The Wild Bunch
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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 ½ 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