William Holden as Pike Bishop, grizzled bandit gang leader
Coahuila, Mexico, Spring 1913
Film: The Wild Bunch
Release Date: June 18, 1969
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Costume Designer: James R. Silke
We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast.
…is what Pike Bishop wisely tells his men, an aging group of outlaws still anachronistically robbing banks and trains on horseback with a six-shooter on their hips. Pike knows the times are changing, and it doesn’t take a water-cooled machine gun or a Mexican general’s Packard to drive the point home to them.
Today would have been the 97th birthday of William Holden, who starred in classics like Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Bridge on the River Kwai before taking on the role of the anachronistically self-aware Pike Bishop. Holden was one of many actors considered by Sam Peckinpah for the role; Lee Marvin had actually been cast but then turned it down to accept the higher-paying lead in Paint Your Wagon. It turned out well for Holden, who developed the character into one of the greatest movie badasses of all time… as even that sterling news source MTV agreed.
And Holden was right up there with some of the other great Hollywood tough guys, sharing the screen with Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Edmond O’Brien, plus familiar Western faces like L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin, and Dub Taylor. The film was helmed by the best of the ‘tough guy movie’ genre, Sam Peckinpah. It’s telling of his dark personality that Peckinpah, who both directed and co-wrote The Wild Bunch, restricted the primary roles to men, relegating female roles to primarily prostitutes… and duplicitous ones who’ll shoot you in the back, at that.
Interestingly, 1969 was the same year for another Western focused on the transition from the horseback to the modern era – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But while Newman and Redford were romanticizing the period, bantering about international travel, and riding around with Katharine Ross on bicycles, the Wild Bunch were cutting it up in Mexico with whores, making shady deals with revolutionaries, and eventually massacring an entire town… basically for pride.
And it’s that final gunfight – known in film lore as “Battle of Bloody Porch” – that people remember best. The violence remains controversial nearly fifty years later, even to an audience who has grown used to seeing exploding heads and gore on screen. Peckinpah explained the allegory of his violence being an everyday occurrence in the Old West to serve as catharsis to the then-current reality in Vietnam:
The point of the film is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it’s not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut … It’s ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it’s not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It’s a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there’s a certain response that you get from it – an excitement – because we’re all violent people.
It is, after all, Pike that kicks off the “Battle of Bloody Porch”. Sure, General Mapache drew first blood by slicing Angel’s throat, but Pike retaliated – fairly, according to his code – by shooting him down. The situation diffuses. Pike and his gang look around – the town is at their mercy. In response to Commander Mohr’s quizzical look, Pike tells him to go to hell by blasting a hole into him as well. And it is only then, when Pike kills outside his code, that all hell breaks loose. And does it ever.
What’d He Wear?
The Wild Bunch‘s status as a revolutionist Western is reflected in the characters and their costumes. This world isn’t full of “the good, the bad, and the ugly”; the West was simply roaming with good assholes, bad assholes, and ugly assholes. The good assholes are the guys like Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton who “gave his word to a railroad” to make good on his past crimes and track down Pike’s gang. The ugly assholes are the trigger-happy bounty hunters like L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin.
There’s no room for John Wayne or Tom Mix in their ten-gallon hats, leather vests, and red kerchiefs in this universe. The closest thing we’ll get to a hero is the black-suited Pike Bishop… one of the bad assholes in The Wild Bunch‘s west.
Pike’s Everyday Attire
Pike’s standard look is a white shirt with a black vest and black trousers. Holsters aplenty with a dirty hat to match his boots. All of his clothing has seen more action in the last year than most men will see in ten lifetimes.
Pike wears a white shirt because it’s all he has.It’s not a dress shirt per se, although he later wears it with a suit. He didn’t go to Macy’s and spend minute in front of a rack of shirts deciding whether or not he wanted a breast pocket… nor does he spend hours trying to rub out the ring around the collar. Hell, he doesn’t even care that he has a collar. He wears clothes because he has to, and these are the ones he’s got, goddamnit.
The white heavy twill shirt’s soft turndown collar is slim with edge stitching and a moderate spread. The large white plastic buttons down the front placket match the single buttons on each squared cuff. There are no pockets on the front, and the rear has side darts.
Pike’s black wool trousers are almost definitely part of his suit that he wears when first riding into Agua Verde. They are flat front with belt loops and front pockets that slant slightly back on the horizontal axis just below his belt line. They have a straight cut through the leg to the high, plain-hemmed bottoms.
Trousers fitted for belts were not yet popular for urban types, but more rugged Westerners and bandits like Pike may have been used to them by this point. In addition to his gun belt, Pike wears a thick black leather belt for his trousers with a rounded steel single-prong buckle in the front. The belt serves a dual purpose, both holding up his trousers and giving his shoulder holster something to attach onto.
Pike wears a black waistcoat that appears to be constructed from thick, softly napped cotton throughout most of The Wild Bunch. The single-breasted waistcoat has a shawl collar and six black buttons, although Pike always leaves his vest open to access the holster beneath it; if Pike did button it, the bottom would be flat without a notch or break.
Pike’s vest has two patch pockets with rounded bottoms. The back is likely satin with no adjustable strap.
Pike’s riding boots are well-worn black leather (likely ostrich) with pointed toes. Although the shafts have inlay stitching (as one typically sees with cowboy boots), Pike covers his boots with his trousers. A set of silver iron spurs are worn on his boots with brown leather buckled straps.
As one would also expect from a rugged Western bandit, Pike wears his ubiquitous dirty, wide-brimmed hat. Unlike his predecessors in the genre, it’s no ten-gallon hat, cattleman’s hat, or a “boss of the plains” but rather a more updated fedora-style brown beaver hat with a pinched front crown, thin dark brown leather band, and upturned brim.
Knudsen Hat Company manufactures a style appropriately called the “Bill Holden” and based on Pike’s hat from the film. This particular hat has a 4.5″ crown and a 3.5″ brim; I’m not sure how closely this resembles the specifications of Pike’s film-worn hat, but it looks pretty close. With a 20-22 week wait time for each of Knudsen’s custom-made hats, you should expect to wait half a year before actually receiving yours. It’s wise to remember that patience was a virtue in the Old West… even as cars and semi-automatics were replacing horses and six-shooters.
Occasionally, Pike ties a black kerchief around his neck under his shirt to catch sweat. Train robberies can be especially sweaty situations when conducted under a hot Mexican sun.
It’s no secret that Pike is a well-armed guy. As a man hunted day and night, he’s never without at least two sidearms and one long gun. His primary weapon, the venerable .45-caliber Colt M1911 semi-automatic pistol*, is carried in a brown leather tanker holster under his left arm. The open-top holster is secured into place on the left side of his trouser belt with a brown leather strap crossing his chest and back over his right shoulder.
* Yes, I know his M1911 is actually a Star Model B; I’ve said it enough in other posts. I’ll get to that later.
Pike wears his second piece, a .45-caliber Single Action army revolver, holstered on his right hip in a classic brown leather gun belt. The thick belt fastens in the front through a reinforced ranger-style brass octagonal-shaped buckle and has loops all around his waist to hold his .45 Long Colt rounds. Two strings on the bottom of the holster can be used to tie it securely around Pike’s thigh, but he ignores them and lets them dangle.
One scene finds the gang camping out for the night. Despite the nearby fire keeping them warm, Pike tosses on some extra layers to ward off the cold desert night. He wears a blue-gray flannel button-down shirt over a cream henley (or possibly a union suit) with three buttons showing through the opening. Most notable here is his brown trail jacket with its single-breasted front and darker brown camp collar and cuffs.
When Pike dresses up, his outfit can be argued as a post-Edwardian precursor to Reservoir Dogs with his simple black sack suit, white shirt, and slim black tie. Sure, it’s a Westernized version with his hat, gun rigs, and riding boots, but you get what I mean. (Plus, both Mr. Pink and Mr. Blonde did wear cowboy boots.)
Pike is the only member of the main cast who undergoes any real change of costume during the film’s main narrative besides the army uniforms donned for the opening bank raid. The trousers appear to already be part of his suit, and the matching black jacket is single-breasted with a low 3-button front stance. The suit coat also has large notch lapels, 2-button cuffs, a welted breast pocket that slants slightly forward, and flapped hip pockets.
Strangely, the suit coat also has a ventless rear which makes both riding on horseback and carrying a hip holster more difficult, especially when he keeps it buttoned.
Pike’s black necktie is very slim and very short with a flat bottom. The knot is relatively small, and the shortness of the tie matched with the low button stance of the jacket often causes it to flip up while he’s riding.
Although the black suit/white shirt/black tie combo often is called the Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction look (this post not excluded), the outfit certainly was well-used by Sam Peckinpah for his criminal male leads. Three years after The Wild Bunch, Steve McQueen’s “Doc” McCoy would wear something very similar when taking down a Texas bank in The Getaway.
Go Big or Go Home
In case you can’t tell, I love The Wild Bunch. It may be a long, raw, and more-than-borderline misogynist opera of violence on the surface, but it’s important to remember Peckinpah’s desired theme of condemning violence by showing its ugliness. Unfortunately, he was such a damn good filmmaker that this was and is often lost on audiences. The famous finale, of course, is what sticks out in most people’s minds. What most of these people aren’t seeing are the strong themes present throughout.
Theme #1 – War is Hell
The film’s protagonists are a group of gun-toting Americans that are actually sporting military uniforms when we meet them. Of course, any illusion that these men are legitimately soldiers is quickly shattered during the deadly opening robbery that forces our boys to head south into Mexico… foreign territory. Pike and his gang are pragmatic opportunists; they see the advantages to working with the corrupt General Mapache and eventually steal from their native country’s Army in order to get him his prized machine gun. Of course, all goes to hell when a series of double-crosses leads to the Wild Bunch facing off against Mapache. Pike acts, and Mapache dies. Conflict over? Sure. But then Pike gets that itch in his finger and takes out Commander Mohr, the German advisor. This sets off the final battle which sees most of both the Bunch and Mapache’s troops wiped out… as well as plenty of civilians. Women, children, old folks… no one is safe when the bullets start flying, whether they’re the Bunch’s bullets or those of the revolutionary soldiers. The My Lai Massacre didn’t become public knowledge until about six months after The Wild Bunch released, but Peckinpah was a Marine vet who served in Asia during World War II. He knew the horrors of war, and he knew that the reality of combat could only get worse.
Theme #2 – Times are Changing
One more obvious theme of The Wild Bunch is the classic fight of old vs. new. Butch and Sundance addressed it with a bicycle, and the Wild Bunch address it with guns. Pike himself realizes “those days are closin’ fast”, but what would you expect guys like Pike, Dutch, Tector, and Lyle to do? Switch careers? Sell bonds on Wall Street? Hell, no. These guys are career criminals, but there’s not much place for them anymore in the world of 1913. Even when they leave the U.S. for the more primitive Mexico, they’re confronted by gleaming Packards and water-cooled machine guns… stuff that would’ve blown Jesse James’ mind.
Theme #3 – Honor Among Thieves
Although Peckinpah set out to expose the ugliness of violence, he also was clearly trying to show how the importance of honor was shifting from generation to generation. Older guys like Pike and Dutch follow a code, and even the slightly younger Dutch is at odds with Pike’s stiff – and hypocritical – adherence to ethics.
Pike: What would you do in his place? [Deke Thornton] gave his word.
Dutch: He gave his word to a railroad.
Pike: It’s his word.
Dutch: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!
Peckinpah equates ethical strength with physical strength, and thus the most moral are the last to meet their inevitable fate. The young and aptly-named Crazy Lee, who has no qualms about murdering a room full of civilians ranging in age and gender, is the first of the gang to go. Once we get to the finale, the moral code starts taking the Bunch down. Angel, the youngest remaining gang member, certainly lives by a code and adheres to it… but he does so with brash violence, and he is the first to go. Next are the Gorch brothers, with Tector only slightly balancing Lyle’s wild bloodlust. Finally, we get Pike and Dutch, steadfast to the end. Although they were fighters, Peckinpah is sure to linger on the shot of Pike’s unfired Single Action Army, still in his holster. We know he fired a hell of a lot of bullets during the battle, but he still left one gun untouched. It’s significant that this is the Single Action Army, a gun symbolic of the “honorable” Old West… finally left behind in the wake of more modern and more violent technology.
And the oldest gang member, Freddie Sykes? His age implies the strongest moral fabric, and he goes on to join the “good asshole” Deke Thornton as they “ride off into the sunset”.
David Weddle notes in his 1994 book If They Move, Kill ‘Em! that: “Like that of Conrad’s Lord Jim, Pike Bishop’s heroism is propelled by overwhelming guilt and a despairing death wish.” Pike’s got a murky past, that we know. When he abandons a gang member at the beginning – even though Lee was a bloodthirsty young killer – he suffers from guilt:
When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal.
That line included, nearly everything out of Pike’s mouth is worthy of inclusion in the badass quotes hall of fame, whether it’s an insult:
Well, why don’t you answer me, you damn yellow-livered trash?
… a word of encouragement:
C’mon, you lazy bastard.
… or a sign that he’s ready for the inevitable:
Dutch: They’ll be waitin’ for us.
Pike: I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Wild Bunch is a classic “gun movie” for firearms enthusiasts, and it has even spawned “Wild Bunch shooting” where guys meet up to fire 1911s as well as classic rifles and shotguns in the spirit of the film’s Old West-meets-modern-weaponry tradition.
Old vs. new is all over The Wild Bunch, and it is especially prominent with the film’s use of firearms. Pike himself has an almost Newtonian approach; for each of his classic Western guns, he also uses what was then its cutting edge equivalent. He balances out his classic Single Action Army revolver with the new military .45 semi-automatic; he carries a Winchester lever-action rifle (a la John Wayne) but also uses the newer pump-action 12-gauge Winchester shotgun. And then, of course, there’s the machine gun.
The Wild Bunch continued the cinematic gunplay revolution that Bonnie and Clyde had started two years earlier. While Bonnie and Clyde horrified and intrigued its viewers with its stark depiction of violence, Peckinpah amped it up for his film and stated that he wanted the audience to come away with “some idea of what it is to be gunned down”.
Warner Brothers, which had also produced Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and all the best gangster flicks of the ’30s, had always used the same sound effect for its guns, regardless of the type of weapon featured. Peckinpah knew this was bullshit, and thus The Wild Bunch became the first major Warner Brothers production where each gunshot appropriately matched the weapon that fired it.
There’s even an anecdote from the set about Peckinpah firing a live revolver into a wall during production after being exasperated with the squibs provided by his crew. After screaming “That’s the effect I want!” it became clear that this would be no ordinary Western. And how.
Star Model B
You’ve seen me say it in posts about The Getaway, Dillinger, Three Days of the Condor, and The Untouchables, but The Wild Bunch was the film that set the industry standard for using the Spanish-made Star Model B in place of the 1911 pistol. 1911s had been popping up in movies since their inception, but the .45-caliber blank round’s notorious unreliability meant that few were seeing any on-screen action. The use of the then-groundbreaking semi-automatic pistols was a major plot point in The Wild Bunch, and the men use their pistols so frequently that it would have been ridiculously impractical to outfit the cast with blank-firing .45s, so the Star Model B was placed into each gang member’s holster (a tanker holster in Holden’s case).
(A few things need to be said in conjunction with this section so you don’t think I’m giving the film too much credit. The Sand Pebbles (1966) was probably the first major production to use the Star Model B as the 1911, but not nearly to the degree of action that The Wild Bunch did. Also in 1966, The Professionals saw Lee Marvin packing a genuine 1911 in another Western set during the Mexican Revolution. Both great films.)
Single Action Army
And what would any good Western be without a classic Colt Peacemaker? Seen in the hands of every Western star from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, it makes sense that our aging hero would still carry one forty years after it was new. Double action revolvers were standardized by this point, but an old-timer like Pike is definitely going to pack a Single Action Army… and you know a man is a real man when his backup weapon is a single-action .45 revolver.
Pike’s SAA in particular is a “Quickdraw” model with a 4.75″ barrel. I can’t say for certain if the manufacturer is Colt since so many other makers made their own replicas by 1969. It’s worth noting that the three most mature active members of the gang – Pike, Dutch, and Tector – each carry a secondary SAA while the younger and more wild guys – Lyle, Angel, and Crazy Lee – stick to just semi-automatics.
Winchester Model 1897 Riot
Pike’s primary assault weapon – and the one he chooses for the climatic showdown against Mapache – is a Winchester Model 1897 pump-action shotgun with a cut-down “riot”-length barrel. Shotguns were not unfamiliar in Westerns (remember the crude sawed-off double-barreled shotgun Walter Brennan carried in Rio Bravo?), but the more modern pump-action wasn’t popular until the late 1890s when Winchester rolled out its Model 1897. Pump shotguns had been around for at least fifteen years prior, but the Model 1897 put that type of weapon on the map.
The exact Winchester ’97 used by Holden was auctioned in April 2005 by Movie Madness as part of their “Profiles in History” set. The Wild Bunch featured both the Winchester Model 1897 and the newer Winchester Model 1912 in the gang’s hands. The major difference is the presence of a hammer: the Model 1897 has one while the Model 1912 does not. It is the newer, hammerless Model 1912 that Crazy Lee carries around the payroll office; it is the older Model 1897 that Pike prefers.
(It’s worth noting that the Mexican whore who shoots Pike is armed with a Luger, likely acquired due to the heavy German military influence the revolution was receiving. More signs of Peckinpah showing his work!)
Winchester Model 1892 Saddle Ring Carbine
While the Winchester ’97 shotgun may have been new to Westerns, the classic Winchester lever-action rifle certainly was not. The Wild Bunch places a Winchester Model 1892 Saddle Ring Carbine in the hands of both sides of the law.
The Winchester Model 1873 kicked off Winchester’s late century domination of the lever-action rifle game and has joined the aforementioned Single Action Army as one of the guns said to have “won the West”. Both the Model 1873 and its younger progeny, the Model 1892, have a near-ubiquitous presence in Westerns. To point again to John Wayne (and Rio Bravo), it was a ’92 Saddle Ring Carbine with a customized large lever loop that the Duke carried through many of his roles.
And, finally, we come to the Browning M1917, the water-cooled machine gun that the gang steals from its own army for Mapache before turning it against Mapache’s own troops. While it was technically anachronistic by four years, the recoil-operated machine gun had existed for thirty years by the time of the events in the film with Germany’s Maxim machine gun.
Like the 1911 and both Winchesters featured above, the M1917 is a John Browning design that was adopted by great effect by the U.S. military for several wars. Browning had originally filed his patent to develop a recoil-powered automatic gun in 1900, but it wasn’t until ten years later that he developed his water-cooled prototype that would eventually become the M1917. (Since this would have been 1910, I suppose one could argue that the Bunch got their hands on the prototype… but it’s unlikely.)
Although Browning was hard at work on his machine gun, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department didn’t give his innovation much thought until the U.S. was plunged into war in April 1917. Instantly, the government was at Browning’s doorstep and a test was scheduled at the Springfield Armory within the month. The M1917 stunned the testers with its reliability as they watched the weapon fire 20,000 rounds without incident, but the testers were blown away (not literally!) when the second trial featured more than 48 minutes of continuous firing from the M1917. Needless to say, the U.S. Army adopted the M1917 as its principal heavy machine gun. Nearly 43,000 had been manufactured by the time of the armistice in November 1918.
The M1917 itself is a water-cooled machine gun that feeds from a 250-round fabric belt of .30-06 Springfield rifle ammunition and is often served by a crew. The initial M1917 had a firing rate of 450 rounds per minute, but the updated M1917A1 variant could fire up to 600 rounds per minute. An aircraft-mounted variant also became popular as the war in the skies continued to accelerate.
How to Get the Look
Pike dresses for action rather than style. He just happens to look badass while doing so.
- White cotton twill shirt with slim spread collar, front placket, rear side darts, and squared 1-button cuffs
- Black napped cotton single-breasted vest with shawl lapels, 6-button front, flat bottom, two lower patch pockets, and satin back
- Black wool flat front suit trousers with slanted front pockets and straight, plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black neck kerchief, worn under shirt
- Brown beaver pinched-crown hat with dark brown leather band and upturned brim
- Black leather trouser belt with round silver-toned single prong buckle
- Black ostrich leather cowboy boots
- Brown leather buckled boot straps with iron spurs
- Brown leather ranger-style gun belt with brass buckle and right hip holster, for Single Action Army
- Brown leather tanker holster worn under left arm, for M1911-style pistol
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. For an example of operatic violence, at least watch the Battle of Bloody Porch. It’s no spoilers to see what happens; this is a Peckinpah film, and these are bad guys. No one gets out alive.
We’re not gonna get rid of anybody! We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be! When you side with a man, you stay with him! And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!
According to Wikipedia: “On May 15, 2013, The Wrap reported that Will Smith was in talks to star in and produce the remake. The new version involves drug cartels and follows a disgraced DEA agent who assembles a team to go after a Mexican drug lord and his fortune.” Christ, I hope this isn’t true…