The Subtleties Behind the Wild Opening of “The Wild Bunch”

In today’s guest post, writer and actor Craig Pisani shares his thoughts on the seminal classic The Wild Bunch:

In what many consider being the last of the great Westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 violent masterpiece The Wild Bunch stars Oscar Winner William Holden as Pike Bishop — an aging outlaw on the run after a botched bank robbery. The film’s script and score were both nominated for Academy Awards, with both categories losing out to a more unconventional Western: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

A 15-minute opening scene magnetically attracts its audience using a variety of cinematic techniques, setting the tone for the rest of the journey. Here are three reasons it works for me:

1. Built-up suspense: As a group of “soldiers” march into town, Peckinpah uses goldish-colored freeze frames displaying individual film credits. An eerily quiet town combined with a drum-beating score creates a tension that climaxes when we finally realize the men aren’t soldiers but bank robbers in disguise. The final freeze frame takes place after they secure the bank’s employees. Soundtrack music ceases for a moment as Pike barks my favorite line ― ”If they move, kill ‘em” – a powerful quote that transformed the suspense of knowing who, what, where, and why into higher stakes immediately. The suspense kicks into second gear cutting back and forth between the robbery and the hired gunmen on the roof across the street until a massive blood bath takes place involving innocent citizens marching down the street.

2. Use of exposition: This can be a tricky tool at times as forced dialogue will appear in some of your favorite movies making a scene unbearable to watch. Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown in Back to the Future did a masterful job of it, maybe one of the best, since he had so much information to convey all of the time. Think about that the next time you watch the time-traveling classic.

Peckinpah uses a small dose in the opening to fill in what’s known as a “refrigerator question”. That means it’s something you probably don’t think of while watching the movie but realize later on, like when you are grabbing food out of the fridge and wonder why. On the rooftop, one of the simpleton hired guns asks “What if they slip out the back way?” His comrade answers “It’s covered, you two-bit redneck peckerwood.” This reply becomes believable because it insists the character should know this answer already but he’s an idiot, which works for me when you see the type of gutter-trash they are.

3. Use of Foreshadowing: Peckinpah gives away the ending 30 seconds into the film. A group of children play on the outskirts of town. They’ve made a barricaded circle with upright sticks in the ground, watching as 4 scorpions battle hundreds of ants in a fight to the death. The imagery later becomes prophesied once Pike and his three men go into the lion’s den of a Mexican General to save their friend Angel from certain death. The Mexican soldiers attack from every angle just as the ants did to the scorpions, ultimately succumbing to the onslaught. The opening scene/ inal showdown mirror themselves as Pike completes his arc. He leaves a man behind in the bank earlier then boldly leads his suicidal team to rescue their pal in one of the bloodiest, deadliest, coolest final scenes you will ever see.

Craig Joseph Pisani is an avid moviegoer and aspiring screenwriter with Bachelor’s degrees in both Cinema and English.