing form. Much of the action in The Wild Bunch was filmed by as many as six Panavision, Mitchell, and Arriflex cameras running simultaneously at different speeds, each equipped with different lenses, including wide-angle, telephoto, and zoom. Peckinpah and his editor, Louis Lombardo, then created elaborate montage sequences by cutting footage shot in "real time" together with footage shot at varying decelerated speeds—all shot through a variety of lenses, some of which created a unique optical tension by zooming in and out nervously (and, amazingly, without calling attention to themselves) at appropriate moments. The perceptual impact of rapidly intercutting violent action shot at standard speed with slow-motion footage and a variety of telephoto zooms, in sequences that last as long as seven minutes, is both exhilarating and exhausting. The Wild Bunch is the most optically violent film ever made, one which relentlessly assaults the senses of its audience with a torrent of violent images to rival and finally exceed Eisenstein's achievement in "The Odessa Steps" sequence of Potemkin. (In fact, The Wild Bunch contains more individualized cuts than any color film ever made—3,642, in a decade when 600 was standard for the average dramatic feature.)
It seems ironic and not a little crazy today that a film so clearly focussed on themes of loyalty, honor, integrity, and heroism could have been reviled in its time for what one major critic called, "moral idiocy." But that was the late 1960s, when the issues of violence in American society and American foreign policy had become central to virtually every national forum of public opinion. We stood at the end of a decade of political assassinations whose magnitude was unprecedented in our history, and we were deeply mired in a genocidal war in Vietnam. The My Lai massacre was revealed less than a year after the release of The Wild Bunch, but many Americans already knew what that revelation confirmed: that to fight a war against a popular insurrection is to fight a war against the populace. For many critics The Wild Bunch seemed to be an allegory of our involvement in Vietnam, where outlaws, mercenaries, and federal troops fought to produce the largest civilian "body count" since World War II. Others saw the film more generally as a comment on the level and nature of violence in American life. But nearly everyone saw that it bore some relationship to the major social issues of the times, and, depending on how one felt about those, one's reaction to the film was enthusiastically positive or vehemently negative—both mistaken responses to a work whose prevailing tenor is moral ambiguity from start to finish. Today it is possible to find a middle ground; for whatever else The Wild Bunch may be (as it is, for example, the greatest western ever made), it is clearly a major work of American art which changed forever the way in which violence would be depicted in American films, as well as permanently restructuring the conventions of its genre. That Peckinpah was unable to equal it later—as with Welles and Citizen Kane—is not testimony to his insufficiency a a film artist but to the extraordinary achievement of The Wild Bunch itself. It is, as Robert Culp remarked on its release, a film "more quintessentially and bitterly American than any since World War II." Like Kane, The Wild Bunch will remain an enduring work of American art—vast and explosive, vital and violent, with something both very dark and very noble at its soul.