[The Wild Bunch is] an important bad film, avoidable by people who want genuine art, but recommended to all those interested in the faltering steps by which the American cinema might titubate into maturity.
There is no doubt that Peckinpah has a nice sense of time and place; that his locations and groupings, as well as the faces and peripheral activites that fill a shot have the right look and feel about them. But he is much less sure about the staging of the main action in a scene, except where seedy debauchery or sudden flare-ups of violence are concerned. (p. 173)
Despite an inventive twist or two, the plot settles all too comfortably into the usual western groove with all the beloved mythic commonplaces. But there are differences. The world of Peckinpah and his co-scenarist Walon Green is predominantly evil; there are no really good people anywhere, only the less bad and the much worse ones. (pp. 173-74)
Women are represented as particularly untrustworthy, and, next to women, children. Throughout the film we see kids enjoying the bloodshed and brutality around them and, whenever possible, joining in the fun, if only by torturing animals…. [It] may be the example of the adults that is to blame, but corrupt they are, and this is something new in a western. Except for Angel's concern for his villagers (he sacrifices his share of the loot for them), and the dignity of some of these folk, there are no unalloyed positive values in the film—even the gang's solidarity is labile and continually threatened from within. But Pike is idealized, and here the film goes soft. (p. 174)
The film has a good many … oversimplifications, exaggerations, or platitudes along its lengthy way. But then, again, there are powerful images: an ugly, mannish Mexican woman in Mapache's camp, who sits in full military gear suckling an infant; chickens scurrying underfoot and underhoof at the damnedest times; Pike trying to mount his horse and falling off because an old leg wound acts up as his men make sarcastic remarks; and, immediately afterward, Pike getting into the saddle and riding defiantly ahead. (pp. 174-75)
The Wild Bunch revels in bloodletting; not since baroque poetry and mannerist painting have there been such human fountains, blood spurting from them in manifold jets…. The result is, first, that a great deal of horror sneaks in subliminally, making it more bearable but still present; secondly, that much of the dying takes on a balletic quality which, again, makes it easier on the eye, though ultimately more appalling. Indeed, there is too much gore in the film.
The objection requires reflecting upon. Can one remonstrate with the frequency of refrains in a ballad? Can one cavil at the number of holes in travertine? The gore is of the essence. But cannot the essence be defective? By the use of slow motion, Peckinpah makes these deaths look rather like the similarly decelerated performances of shot putters or high jumpers in [Leni] Riefenstahl's and [Kon] Ichikawa's great films of the Berlin and Tokyo Olympiads.
The man whose face is suddenly bathed in crimson perspiration and who sinuously gravitates to the dust is a twin of the pole vaulter who has just cleared or not cleared an improbably high crossbar. The gun arcing away from him is the now useless pole, and he the winning or defeated athlete-hero hitting the sandlot. Win or lose is unimportant, what matters is the nobility of the sport. But killing and dying for sport should not look Olympic or Olympian: the gods who kill us for their...
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sport should not get off the hook so cheaply.
But was it not so in Homer? Doesn't the Iliad chronicle, catalogue, itemize, deaths and the details of dying? True, but those are for us the least worthy parts of the poem—and hasn't the epic as a genre bit the dust precisely because it depended overmuch on war and violence and unlikely derring-do? Is not the epic as such an infantile form of art in both senses: a primitive art form and one appealing to puerile minds? The film, to the extent that it wants to achieve maturity, must outgrow the western. (pp. 175-76)
John Simon, "The New Violence: 'The Wild Bunch'" (originally published as "Violent Idyls," in The New Leader, Vol. LII, No. 15, August 18, 1969), in his Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967–1970 (copyright © 1971 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1971, pp. 173-76.