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The origins of The Wild Bunch cannot be fully understood without examining the early career of director Sam Peckinpah. He had worked with the great Don Siegel on five films as Dialogue Director. Of Siegel, Peckinpah later said, "He was my 'patron' and he made me work and made me mad and made me think." In 1955, before his last film with Siegel (the 1956 crime drama, Crime in the Streets), he began writing for television, working on such shows as Gunsmoke, Broken Arrow, Tales of Wells Fargo, Zane Grey Theater and The Rifleman which he also co-created and even directed on a few occasions. It was clear that the western was his preferred genre and when he had the chance to create his own show, he made it another western, entitled, naturally, The Westerner. It starred Brian Keith as Dave Blassingame, described by Peckinpah as a "drifter and a bum; illiterate, usually inarticulate. He is as realistic a cowboy as I could create." He wanted the show to portray the reality of the wild west, which is to say, dirty, mean and brutal. It only lasted a season.

From there Peckinpah made his feature film debut, directing Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara in a Western - The Deadly Companions (1961) - shortly before the two stars' more famous pairing the same year in The Parent Trap. After the modest success of The Deadly Companions and Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah directed Major Dundee (1965) with Charlton Heston which was considered a critical and financial failure. Shortly after, he was fired from The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and his desire to become a successful, independent director seemed in jeopardy. But unknown to him, the wheels were already in motion for The Wild Bunch.

Roy Sickner, Hollywood stuntman (he had worked briefly on Major Dundee), had dreamed up a story of a violent gang of outlaws looking for one more big score. He wanted his close friend Lee Marvin to star. He pitched the story to Peckinpah early on in the process and talked up the idea around Hollywood circles. Then, Lee Marvin won the Oscar® for Best Actor for Cat Ballou (1965) and told Sickner if he still wanted him to do the movie, there had to be a screenplay ready. Sickner immediately got in touch with Walon Green, whom he had met when doing stunt work on Morituri (aka Saboteur: Code Name Morituri, 1965) where Green was Dialogue Director. In Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, edited by Stephen Prince, Green recalled that "The main genesis of the screenplay comes from several things...I lived in Mexico and worked there for about a year and a half. The Wild Bunch was partly written as my love letter to Mexico." He also mentioned some other influences: "I had just read Barbara Tuchman's book The Zimmerman Telegram, which is about the Germans' efforts to get the Americans into a war with Mexico to keep them out of Europe...I had also seen this amazing documentary, Memorias de Un Mexicano, that was shot while the revolution was actually happening." Another obvious inspiration was the true historical account of Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, who had been branded "the Wild Bunch" by the press of their day.

Green set about writing the screenplay and by 1967 Peckinpah was developing ideas for the story Sickner had pitched to him earlier. With Peckinpah attached, Lee Marvin set to star and Green finalizing the screenplay, it looked like The Wild Bunch was ready to go. During preproduction however, Lee Marvin suddenly bowed out. He'd been offered a million dollars to do Paint Your Wagon (1969) and couldn't resist. Peckinpah saw it as an opportunity.

The director had already developed a great working relationship with his producer on the project, Phil Feldman, who, unlike so many producers Peckinpah had experience with, before and after, was truly helpful and based all his decisions and recommendations on what was best for the final film. Peckinpah and Feldman went through a list of older Hollywood actors (James Stewart, Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck were considered) until they got to William Holden. Peckinpah loved him in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Stalag 17 (1953) and felt he was perfect for the part. Peckinpah had started to expand Pike Bishop's character and was having doubts about Lee Marvin's ability to project what he needed. With Holden, he had no doubts at all. For the rest of the cast, the director mostly used actors he had used before such as L. Q. Jones, Strother Martin, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Emilio Fernandez. Glenn Ford was briefly considered for the role of Deke Thornton but the part eventually went to Robert Ryan. Jaime Sanchez, a rising, young Puerto Rican actor, was cast as Angel, the gang's sole Mexican member, and Edmond O'Brien was hired to play the grizzled old prospector, Freddie Sykes.

By March of 1968, production was ready to roll. Peckinpah had been given 70 days and three million dollars to film The Wild Bunch on location in Mexico. By the time it was over, filming some of the most complicated and extraordinary gun battles in movie history, that budget would double but the scheduled shooting time would only be exceeded by nine days. Before filming, he wrote in a letter to his friend, Charlton Heston, that The Wild Bunch "might turn out to be a reasonably good film." Afterwards, he would say, "Of all the projects I have ever worked on, this is closest to me."

by Greg Ferrara

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch Edited by Stephen Prince (Cambridge Film Handbooks)
Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah by Marshall Fine (Donald I. Fine, Inc.)
Ernie: The Autobiography by Ernest Borgnine (Citadel Press)
Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden by Bob Thomas (St. Martin's Press)
Warren Oates: A Wild Life by Susan A. Compo (University Press of Kentucky)

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