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The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch(1969)

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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

SYNOPSIS

In 1913, an aging group of outlaws look for one last score in a frontier that is quickly becoming modernized. When a railroad office heist goes awry, the gunmen flee to Mexico, tracked by bounty hunters and a former member of their gang. Once across the border, the five man outfit attempts to sell stolen rifles to an enemy of Pancho Villa but the plan ends in a bloodbath.

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Phil Feldman
Screenplay: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah; Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner (story)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Original Music: Jerry Fielding
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Film Editing: Louis Lombardo
Sound: Roger J. Miller
Assistant Directors: Clifford C. Coleman, Fred Gammon
Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O'Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Jaime Sanchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Emilio Fernandez (Gen. Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L.Q. Jones (T.C), Albert Dekker (Pat Harrigan), Bo Hopkins (Clarence 'Crazy' Lee), Dub Taylor (Rev. Wainscoat), Paul Harper (Ross).
C-144m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

Why THE WILD BUNCH is Essential

The Wild Bunch (1969) is not only an essential Western but a seminal work of violence and artistry that forever changed the landscape of motion pictures. What audiences saw before The Wild Bunch, in brief but glorious forays into violence such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was nothing compared to what they saw after it. Before The Wild Bunch, violence existed only in complete service to the plot, never as a visual motif in and of itself. After The Wild Bunch, violence on film would become something to be choreographed, not unlike a Busby Berkeley musical number, only in slow-motion and with plenty of blood splatter. In Sam Peckinpah's own words, "The Western is a universal frame within which it is possible to talk about today," and The Wild Bunch was made during the turbulent sixties when the Viet Nam War was at its height.

The movie employed techniques that may seem clichd today but that's only because practically every action/adventure director since 1969 has used those very techniques to the point where audiences have seen them employed time and time again. These techniques included the double-printing of action moments, seen in succession from different angles, to make them last longer. These were often employed with the liberal use of slow-motion and blood-bursting squibs in ridiculously high numbers. All of these techniques had been used before, including in the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde, but none of them had been used so much, so often and so relentlessly. They worked together to become the storytelling device, almost more than the script. Peckinpah biographer Paul Seydor wrote that the director always commanded his editors to "Introduce, develop, finish." This approach is vividly expressed in The Wild Bunch. "For all its violence, he saw in it a story of reunion, renewal and redemption."

But The Wild Bunch is essential for reasons outside its artistic accomplishments. It represented a new sense of cinematic freedom and change, one that emerged after the Production Code fell and the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system was enacted. The Wild Bunch was there to test it and show that a movie filled with violence and profanity could be released and succeed.

The Wild Bunch also demystified the western. Walon Green, who co-wrote the screenplay, said, "I always liked Westerns, but I always felt they were too heroic and too glamorous. I'd read enough to know that Billy the Kid shot people in the back of the head while they were drinking coffee." Sam Peckinpah couldn't have agreed more. This was expressed beautifully in the unforgettable opening credit sequence. The characters are presented alternately as living, breathing colorful characters, riding into town disguised as a small military unit, and then, with each freeze-frame, as mythic figures, etched in grainy black and white, representing a dusty and lawless past. The credits build up a slow tension as the men approach the railroad office they plan to rob. We even see their would-be captors - bounty hunters - hovering above on the rooftop of an adjacent building. When the credits end, the leader of the bunch, Pike (William Holden) draws his gun and tells his men, "if they move, kill 'em." The gunfight that follows resembles almost nothing from the westerns that came before save the costumes and horses. The violence, and the horrific way that violence is achieved (using people as shields; multiple bystanders slaughtered) signaled a demystification years in the making. Peckinpah later said, "I wasn't trying to make an epic. I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. I was trying to make a few comments on violence and the people who live by violence."

In addition, The Wild Bunch was a salute to the genre, paying tribute to classic western archetypes, like the grizzled old prospector type or the older, world weary men that keep fighting on long after their obsolescence. But this time, more than ever, the dirt and grit and filth was more emphasized, the colors, outside of the blood, were dull, brown and dingy.

The Wild Bunch received nominations for its evocative musical score by Jerry Fielding as well as nominations for Walon Green, Roy Sickner and Sam Peckinpah for Best Original Screenplay. Peckinpah was also nominated by the Director's Guild of America for Best Director and in 1999, the movie was selected for The National Film Registry by The National Film Preservation Board.

by Greg Ferrara

SOURCES:
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.)

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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah's style of filmmaking became the model for on-screen violence after The Wild Bunch was released and the careers of writer-directors like Quentin Tarantino cannot be imagined without Peckinpah's influence or this groundbreaking work.

"I want to be able to make Westerns like Kurosawa makes Westerns." - Sam Peckinpah

Walon Green based the character of Freddie Sykes on Howard, the prospector played by Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Peter Bogdanovich recalled talking to director Howard Hawks shortly after the release of The Wild Bunch and the Hollywood veteran told him, "I can kill ten guys in the time it takes him to kill one."

The very look of a death by gunshot has been enormously influenced by The Wild Bunch. Previously, gun shots didn't even cause a hole in the shirt. Gradually, filmmakers added a spot of blood, maybe even a drip. By Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there were squibs to discharge small bursts of blood but The Wild Bunch went all the way: Long, violent spurts of blood from every wound. Two years later, when Popeye Doyle shoots a man in the back that he's chasing in The French Connection (1971), the blood spurted out like a fountain.

The opening credits style of freezing the movement for each new credit became a standard in television and movies in the seventies after The Wild Bunch.

The film's music score was different too. In Film and television scores, 1950-1979: A Critical Survey by Genre, Kristopher Spencer says, "Fielding's score marks a break with the past and attempts to create a fresh interpretation of the genre."

Prior to The Wild Bunch, slow-motion action sequences had been featured in Bonnie and Clyde, the John Derek-directed war drama, Once Before I Die (1966) and John Boorman's Point Blank (1967).

The movie's demystification of the west was its largest pop cultural influence. Even the great westerns of Sergio Leone had romanticized the notions of the man with no name (Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy) and the cold-blooded villain (Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968). In The Wild Bunch there was no romanticizing. The outlaws and those pursuing them seem indistinguishable ethically. Everything is dusty and there are no bold colors. The West of Sam Peckinpah was a very real place where desperate men led desperate lives. Before The Wild Bunch, westerns inhabited a more distinct good vs. evil universe. After The Wild Bunch, it was a lot harder to tell the difference between the two.

by Greg Ferrara

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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

The critics were sharply divided on The Wild Bunch but it struck a chord and Peckinpah's reputation was made. Years later, the original version would be restored but too late for Peckinpah to see it. The restoration in 1991 would bring back flashbacks explaining Pike's relationship with Thornton, his previous relationship with a woman that ended tragically and shots that generally added more depth to Pike's character.

Sam Peckinpah got his start working with Don Siegel. In Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Peckinpah was given a cameo as Charlie, the meter reader. Later, Peckinpah gave himself cameos in Junior Bonner (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Convoy (1978).

Prior to working on The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah was developing The Diamond Story, an action-adventure movie set in Africa with Charlton Heston in the lead; it never got made.

Despite all the massive bloodshed in The Wild Bunch, and the Motion Picture Association of America's objection to much of it, it was only the cutting of Angel's throat that they deemed "unacceptable."

It wasn't until the 1995 restoration that audiences finally got to see the flashback revealing how Pike got his leg wound.

Phil Feldman, the executive producer of The Wild Bunch, had helped Francis Ford Coppola launch his feature film debut with You're a Big Boy Now in 1966. Feldman had also served as a deciphering analyst on codes during World War II.

Roy Sickner, who had originally come up with the idea for The Wild Bunch, was the original Marlboro Man used in television commercials for the cigarette manufacturer.

Besides working as second unit director on Winter A-Go-Go (1965), Sickner also performed stunt work on The Great Escape (1963), McLintock! (1963), the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) and Nevada Smith (1966).

According to one report, Sickner raised so much hell drinking and brawling in Mexico after arriving to work on The Wild Bunch that Mexican authorities physically escorted him out of the country, barring him from returning.

Walon Green, who wrote the screenplay from Sickner's story, met Sickner in 1964 when Green was dialogue director on Saboteur: Code Name Morituri (1965). Sickner was working on the film as a stuntman, doubling for star Marlon Brando in certain scenes.

Green later revealed the inspiration behind many of the main characters' names in The Wild Bunch. "Pike was a name I always wanted to use, it's a kind of carnivorous fish and it suggested someone who is tough and predatory...Gorch was [named] after a real mill-trash family I knew...Mapache means raccoon in Spanish, and it seemed to me something a peasant risen to a general might call himself....Coffer was named for a stuntman I knew named Jack Coffer who was killed. Jack was a real inspiration to me for the kind of guys who are really wild and crazy."

Green said he wrote The Wild Bunch, "thinking that I would like to see a Western that was as mean and ugly and brutal as the times, and the only nobility in men was their dedication to each other."

Peckinpah's work on Paramount's Villa Rides (1968) influenced the second half of the story greatly, specifically the Mexican revolutionaries and their need for U.S. guns and ammunition.

In the pre-casting phase of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah asked Jason Robards to play a role but the actor was committed to the Broadway run of We Bombed in New Haven, a play by Joseph Heller (Catch-22). The director also offered a role to James Drury, the star of the TV series The Virginian, but the actor could not take a break from his series to do it.

In his autobiography, Ernest Borgnine discussed the making of The Wild Bunch and intimated that some of the crew were often annoyed with Jaime Sanchez, who played Angel: "He was barely thirty at the time, and he was like a kid in a candy store. He just loved playing with his gun and he got to be a real fast draw. But it got to be irritating, having him constantly pull his six-shooter on us."

According to Susan A. Compo in her biography Warren Oates: A Wild Life, Bo Hopkins had not worked with blood squibs before. For his scene, where he is shot during the railway office holdup at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, he was hooked up to copper wire holding powder capsules. "They'd been putting wires on me all day, all up my legs and on my chest. They asked me if I wanted to wear a T-shirt, and I said, 'Oh no, I want to feel it so I can react,' Like a dummy, I didn't know they went off and caused blisters."

Like director John Ford, Peckinpah seemed to take delight in harassing particular actors on his sets. For The Wild Bunch, Strother Martin was often the target of his abuse. "I sensed that he liked me but I wasn't sure," Martin once admitted. According to editor Lou Lombardo, "Sam would ride the sh*t out of Strother...Strother was afraid of horses, for example. Sam gave Strother the tallest horse - and then made him mount on a downhill grade."

The director was particularly suspicious of studio executives and didn't ever want them hanging around his sets. He warned Lombardo, "Don't show anybody anything you cut until I see it. If Feldman walks in, pull the plug on the moviola."

Joe Bernhard, a friend of Peckinpah, once said of the director, "He thought if he showed violence the way it really is, people would shun violence."

Peckinpah said it was Emilio Fernandez, who plays Mapache, who gave him the idea to use the children killing the scorpions with ants. Fernandez said, "You know, the Wild Bunch, when they go into that town like that, are like when I was a child and we would take a scorpion and drop it on an anthill."

The Aqua Verde sequence, in which the Wild Bunch opens fire on Mapache and his troops, took thirty-two days to film, employing over 300 extras and more than 500 animals.

According to one source, Peckinpah wanted to add in the sound of flies buzzing in the post-battle scene at the end of The Wild Bunch and, without it, felt like the movie was incomplete.

The studio kept re-editing The Wild Bunch in an effort to make it more accessible and popular like True Grit or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the hit westerns of the day. Ironically, it is now The Wild Bunch that is more often imitated again and again.

The bounty hunters' death scene was to be an elaborate shoot-out but producer Phil Feldman suggested killing them off-screen entirely. Peckinpah liked it so much he wrote him to thank him saying, ""Your idea of taking out the killing of the bounty hunters was absolutely correct."

Future director Martin Scorsese was one of the first people to see The Wild Bunch, in a private screening with Jay Cocks, Judith Crist and Rex Reed. Scorsese thought it was a masterpiece.

.Peckinpah was often attacked for the excessive violence in The Wild Bunch but he defended it, saying "Actually, it's an antiviolence film...because I use violence as it is. It's ugly, brutalizing and bloody f*cking 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, we have violence within us. Violence is part of life and I don't think we can bury our heads in the sand and ignore it. It's important to understand it and the reason people seem to need violence vicariously."

Memorable Quotes from THE WILD BUNCH

Pike Bishop (William Holden): "If they move, kill 'em!"

Pike Bishop: "I'd like to make one good score and back off..."
Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine): "Back off to what?"

Pike Bishop: "He gave his word."
Dutch Engstrom: "He gave his word to a railroad."
Pike Bishop: "It's his word."
Dutch Engstrom: "That ain't what counts! It's who you give it *to*!"

Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins): "Well, how'd you like to kiss my sister's black cat's ass?"

Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan): "What I like, and what I need, are two different things."

Pike Bishop: "You boys want to move on or stay here and give him a... decent burial?"
Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson): "He was a good man, and I think we oughta bury him."
Pike Bishop: "He's DEAD! And he's got a lot of good men back there to keep him company!"

Tector Gorch: "Silver rings."
Dutch Engstrom: ""Silver rings", your butt! Them's washers! Damn!"
Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates): "Washers. Washers. We shot our way out of that town for a dollar's worth of steel holes!"

Pike Bishop: "If you two boys don't like equal shares, why in the hell don't you just take all of it?
"Well, why don't you answer me, you damn yellow-livered trash?"
Lyle Gorch: "Now, Pike, you know damn well..."
Pike Bishop: "I don't know a damn thing, except I either lead this bunch, or end it right now!"

Pike Bishop: "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!"

Deke Thornton: [upset] "Harrigan! Next time, you better plan your massacre more carefully or I'll start with you!"

Deke Thornton: "Tell me, Mr. Harrigan, how does it feel? Getting paid for it? Getting paid to sit back and hire your killings... with the law's arms around you? How does it feel to be so goddamn right?"
Harrigan (Albert Dekker): "Good."
Deke Thornton: "You dirty son of a bitch!"

Angel (Jaime Sanchez): "Would you give guns to someone to kill your father or your mother or your brother?"
Pike Bishop: "Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties."

Pike Bishop: "C'mon, you lazy bastard."

Pike Bishop: "A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can't stand to be wrong."
Dutch Engstrom: "Pride."
Pike Bishop: "And they can't forget it, that pride, being wrong. Or learn by it."
Dutch Engstrom: "How about us, Pike? You reckon we learned, being wrong, today?"
Pike Bishop: "I sure hope to God we did."

Dutch Engstrom: "At least we won't have to worry about Deke Thornton."
Pike Bishop: [laughs] "Hell, no; not after ridin' a half a case of dynamite into the river!"
Sykes (Edmond O'Brien): [calmly] "Well, don't expect him to stay there! He'll be along... and you know it!"

Dutch Engstrom: "They'll be waitin' for us."
Pike Bishop: "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Pike Bishop: "We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closin' fast."

Don Jose (Chano Urueta): "We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all."

Coffer (Strother Martin): "Mr. Thornton; you, ah, rode with Pike, what kinda man we up against?"
Deke Thornton: "The best. He never got caught."

Deke Thornton: [to his posse] "You think Pike and old Sykes haven't been watchin' us. They know what this is all about - and what do I have? Nothin' but you egg-suckin', chicken stealing gutter trash with not even sixty rounds between you. We're after men - and I wish to God I was with them. The next time you make a mistake, I'm going to ride off and let you die."

Dutch Engstrom: "Eh, "Generalissimo", hell! He's just another bandit grabbing all he can for himself."
Pike Bishop: "Like some others I could mention?"
Dutch Engstrom: "Not so's you'd know it, Mr. Bishop. We ain't nothin' like him! We don't HANG nobody! I hope, someday, these people here kick him, and the rest of that scum like him, right into their graves."
Angel: "We will. If it takes forever."

Dutch Engstrom: "Well, I'd say those fellas know how to handle themselves!"
Sykes: "They been fightin' Apaches for a thousand years; That's a sure way to learn."
Pike Bishop: "They ever get armed, with good leader, this whole country'll go up in smoke!"
Sykes: "That it will son, that it will."

Dutch Engstrom: "Give 'em hell Pike!"

Sykes: "Didn't figure to find you here."
Deke Thornton: "Why not? I sent them back; That's all I said I'd do."
Sykes: "They didn't get very far."
Deke Thornton: "I figured."
Sykes: "What are your plans, now?"
Deke Thornton: "Drift around down here. Try to stay out of jail."
Sykes: "Well, me and the boys got some work to do. You want to come with us? It ain't like it used to be; but it'll do."

Compiled by Greg Ferrara

SOURCES:
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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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

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

SOURCES:
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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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

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 [1972] and The Killer Elite [1975]). 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

SOURCES:
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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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

The film that branded Sam Peckinpah with the nickname "Bloody Sam," The Wild Bunch (1969) exploded in the era when Bonnie and Clyde (1967) redefined the portrayal of screen violence in a major studio production with glamorous movie stars and brought a more cynical attitude and bloodthirsty spectacle to the landscape of American westerns. In fact the original screenplay by Roy N. Sickner (a stuntman in the westerns) and Walon Green was influenced by the violent Italian genre known as "the spaghetti Western." In their story, a brutal gang is ambushed during a heist and chased to Mexico by a posse led by a former member of the gang. They agree to steal American rifles from a military transport for a Mexican General but end up facing the General and his entire regiment, fighting to the death in a hopeless attempt to rescue one of their own. The title was borrowed from the name of the gang led by real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but they had nothing on this bunch. The script was short on character and narrative development and big on violent set pieces. Lee Marvin was interested in playing Wild Bunch leader Pike Bishop - he had attached himself to the project even before it was sent to Peckinpah-and the studio saw the film as another macho action picture along the lines of previous Marvin pictures The Professionals (1966) or The Dirty Dozen (1967). Peckinpah saw something more and began rewriting the script, fleshing out the characters, enriching their stories with defining flashbacks and giving a dramatic foundation to the action and the spectacle of violence.

It's not exactly a romantic portrait of the outlaws of the west - these men are killers and thieves who think nothing of using civilians for hostage or cover - yet Peckinpah favors these men over the ruthless, hypocritical forces of law and order such as the "gutter trash" bounty hunters who see dollar signs rather than people and fire on anyone who wanders into their gun sights: civilians, railroad employees and even American soldiers. His vision never denies the brutal reality of their lives or their actions, but it does recognize their humanity under the gristle, as well their faults. Pike is a man who professes a code - "When you side with a man, you stay with him," he lectures his gang, "and if you can't do that, you're like some animal!"; it's a code he has failed to live up to with his own actions and by the end of the film, he faces his own hypocrisy and sets out to "get it right," in his own words.

Peckinpah was also fascinated by the sunset of the wild west, the era when the frontier was closing down in the face of the settling of the plains, the introduction of the automobile and the incursion of the highway across the open spaces. His first sunset western, Ride the High Country (1962), was about veteran cowboys and lawmen trying to hold on to their dignity as their way of life was disappearing, and for all the violence of the world of mining camps and boom towns, it remains one of Peckinpah's gentler evocations of the west. There's nothing gentle about The Wild Bunch. Even the idealized idyll in the Mexican village, an oasis in the unforgiving southwest desert where the gang stops to rest and lick their wounds, reveals an impoverished people victimized by bandits looting the countryside under the protection of military uniforms and appointments.

When he embarked upon The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah's reputation was in tatters. Major Dundee (1965), his previous film, had gone seriously over budget and over schedule and he was fired from his next project, The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Peckinpah needed to prove himself both reliable and bankable, but once again he was driven by his vision, not by career. In terms of both physical scale and narrative complexity, The Wild Bunch developed into his most ambitious film to date, but this time he had the support of a producer, Phil Feldman, who appreciated Peckinpah's vision and executives at Warner Bros., who went ahead even after Marvin dropped out to make Paint Your Wagon (1969). William Holden took on the lead as Pike Bishop, the aging leader of the gang, with Robert Ryan as his old partner and best friend turned nemesis Deke Thornton. The two former leading men had aged past their movie star days and the miles under their belts, as well as careers playing hard men and unsentimental survivors, were exactly what the parts called for. Pike's loyal lieutenant Dutch, originally written for a younger man, was reworked for Ernest Borgnine and veteran character actor Edmond O'Brien was brought on board as the grizzled old survivor Freddie Sykes (who serves as the gang's conscience). With newcomer Jaime Sanchez cast as the gang's youngest member, Peckinpah filled in the major supporting roles with familiar members of his stock company: Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the feral Gorch brothers, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as the most hyena-like of the bounty hunters and Dub Taylor as the preacher who leads his flock into the massacre that opens The Wild Bunch.

The film was scheduled for a 70-day shoot and $3 million budget, all of it on location in Mexico. Peckinpah came in 9 days over schedule and almost $3 million over budget, much of the time and money spent on the bloody massacre of the opening scene and the final battle between the four lone outlaws against an entire regiment, a masterpiece of choreographed chaos. Both called for hundreds of extras, tens of thousands of rounds of blanks and squibs (the small explosive charges behind packs of fake blood used to simulate a gunshot wound on a human body) and tens of thousands of feet of film. Peckinpah used six cameras, running at different speeds, shooting the action simultaneously, to get not just multiple angles but different values of slow motion, which he and editor Lou Lombardo (working on his first feature film) cut into what has been described as a ballet of blood and violence. Warner executives were thrilled with the footage and the initial edited scenes and signed off on the overages. There was an inevitable battle with the MPAA over the film's rating and some of the violence had to be shaved, but Peckinpah was sanguine about the deletions. "I thought that they were excessive for the point I wanted to make," he later told one interviewer. "I not only want to talk about violence in this film, I have a story to tell too and I do not want the violence per se to dominate what's really happening with the people."

It was Peckinpah's final cut that was originally released to theaters and it opened to divisive reviews-some critics raved, others decried the violence and brutality - and strong business in exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles but disappointing sales in the southwest, where it was put into general release like any other western. Nervous studio executives pressured producer Phil Feldman to cut the film by ten minutes and he acquiesced, making the cuts himself without consulting (or even informing) Peckinpah. The major casualties among the cuts are the flashbacks that show Pike's betrayal of Deke, his failures to live up to his code, his regrets, scenes that reveal his guilt and his disappointment with himself. The scenes were physically cut out of release prints (not always accurately), leaving the film literally butchered. Peckinpah never forgave Feldman for these cuts and it wasn't until long after Peckinpah's death that his original cut was restored and rereleased, first in a revival print that played in theaters and then on home video. In a last minute tussle on the road to redeeming Peckinpah's vision, Warner re-submitted the cut to the MPAA - which had already been given a R rating back in 1969 - and was awarded an X rating. It took some negotiating to gets its original rating back.

The Wild Bunch was released the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the feel-good buddy western that played the outlaws as gently comic, practically harmless figures, and the traditional John Wayne western True Grit, both of which made more money and received more awards attention (Wayne won the Oscar® for Best Actor while Butch Cassidy took home four Oscars®, including Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography). They are certainly audience-friendlier films but haven't the depth or the resonance of The Wild Bunch. An epic vision and a singular piece of filmmaking, it remains a classic American film and a masterpiece of the genre, a personal film on a vast canvas.

Producer: Phil Feldman
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah; Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner (story)
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Jerry Fielding
Film Editing: Louis Lombardo
Cast: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O'Brien (Freddie Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Jaime Sanchez (Angel), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Emilio Fernandez (Gen. Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L.Q. Jones (T.C), Albert Dekker (Pat Harrigan), Bo Hopkins (Clarence 'Crazy' Lee), Dub Taylor (Rev. Wainscoat), Paul Harper (Ross).
C-144m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Sean Axmaker

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teaser The Wild Bunch (1969)

Awards and Honors:

The Wild Bunch was nominated for two Academy Awards. The first, for Best Music, Original Score for a Motion Picture (not a Musical) for Jerry Fielding and the second, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced for Walon Green (screenplay/story), Roy N. Sickner (story) and Sam Peckinpah (screenplay).

The Directors Guild of America nominated Sam Peckinpah for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures

Other awards included the Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing (Dialogue) and Best Sound Editing (Feature Film), a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography to Lucien Ballard and, finally, in 1999 it was selected for the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board.

The Critics' Corner on THE WILD BUNCH

"The movie...is very beautiful and the first truly interesting American-made Western in years. It's also so full of violence--of an intensity that can hardly be supported by the story--that it's going to prompt a lot of people who do not know the real effect of movie violence (as I do not) to write automatic condemnations of it... Bodies, struck by bullets, make graceful arcs through the air before falling onto the dusty street, where they seem to bounce, as if on a trampoline. This sort of choreographed brutality is repeated to excess, but in excess, there is point to a film in which realism would be unbearable. The Wild Bunch takes the basic elements of the Western movie myth, which once defined a simple, morally comprehensible world, and by bending them turns them into symbols of futility and aimless corruption... The ideals of masculine comradeship are exaggerated and transformed into neuroses. The fraternal bonds of two brothers, members of the Wild Bunch, are so excessive they prefer having their whores in tandem. A feeling of genuine compassion prompts the climactic massacre that some members of the film trade are calling, not without reason, "the blood ballet."... In two earlier Westerns, Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965), Peckinpah seemed to be creating comparatively gentle variations on the genre about the man who walks alone--a character about as rare in a Western as a panhandler on the Bowery. In The Wild Bunch, which is about men who walk together, but in desperation, he turns the genre inside out. It's a fascinating movie and, I think I should add, when I came out of it, I didn't feel like shooting, knifing, or otherwise maiming any of Broadway's often hostile pedestrians." Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June, 1969.

"When a particularly violent film like The Wild Bunch comes along, there are usually three stages to the critical reaction. First, the film is attacked for its excessive violence. Second, it is defended by its admirers as a statement against violence. The excess of violence, it is argued, causes a reaction in the audience; the movie fights violence like an inoculation fights smallpox. The third critical stage comes when a critic actually attends the theater where the movie is showing. He returns horrified. The audience, he reports, was cheering and applauding and laughing; far from being revolted by the excessive violence, the audience loved it. What went wrong? One Chicago critic was so shocked by his visit to the theater that he suggested members of the audience might be in need of psychiatric help. I have a general theory, that audiences know what they're up to. If they laugh at violence, it is probably more useful to examine the violence than to psychoanalyze the audience. In the case of The Wild Bunch, this is particularly true. Let me admit to heresy: I enjoyed the violence, too." Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, August, 1969.

"The absurdist heroics of The Wild Bunch provide settings for good performances. William Holden and Robert Ryan, in particular, played their first good roles in years, and make the most of them. In the area of character acting the lowlife performances of Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Edmond O'Brien are particularly notable. Also significant is the whining depravity of Strother Martin in the role that established him as perhaps the last of the old-style character actors. The film is also distinguished by Lucien Ballard's cinematography and Jerry Fielding's tension-heightening score. The film's hero, however, remains Sam Peckinpah, whose subsequent films have demonstrated that he may possess the most comprehensive command of the resources of cinema of any American director since Orson Welles." - Harold Meyerson, Magill's Survey of Cinema

"The Wild Bunch is the first masterpiece in the new tradition of 'the dirty Western.' The promise of Ride the High Country has finally been fulfilled in what may someday emerge as one of the most important records of the mood of our times and one of the most important American films of the era." - Richard Schickel, Life magazine, 1969

"Peckinpah is such a gifted director that I don't see how one can avoid using the word 'beautiful' about his work. It is a matter of kinetic beauty in the very violence that his film lives and revels in." - Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic

"I think Wild Bunch scared people as much as it turned them on...It made Peckinpah seem like a man who could go over the top in terms of the conventional expectations of this town. It was a film about violence, not just using violence. It was symbolic of a new day in the treatment of violence. This wasn't violence being used as a surrogate for sex. It had a specific gravity..." - Charles Champlin, L.A. Times

"[A] raucous, violent, powerful feat of American filmmaking... sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belongs with the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers." - Jay Cocks, Time Magazine, 1969

Alongside the glowing reviews were many negative reviews as well. Arthur Knight wrote in The Saturday Review, "I very much doubt that anyone who was not totally honest in his wrongheadedness could ever come up with a picture as wholly revolting as this."

"The film winds up with a showdown that is the bloodiest and most sickening display of slaughter that I can ever recall in a theatrical film, and quotes attributed to Mr. Holden that this sort of ultra-violence is a healthy purgative for viewers are just about as sick." - Judith Crist, New York Magazine

"A chasm yawns and a river of blood flows between what The Wild Bunch wanted to be and what it is. Peckinpah could only have intended The Wild Bunch to be the last word on violence, but that too was to no avail. It is only the latest word. Several hundred senseless frontier killings don't add up to enlightenment. They only add up to several hundred senseless frontier killings." - Joseph Morgenstern, Newsweek

Compiled by Greg Ferrara

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