The 1969 western
is probably director Sam Peckinpah
's masterpiece (which says much considering 1962's Ride the High Country
). It is an homage to the classic western and the Romanticism
of the past, while being critical of that past (and conventions of traditional westerns) as well as the future direction of that point in time (the closing of the West as it was known). Not just what it was, but 'what will it become?'
It was not only something of a definitive statement on the closing of the "old" west and the dying of the western (note the use of the car and the machine gun), it was highly influential on the portrayal of violence in movies for years to come. John Woo, who has admitted the influence, owes a great deal of his career to Peckinpah from editing to slow motion to the way he films shootouts (compare the final sequence of The Killer with the final one of The Wild Bunch).
The story involves a band of outlaws led by Bishop and Duke at the end of the West and possibly the end of their careers ("We have to learn to think beyond our guns"). The problem is that they are being pursued by a former friend and colleague of Bishop, Deke Thornton, who is working for the railroad to hunt them down. They escape to Mexico where they run afoul General Mapache Juerta (Emilio Fernández) when they steal guns for him but let some of them fall into the hands of the people who are resisting him (friends and family of Angel). Angel takes the blame and is tortured by the Mexicans. The group must decide whether to leave with their money or go back for their comrade. Doing so probably means certain death. They choose to return and take on the General and his men killing most of them before they each die in turn. When Thornton catches up to the aftermath of the battle, he chooses not to return to the railroad, opting instead to stay after retrieving Bishop's gun and joining up with Sykes and Angel's friends who are still fighting the government forces. "It ain't like it used to be but it'll do."
The film is best known for three sequences.
The first is the long opening one (fifteen minutes from start to finish). During the credits, interspersed with shots of the gang entering the town dressed as soldiers to rob the bank (during a temperance meeting and parade!), some children are shown torturing two scorpions in a shallow pit with hundreds of angry ants. At the end of the sequence, they drop burning straw on the both ants and victims. This is not only metaphorical of the violent ending of the film, but suggests the soon-to-be shattered calm and ruthlessness of both outlaws and the "law." It turns out to be a trap and the railroad men and bounty hunters are waiting in ambush (the robbery yields dozens of sacks of metal washers), giving the viewer a taste of Peckinpah's editing and slow motion techniques as everything (figuratively and literally) gets shot to hell. Civilians, outlaws, and "the law" all end up casualties and the sequence allows the immortal line, spoken by Bishop: "If they move, kill 'em."
The second is a daring train robbery, done with minimal dialogue, ending in a stunt where five or so men mounted on horseback atop a wooden bridge have the bridge dynamited out from under them, dropping them and the horses into the river. Perhaps it doesn't seem quite as amazing in these days of Jackie Chan and computer animation, but they actually did dynamite the bridge out from under real men and horses. Without injuring or killing anyone.
The final shootout between the gang and Mapache and his men took eleven days to film (considering the number of shots and large number of extras and stunt people involved, quite an accomplishment). Despite only lasting about five minutes from first to final gun shot, it seems much longer, with cut after cut of violence and slow motion death. Yet meticulously edited together to form a sort of grim ballet as the gang kills dozens or more of Mapache's men and, in turn, are killed. The squibs used to create the bullet wound effects (in the film, bullets don't merely hit, leaving a red stain, they do real damage, spurting and leaving exit wounds, made more gory by the director having them put a thin slice of steak over the charges to enhance the effect) tore up so many Mexican uniforms that they had to clean them on the set, tape over the holes and paint them to appear undamaged.
All the violence was more than Hollywood was prepared to accept and numerous revisions and cuts were required. Length was also a problem. The first cut of the film was five hours. After several more attempts, they finally arrived at the current 144 minutes. (It was also further cut to about 134 minutes by the studio after its release.) As might be expected, it was both vilified and heralded depending on the critic one reads.
Some background information from Marshall Fine's biography Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah (1991), most of it from numerous viewings of the film.