The reissue of the original cut of Sam Peckinpah's Western The Wild Bunch was supposed to commemorate its 25th anniversary. But the ratings board threw a wrench into Warner Brothers' birthday party when it slapped an NC-17 on the movie, rendering it unreleaseable. Was the director's cut that much more violent than the R-rated 1969 version? No, it was virtually the same two-hour, 25-minute movie. It took a year for Warners to prove to the board that more than eight of the 10 newly restored minutes were cuts made by the studio after the film's release. They were cuts made to speed up the movie, not to tone down the bloodshed: flashbacks that explained the betrayals that turned William Holden and his former partner Robert Ryan into enemies. Now, with the original R in place, ""The Wild Bunch'' is back in all its 70-mm glory.
In a quarter of a century, Peckinpah's bloody saga of a gang of outlaws fleeing to Mexico with bounty hunters on their trail has acquired the status of a classic. It wasn't always thus. David Weddle, in his recent biography of Peckinpah, ""If They Move . . . Kill 'Em!,'' describes the movie's first preview showing in Kansas City. Thirty people stormed out of the theater, some vomiting in the alley. ""I want to get the hell out of this place,'' screamed one patron, horrified by the images of carnage. And though the film had many critical champions when it opened -- both Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel voted for Peckinpah as best director in the National Society of Film Critics -- its opponents were rabid. ""If you want to see "The Wild Bunch','' warned Judith Crist, ""be sure and take along a barf bag.''
The violence in ""The Wild Bunch'' is still potent and unsettling, though it couldn't possibly cause the uproar it once did -- a whole generation of Peckinpah-inspired directors have doubled the ante in shock tactics. But the arguments that rage about screen violence today are uncannily similar to the commotion raised in the Vietnam era -- a debate ignited by Arthur Penn's ""Bonnie and Clyde'' in 1967 and fanned by one Peckinpah provocation after another (""Straw Dogs,'' ""The Getaway''). The techniques that Peckinpah employed with such savage power in this Western -- the startling use of slow motion, the machine-gun editing, the surgical but poetic realism of bullet-riddled flesh -- have now been imitated and coarsened to the point of cliche. The moment of death had never been examined with such voluptuous spatial and temporal obsessiveness. Peckinpah shot his big, violent set pieces with six cameras running simultaneously at variable speeds, from 24 frames per second up to 120. Time is suspended, expanded and twisted into a hallucinatory explosion. ""The Wild Bunch'' contained more cuts -- 3,642 -- than any color film until then. But that was before MTV and ""Natural Born Killers.''
We may be more blase about cinematic body counts now, but ""The Wild Bunch'' still retains its sorrowful, fatal powerbecause of the complexity of Peckinpah's attitudes about violence. He forces us to confront our own voyeuristic ambivalence; we're alternately horrified by the butchery and exhilarated by the orgiastic energy his balletic spectacles stir up. Peckinpah took violence seriously -- it was no postmodernist joyride -- and he held to a primitive, fatalistic belief in man's innate thirst for blood. What was shocking was the destructive beauty Peckinpah's eye revealed -- and forced us, squirming, to acknowledge.
From the opening scene, ""The Wild Bunch'' threw out the moral compass points we expected from a Western. We see Holden's Pike Bishop and his men riding into town wearing army uniforms (a disguise, we later learn). They attempt a robbery that turns into a bloodbath when the posse led by Ryan tries to ambush them. This set piece -- in which the violence that claims innocent bystanders is played off the reactions of terrified but awestruck children -- is doubly disorienting because the audience can't tell the good guys from the bad. Here, there are only bad guys and worse -- the difference lying in the code of loyalty that Pike and his men cling to. Peckinpah's cynicism goes hand in hand with his macho romanticism -- by the end, he's transformed these reprobates into mythical figures. The one idealist in the group -- Angel, the young Mexican -- doesn't hesitate to shoot his former girlfriend when he discovers she's betrayed him. No one in the story blinks twice at this murder. Neither, I'm afraid, does Peckinpah.
It's not surprising that, with the notable exception of Kael, all of ""The Wild Bunch's'' most passionate partisans are men. Or that the directors who have most revered Peckinpah -- Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill, John Milius, to name a few -- are all makers of serious Guy Movies. Peckinpah's paranoia about women is on ample and lurid display. It's an unshapely classic, full of flaws: the gang's idyllic interlude in a Mexican village exudes gringo sentimentality, and Peckinpah, under the influence of ""The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,'' overworks the stagy effect of hearty, ironic laughter. But what masterful, resonant images this movie hurls at you. There's an elaborately choreographed train robbery that's a marvel of precise action filmmaking -- amazingly, we discover in Weddle's biography, Peckinpah worked out the intricate staging on the spot.
Underneath the movie, which is set on the eve of World War I, there's an elegiac plangency that stays with you long after the shocks have worn off. For the carnage that sets this Western apart is also internal. What haunts you is the world-weary, wind-bitten faces of the men who march into the final, apocalyptic conflagration with such eager, suicidal expectation; the ruined nobility of Ryan's face as he mourns his fallen foes. Neither heroes nor villains, they are men at the end of their rope and at the end of an era, men who have nothing left to give their hearts to but death. It's a tribute to Peckinpah's corrosive genius that, 26 years later, ""The Wild Bunch'' still won't go down easy.