In 2007, the American Film Institute revised their previous 1998 list of the 100 best American films of all time. This column will explore my thoughts on some films I’ve selected from this list, mostly following along with the Unspooled Podcast, which inspired my journey to complete the AFI Top 100. You can also follow my progress with my ranking and watchlist. This week’s film is The Wild Bunch (1969), #79 on the list.
Sam Peckinpah’s chaotic and bleak western The Wild Bunch is most notable for its excessive violence, which had to be edited down to garner an R-rating. It was controversial upon release, with many criticizing the gratuitous brutality, especially in the final showdown, which is packed with exploding squibs and drenched in blood. It’s also significant for employing disorienting rapid-cutting editing techniques to instill a sense of chaos during the action sequences – conversely, modern action blockbusters utilize frenetic editing as a lazy tool to hide the fact that the action sequences are blatantly incoherent and lack spatial geography. Its place in cinematic history remains uncontested, largely due to the debate around the justification for its extreme violence – a topic still fervently argued about countless films in the 50 years since, though the graphic gunfights in The Wild Bunch pale in comparison to any given scene from even the tamest Saw sequel today. But beyond the finale which earned it its legacy, there isn’t much else to praise about The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah is a strong director, and his compositions and evocative editing are sensational, but the story of despicable characters double crossing and pursuing one another, paired with Peckinpah’s usual glamorization of male machismo (even through demonization), does not make for a compelling watch today.
Does it belong on the list?
No. Its impact on modern film is undeniable, but this list isn’t solely about influence. It’s not a very good movie, and it’s certainly the worst western on the list (I haven’t made it to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid yet, but I would be shocked if it ranks below this).