Early in the filming of “The Wild Bunch” in the spring of 1968, its star, William Holden — winner of the best actor Oscar for “Stalag 17” in 1954 — had a day off. Holden spent part of the time watching his director, Sam Peckinpah, badger two character actors into giving him more for a minor scene.
“Is that the way you’re going to shoot the rest of the picture?” Holden asked. Peckinpah said it was. In that case, Holden replied, “I’m going home and studying.” As W.K. Stratton comments in his admiring and informative account of the making of “The Wild Bunch,” Holden had realized that “this was not going to be just another cowboy picture.”
The effort lavished on “The Wild Bunch” pays off in every frame — and that’s saying a lot because few if any Westerns have ever run so long. (The director’s cut I recently watched on DVD lasts two hours and 42 minutes.) Nor had any previous movie depicted gunfights so graphically. And Peckinpah’s use of slow motion, notably in a shot of a bridge full of horsemen collapsing into a river, has often been imitated but rarely to such balletic effect. Not only did “The Wild Bunch” immediately become one of the greatest Westerns ever made; it also rejuvenated a cinematic genre that Stratton calls “the hoariest of them all.”
Peckinpah was no stranger to the region or the genre. Born in 1925 to a ranching family in Fresno, he studied drama at the University of Southern California and developed an affinity for the plays of Tennessee Williams. The connection can be felt, I think, in the poetry of certain lines in “The Wild Bunch,” whose script Peckinpah co-authored with Walon Green. Here, for example, is Holden’s character, Pike Bishop, lecturing his fellow crooks: “We’re going to 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.”
After doing some acting, the young Peckinpah had worked as a dialogue director and screenwriter. In the early 1960s, he directed three Westerns, one of them a critical and box-office hit (“Ride the High Country”) and another a fiasco (the much-tampered-with “Major Dundee”). The flop might have finished Peckinpah as a movie director if he hadn’t landed an assignment to bring Katherine Anne Porter’s novella “Noon Wine” to television. So impressive was the result that, amid the creative upheaval of late-’60s Hollywood, Peckinpah managed to get the green light — and a big budget — for a project he had been obsessing over for years.
“The Wild Bunch” rides up late in the annals of Western lore. It’s 1916, the Mexican Revolution is underway, and Pike is leading his gang of aging outlaws, the Bunch itself, on what they hope will be their last heist. If their robbery of a railroad office comes off as planned, they’ll be able to hang up their guns for good. Another contingent, led by Pike’s old partner Deke Thornton (played by Robert Ryan), is working against the Wild ones and on behalf of the railroad. Before it’s all over, various Mexican factions will have weighed in, but despite all the contenders and double-crosses Peckinpah tells his story so well that the viewer is unlikely to lose the trail.
Long enamored of Mexico, Peckinpah insisted on shooting there and casting actual Mexicans — some of them professional actors, others not — as his Mexican characters. The role of principal villain, Mapache, went to Emilio Fernandez, one of Mexico’s leading movie directors.
Although Peckinpah did well by the Mexicans in giving them work and incorporating their music, including a haunting lament called “Las Golondrinas” (“The Swallows”), he can be accused of disrespecting them by staging one of those battles in which a handful of white men take out dozens upon dozens of darker-skinned foes. And yet Alfonso Arau — brilliant in the role of Mapache’s envoy to the Bunch — learned much from watching Peckinpah. He went on to direct films himself and stayed friends with his mentor until Peckinpah’s death in 1984.
Although “The Wild Bunch” did well at the box office, its violence outraged some critics. Peckinpah himself came to have reservations. “I made ‘The Wild Bunch’ because I still believed in the Greek theory of catharsis,” he said, looking for the film to have a violence-purging effect on viewers. “I was wrong,” he added. So, yes, a great many men and a few women are shot dead in Peckinpah’s masterpiece, but for me the repeated face-punching and rib-kicking simulated in such TV fare as “The Sopranos” is more visceral, and thus harder to take, than the blood spurting in “The Wild Bunch” (courtesy of squibs strapped to actors’ bodies and set off by remote control).
Be that as it may, reading W.K. Stratton’s fine book after watching “The Wild Bunch” can make for a rich aesthetic feast.
Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on the movies.
By W.K. Stratton
Bloomsbury. 352 pp. $28.