Perhaps the most notable example of a prominent movie genre that disappeared almost entirely is the Western. Once inescapable — there were close to 100 Westerns released in 1949 alone — nowadays Westerns are usually seen as retro or niche. The fading prevalence of the genre was observantly foreshadowed by two films released 50 years ago: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The 1960s had been fraught with political and social turmoil, and these two films reflected the changing cultural landscape — both in the context of America as a whole and the realization that the Western genre itself needed to change.
The most obvious deviation The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid make from the traditional Western is that their heroes are openly outlaws. At the time the films were made, the characters played by John Wayne still represented the epitome of the Western hero: a man with a strong moral code who always fought on the side of law and order and who never backed down from a fight. Wild and BCATSK present protagonists who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and flat-out run away — BCATSK screenwriter William Goldman was rejected by numerous studios before selling his script, in part because his characters run away from the posse chasing them, a thing Wayne would emphatically never do.
Of the two films, BCATSK is an easier sell, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford playing Butch and Sundance as lovable scamps. The two are shown committing a number of disreputable acts on screen, but are so charming and gentlemanly that they remain likable — a clever way of getting the audience to cheer for characters who in any other Western would’ve been the bad guys.
The titular Wild Bunch aren’t so easy on the audience, as each of the six principal members of the gang is deeply, openly flawed. Also on the run from the law, Pike (William Holden) and his gang are dirty, ragged, and repulsive, behaving every bit like the greedy, self-centered criminals that they are, without an ounce of charm. They similarly rob trains and commit murder, but also go further than Butch and Sundance by betraying their fellow gang members and knowingly work for a Mexican dictator, a pushing of the envelope that is still impressive in this era of flawed criminal antiheroes being more common in the film and television landscape.
These characters and their boldly unheroic behavior came at a time when young people viewed authority as suspicious if not villainous, with naked criminality looking more honest than a veneer of law and order. As a result, the posses pursuing the antiheroes in each film are portrayed either as terrifyingly inhuman (as in BCATSK) or as despicable cowards and hypocrites, like Robert Ryan’s Thornton in Wild Bunch. Butch Cassidy playfully tweaks the Western character archetypes, while The Wild Bunch brutally twists them.
The treatment of their characters isn’t the only transgressive element present, as both films portray violence and sexuality in ways previously unseen in the major studio Western. The sexual content in Wild Bunch is, like its characters, bawdy and crass — the gang treat women like mere possessions, and there are several revelries in the film where the men spend time with Mexican women who are either prostitutes or part of the local warlord’s clan, their tops falling off haphazardly, providing a rather copious amount of nudity for 1969. Even the few female characters with value are seen in view of their status as possessions, as Pike reminisces about a lost love of his, while Angel (Jaime Sanchez) kicks off the Bunch’s trouble with the warlord thanks to his old flame Teresa (Sonia Amelio) spurning him.
The sexuality in BCATSK is more chaste, but the dynamic between Sundance, Butch, and Etta Place (Katherine Ross) is fascinatingly (if subtextually) polyamorous. The Wild Bunch interprets the late ’60s sexual revolution as a Bacchanalian orgy, whereas BCATSK portrays the way the movement was redefining traditional roles of long-term relationships.
Butch is similarly character-based in its usage of violence, as every incident says more about the protagonists through their reaction to the acts committed — Butch fights dirty during a gang dispute, proving how far he’s willing to go to win, while the two only kill when shot at, save the one instance of cold-blooded murder they commit while working as payroll guards, which convinces them to abandon trying to go straight. Their almost total ignorance of their injuries during their final battle with the Bolivian army serves to illustrate just how much danger they’re in, making the sight of their wounds that much more impactful.
In Wild Bunch, violence is a way of life, and an inevitability. The movie is almost soaked in death and misery, with the murder of anyone and everyone being fair game, especially including that of our antiheroes. Both films broke from the traditional Western in that way, announcing that not even the protagonists were safe, reflecting an era in which assassinations of major public figures were happening regularly.
That feeling of being in unsafe hands from a storytelling point of view extends to the films’ use of bold stylistic filmmaking techniques, devices that further pushed them away from the studio format. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) kicked open the door for American filmmakers to break from studio system conventions, and both Peckinpah and Hill (two directors who had made their name within that system) followed its lead. Peckinpah emphasized his film’s violence with the help of editor Lou Lombardo, creating a style that portrayed each death as both brutally fast and balletically slow, the film rapidly changing speeds and angles in such a way that it predicts the MTV era of cutting that was to come a decade later. BCATSK is similarly prescient in Hill’s selection of composer Burt Bacharach for the film. Rather than a traditional orchestral score, Bacharach brought his pop sensibilities to the movie, writing pieces that were unmistakably modern, using arrangements and instrumentation that highlighted their anachronistic effect. Speaking of MTV, the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” musical number in the movie acts like an early form of the music video, a technique that brings the story of real-life figures from decades earlier into the then-modern day.
It may have been coincidence that both films came out in the particular year that they did, but their cumulative effect was to herald the end of an era. The Wild Bunch approaches this from the standpoint of a life of crime and hedonism catching up with Pike and the gang, with the characters slowly realizing that a violent end was always in the cards for them. BCATSK is more wistful and philosophical, the two men representing a gentlemanly, almost chivalrous set of values that is dying out. Both movies make sure to note the fact that progress is marching on — Butch and Sundance witness the birth of the bicycle fad, while the Bunch admire the Mexican general’s new automobile.
The characters in both films are confronted directly by their reputations and realize how they don’t quite match the way they see themselves. That reckoning of truth with fiction is a commentary on how America at large was just waking up to how rotten, messy, and fraught the country really was. As a result, its heroes had to reckon with it too. These movies paved for a new era of American filmmaking, one that would more fully and honestly explore the ambiguities and hardships of the country. In that way, the antiheroes didn’t end the Western so much as they brought the true messy wildness of the West onto the big screen.