There is no doubt in the minds of most who have studied media, including film, that media was changed in America during the Vietnam War. The American Film Industry saw a letting go of previous ideas of censorship through the revision in 1966 of the Motion Picture Production Code and the consequent creation of the Code and Ration Administration in 1968. After the Mai Lai incident and Tet Offensive in 1968, the most violent year of the war itself, there began a dawn of reflection on the violence of the War. At least to director Sam Peckinpah, this new Golden Age of film in America portrayed a loss of innocence and new vulnerability. Films became angrier and more violent. The violence became more graphic and seemingly senseless. Many directors during this time chose to present the violence in protest of violence itself and Peckinpah was one of them. Directors like Arthur Penn were taking advantage of this newly allotted freedom of expression but not understanding the messages they could send through the medium, where instead, Peckinpah’s violence showed no single attitude toward any one thing or person in his films, instead he depicted the brutality of a violent society towards anyone or anything that roamed into its path.
During the late 1960’s following all of the changes with the MPPC and the ratings system, directors explored new territory in levels of graphic violence and explicit issues in their films. There were many ways these directors used this medium to express themselves, some more aware of its impact than others, yet all of them knowing how much influence on this use of violence stemmed from the Vietnam War. It was what blinded Arthur Penn to the intensity of the carnage in Bonnie and Clyde. “…it didn’t even occur to me, particularly, that is was a violent film. Not given the times in which we were living, because every night on the news we saw kids in Vietnam being lifted out in body bags, with blood all over the place.” (Prince, Stephen “Savage Cinema”, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, pp 25-26). It shaped and stimulated Peckinpah’s own movement toward a cinema of violence, melancholy and cruelty and it fired him with a messianic sense of purpose in bringing violence to the screens of America.
Penn and Peckinpah brought in the use of slow motion and squibs in order to display death and its agonizing details. Penn used it to create a more realistic view of death and Peckinpah used it to allow the audience to see the agony of violence on the faces of its victims. Peckinpah’s films from 1969-1974 seem to be among his most prolific. They were the films he directed during some of the most highly politically charged times in America.
Penn differed from Peckinpah in his visions of the impact of his violence. Penn was using violence in a way he could not use it before. He could shock people once they had grown sympathetic to his characters of “Bonnie and Clyde” by showing their violent end. He used the medium to provoke a reaction to what they were seeing and to almost question their opinions about the characters where as Peckinpah used it to provoke his audiences into repulsion of that violence in a reaction to a violent society. He wanted that violence to show people that violence is wrong and still understand it as a part of the society in which they live. He had hoped the audience would learn from what they were viewing. Peckinpah meant to study violence through film, not to exploit it, even though he sometimes faltered and failed, and this study of violence was not meant to comfort or reassure viewers but to enlighten them. (Prince, p 8)
As much as Peckinpah loved “Bonnie and Clyde” he still intended to outdo it in every manner possible, so in 1969 he released “The Wild Bunch” and the society he released it to was repulsed and disturbed by what they saw, which was exactly what Peckinpah wanted from them. “The Wild Bunch” deals with a band of aging outlaws who are at odds with the society of 1913. The gang attempts to practice their outlaw trade one last time while being tracked by bounty hunters. The macho theme of the this film is one that Peckinpah used throughout his career. This film allowed him to express himself more fully than his previous Westerns. Film critic Pauline Kael said, “It was so much more complex than his earlier films. It was so devastating. He was ready to make a big Western. “Ride the High Country” was mythologizing. “The Wild Bunch” got the viciousness up there too.” (Fine, Marshall, “Bloody Sam: The Life and films of Sam Peckinpah”, New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1991 p 152).
The film’s posters made a statement that can tie the film in with influences from the Vietnam War as well. One poster states: “Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time…Suddenly a new West had emerged. Suddenly it was sundown for nine men. Suddenly their day was over. Suddenly the sky was bathed in blood.” (www.filmsite.org). This is not unlike the images of the soldiers in a Vietnam jungle. During the climax of the film, the Agua Verde massacre, the character, Pike Bishop, played by William Holden, puts down his six-gun and begins using a machine gun. The introduction of such an instrument of war can also be seen as reflective of the time. “The Wild Bunch” symbolized a new freedom and latitude of content in film and it allowed Peckinpah to express his attitude toward the violence he felt plagued society. Peckinpah said to Barbara Walters during a 1974 interview, “I attempt to portray violence for what it is. We are a violent people and have been since the beginning. We should understand the nature of our affliction and channel it – not close our eyes and hope that it will go away. I don’t put violence on the screen so people can enjoy it, I want them to understand what it is. Violence is a part of life and I don’t think we can bury our heads in the sand and ignore it.” (Prince, pp 31-32).
“The Wild Bunch” explored new territories in violence. REgardless of how one views the violence of the film there is no doubt in the impact the film made on film making in general. It changed Hollywood’s ideas about violence. And even though Peckinpah meant for it to be an anti-violence film, it was not always received as such. That same year Dennis Hopper released “Easy Rider”. Although the ending was not nearly as bloody as the ending of “The Wild Bunch”, we still see an attempt at using violence to make a point. Where as “Easy Rider” may have changed Hollywood’s attitude towards violence, “The Wild Bunch” caused Hollywood and its audiences to question what they were seeing.
The influences of the Vietnam War on the film industry became quite prevalent during the period after 1968 when directors like Peckinpah used the medium to present violent images that were never previously made available to audiences without undergoing strict censorship. His abilities to shock his audience made him famous as a “master of violence” but he has also proved he could depict a less immoral side of human nature as well. When other directors just took advantage of a more uncensored way of film making as a way to display acts of violence, Peckinpah used his newly granted rights of expression to show how gruesome the world he was living in had become. He proved that he not only was sensitive to ongoing social turmoil, but he also understood it historically as well as culturally. He wanted people to look at what unfolded on the screen and realize how horrible it really was and the real agony of what war and violence can create. He considered Americans to be brainwashed by media and an increasingly consumer culture. Since he felt that everyone was ultimately effected by this violent time period in American history and that nothing in the world went one way or the other and that things were mixed up, Peckinpah’s violence reflected that attitude by presenting no single attitude toward any one thing or person in his films. He depicted the brutality of a violent society towards anyone or anything that roamed into its path and changed the film industry in the process.