Ride the High Country was a sensitive, modest film, but Peckinpah has aimed much higher this time. The Wild Bunch is not a minor film; it's a sprawling, spectacular, ambitious, wilfully controversial picture, an assault on [an] audience's senses and emotions, an aggressive bid for the spotlight. Fortunately, the film deserves the spotlight. Its first impression is literally over-powering; The Wild Bunch is much more dazzling than Ride the High Country, but it loses some of the reflective qualities that made Peckinpah's early film so quietly memorable. There were stark images of violence in Ride the High Country too, but violence is the subject and the controlling passing of The Wild Bunch. Let me say right away that the violence does not offend me, even though this is the goriest film I have ever seen. But the gore is not gratuitous; the film is intelligent about the significance of violence in America, and in addition, the images of violence are quite simply beautiful. (p. 2)
I do object to some of the film's equivocations, and its tendency to sacrifice characterization to action and spectacle. The individual characters are just distinct enough to be believable, but none of them are really very interesting. The only way to accept the characters at all is to see them as one conglomerate character, the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah is interested in these men as a group, and he uses them to epitomize a major generic character, the Outlaw. But even granting this, the film, particularly on a second viewing, seems flat and underwritten.
The characters in The Wild Bunch are not complex, though the film's attitudes toward what they represent, toward violence, and toward the Western myth in general, are very complex; but complexity is very close to confusion, and the film often seems out of control…. But I respect even the film's confusions, for they always seem to grow out of Peckinpah's most profound doubts and uncertainties, a very rich, intense self-questioning; they never seem concessions to the audience.
One first notices these confusions in the visual style of the film. The material is straightforward and conventional in many ways, and there are several elegant panoramic shots that are a staple of Westerns; but there are also some very contemporary tricks of film-making—slow motion, subliminal cutting—that testify to Peckinpah's dissatisfaction with the Western form, his desire to break it open and reconceive it. The sophistication of his technique does not always match the simplicity of the plotting and characterizations, and audiences encouraged by Peckinpah's mastery of the medium to expect a more subtle film are probably bewildered by the crude humor and old-fashioned melodrama of many scenes. The middle sections particularly lack dimension—effectively photographed but protracted, essentially hollow action scenes. And even the technique can turn surprisingly old-fashioned as in … the sentimental superimposition of the laughing faces of the Bunch over the final scene. (pp. 2-3)
The Wild Bunch has been compared to Bonnie and Clyde because of its sympathy for the outlaw and its mockery of all forms of "law and order"—whether the temperance union and railroad men in South Texas, Pershing's incompetent army along the border, or the coldblooded federales fighting Villa's revolutionaries in Mexico. But in one respect the film is sharper and more honest than Bonnie and Clyde—it does not flinch from showing the brutality of its heroes…. The Wild Bunch is more hardheaded because it admits the heroes' attraction to violence. We can't delude ourselves that the Bunch are innocent; they're clearly depraved and vicious—savages who love the thrill of slaughter.
And yet they...
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do retain our sympathy. Perhaps one reason is that in a world where the "respectable" people seem equally sadistic, where indeed violence seems the primary fact of human nature …, the qualities of candor and resilience that distinguish the Bunch seem especially precious…. They are outsiders, failures, with nowhere to turn and no place to go, but they have not been defeated. They have the strength to endure. (p. 3)
During [the] last twenty minutes of his film Peckinpah so disturbs our emotions that we are literally drained by the conclusion. Just as we are convinced of the meaninglessness of the Bunch's life and death, Peckinpah once again twists our response and forces us to pay a final tribute to their irreverence and their resilience. It may be because of the tremendous complexity of the film's evaluation of the Bunch that many critics have been so outraged. What is Peckinpah trying to say? If he means to repel us by the life of violence, why that strangely sentimental finale? And if he means the film as a celebration of the outlaw, why must he so immerse us in the outlaw's brutality? There are no easy interpretations of The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah is feeling out his own responses to his characters' way of life, and he is asking us to struggle with him to make sense of the experiences on the screen. For all of its technical assurance, this is an unfinished, open-ended film, a tentative exploration of a peculiar, vanishing way of life, rather than a clearly formulated thesis film. Peckinpah has not resolved his own feelings about the masculine code of honor of the Westerner or about the violence of the outlaw, and The Wild Bunch reflects his confusions. We rightly demand more clarity from an artist, but at the same time, the genuinely agonized temper of The Wild Bunch makes it a searching, unsettling film. (p. 5)
Peckinpah clearly means to say that violence is an inherent part of human nature, but it is interesting that the faces of the children almost always contain expressions of innocence and wonder that are not quite accounted for by the philosophical statement about their intuitive cruelty…. [The] faces of the children are still unformed, open to possibilities, and it is that sense of possibility that makes us dream. Children may be instinctively violent, but the freshness of their faces teases us to believe that they are capable of something more than violence. It is this something more that Peckinpah searches for in the Wild Bunch too—call it an inchoate sense of honor or loyalty or commitment—and just as often as he is wryly skeptical about the Bunch, he asks us to believe that they are redeemable. The children in the film embody innocence and evil, beauty and corruption, gentleness and brutality, and the film as a whole wavers between a harsh, very contemporary cynicism and an older, mellower belief in grand human possibilities that has always been the most sentimental affirmation of the Western. Traditional Westerns wallowed in this sentimentality and became rosy parables of virtue triumphant, while some very recent Westerns have gone to the other extreme and opted for a cynical stance that is often just as hysterical and glib. It is Peckinpah's effort to play these two attitudes against each other that makes his Westerns seem so rich; his mixture of realism and romanticism (a mixture that was already recognizable, on a much smaller scale, in Ride the High Country), even if not yet quite rationally proportioned, illuminates the Western myths so that they seem relevant, not remote. (pp. 5-6)
Peckinpah is an instinctive director, not an intellectual one, and his instinct for cinema is unquestionably masterful. But I would say that if he is to continue to grow as an artist, he needs to strive for more intellectual clarity; he needs to order and question his hidden assumptions even more ruthlessly, so that he can go on testing himself instead of simply repeating and reworking the themes of The Wild Bunch. I hope that his next film is not a Western. (p. 6)
Stephen Farber, "Peckinpah's Return," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Fall, 1969, pp. 2-11.