Sam Peckinpah's collaboration with producer Phil Feldman on The Wild Bunch
started out better than any he'd ever had, or would ever again. L.Q. Jones commented, "If it wasn't for Phil Feldman, I don't think Sam would have made anything of consequence. Phil understood that you don't harness a hummingbird." Feldman gave Peckinpah tips on characters, dialogue lines, scene placement and even changed Peckinpah's mind on how the scorpions-consumed-by-ants shots should be integrated into the opening credits. "In response to Feldman's recommendations," according to Stephen Prince in Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies
, "the sequence was reshaped so that the scorpion-ant imagery is integrated more efficiently with the surrounding material... The result was a memorably poetic and symbolic sequence commenting on the human appetite for cruelty and savagery that Peckinpah believed underlay so much of recorded history."
As for the look of The Wild Bunch
, Peckinpah had long since decided on where he wanted to go with it. He recalled a hunting trip during the filming of Ride the High Country
(1962) and after shooting a buck, told a friend, ""The bullet went in the size of a dime. But the blood on the snow was the size of a salad plate. That's the way violence is. That's the way death is. And that's what I want to do on film."
He had also met up with Lou Lombardo, a television editor he had worked with before who now wanted to work on features. Lombardo showed Peckinpah how he had edited a death scene for a TV show, Felony Squad
. He had triple-printed a death scene which made it last much longer, using slow-motion and different angles. Said Lombardo, "That impressed Feldman and Sam too. He said, 'That's how we're going to do The Wild Bunch
- but not all of it.'"
The shoot itself went off surprisingly well. In all 79 days there were only two small accidents (Ben Johnson broke his finger on the machine gun and William Holden burned his arm with a misfired squib) but the dust and heat were relentless. According to legendary stuntman Joe Canutt, who also worked on Peckinpah's Major Dundee
(1965), "We were out in an area that was so dry the cactus had dried up and the horned toads carried canteens." Nevertheless, Peckinpah insisted that the movie had to be filmed in Mexico. Prior to The Wild Bunch
, Peckinpah had worked on the Paramount script for Villa Rides
(1968) and had already worked Pancho Villa into the script, indirectly, through the subplot involving the stolen army guns. Some of the locations used were even evident in footage shot decades before during the actual Mexican revolution.
Peckinpah would occasionally make some changes to the script and certain scenes as he went along. For example, he added the character of Crazy Lee to the opening railroad office robbery and hired Bo Hopkins to play him (Hopkins would work again with Peckinpah on The Getaway
 and The Killer Elite
). Or he would drop dialogue he deemed unnecessary in scenes where the action told the whole story such as the line Ernest Borgnine delivers to William Holden - "We're doing it right this time" - during the final massacre. The director would also drive his crew so hard that it sometimes created friction and confrontations between him and certain cast members. Early in the shooting, William Holden threatened to walk off the set if Peckinpah continued to verbally abuse the crew in his presence. Robert Ryan threatened to punch the director after he made him spend ten days in costume and makeup without filming any scenes or allowing him a few days off to campaign for Senator Robert Kennedy. And Ernest Borgnine also promised to "beat the sh*t out" of Peckinpah if the director didn't allow him some relief from the throat-clogging dust that was affecting the actor's breathing on location. The editor, Lou Lombardo, would later state, "Over time, we became the Wild Bunch. I saw what Holden was doing. He was playing Sam. He was running the bunch like Sam ran the crew."
For the key scene in which Pike (Holden) blows the bridge out from under Deke (Ryan), Peckinpah gave very specific instructions to special effects technician Bud Hulburd, Who was no expert on dynamite but was using fifty to sixty sticks of it for the explosive effect. Stuntman Joe Canutt was concerned that the men on horseback could be hurt or killed if they went into the water too early before the final dynamite charge went over. But Hulburd refused to heed Canutt's warning so, according to Marshall Fine in Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah
, "Unbeknownst to Peckinpah and Hulburd, Canutt enlisted Gordon Dawson [in charge of the Costume & Wardrobe Department] to stand near Hulburd holding a club behind his back. Dawson's instructions from Canutt were explicit: If anyone goes into the water before Hulburd blows the right charge, hit Hulburd over the head with the club and knock him out before he can set off the last explosive. Fortunately for everyone, the sequence went off as planned. No one was accidentally blown up or clubbed over the head."
The stolen army guns and the shootout with the Mexican and German militaries were to provide the climax to the extraordinary film. But that very violence, so integral to the meaning of the story, was already causing problems with the Motion Picture's production code. When The Wild Bunch
started filming, the production code was still in place. Well before its release, the production code was replaced by a ratings system that was very liberal and lenient in terms of what could be allowed on movie screens. But during the filming, that outdated production code was the cause of many of the film's changes in an attempt to rein in the bloodshed. The worst cut, no pun intended, comes when the throat of one of the gang members is sliced near the climax. The studio demanded no blood there and the scene depicts just the knife going across the throat with no spraying geyser of blood.
Other cuts came after the initial shoot was done. The studio previewed The Wild Bunch
and audience reactions were often negative and hostile. Some sample comments were "Do not release this film. The whole thing is sick," and ""The worst potpourri of vulgarity, violence, sex and bloodshed I've seen put together." The studio wired Peckinpah expressing the desire to cut the film further to go for a more positive response. Peckinpah agreed but only to one print to be run in one theatre. The rest of the theatres would show his initial cut. The studio had Phil Feldman cut the required scenes and then released all
prints this way. After such a productive relationship with Feldman for so long, Peckinpah felt betrayed. It influenced his outlook on producers from that point on.
One thing that wasn't cut was the final shootout in The Wild Bunch
. Its machine gun blazing glory was left intact. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates all played the scene to the hilt and it was all filmed in a surprisingly short amount of time. The scene was unlike any other in any movie preceding it. During a screening in New York, Peckinpah invited Jay Cocks, of Time
magazine, who brought his friend Martin Scorsese. They sat in an empty Warner Bros. screening room with only two other critics, Judith Crist and Rex Reed. That final scene knocked them out of their seats. Recalled Scorsese, "We were mesmerized by it; it was obviously a masterpiece. It was real filmmaking, using film in such a way that no other form could do it; it couldn't be done any other way. To see that in an American filmmaker was so exciting." Jay Cocks remembered that he and Scorsese "literally turned to each other at the end and were stunned. We were looking at each other, shaking our heads, like we had just come out of a shared fever dream."
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)