Nearly every western made since the 1950s has been a “last western,” mourning the loss of the frontier and its replacement by the forces of modernity. But few have been as ambivalent about the romance of the western myth as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Set in 1913, long after the days of cowboys and outlaws had run their course, the film follows a group of grizzled veterans as they drift through a world that has no use for them anymore. But in between the bunch’s existential elegies for the life they used to lead, Peckinpah inserts orgies of shocking violence. By the time of the film’s famous final showdown — in which the men indiscriminately mow down waves of Mexican soldiers — it’s clear that the outlaw code the men claim to follow is just as meaningless as the brutality they inflict.
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