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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: The Wild Bunch – The 50th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”. A 50th Anniversary Appreciation Of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch”. An Essential Western & One Of The Greatest Films Ever Made That Changed Movies Forever.

Few films can claim to do something that is truly original. But in the summer of 1969, while NASA was making the final preparations to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, director Sam Peckinpah took his own small step for cinematic innovation. Comparable in scale and sheer poetic force to Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai”. Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” is an astonishing motion picture, ranked as one of the top 5 best westerns ever made and one of the great films in cinema. 

“The Wild Bunch” is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year on July 18. Fifty years after it blasted its way onto the big screen to become one of the best shoot-’em-up’s ever made. The one that turned meanness into a haunting pictorial poetry and summed up the corruption of guilt, old age and death in the American fantasy of the Old West.

Peckinpah was a Marine in World War II, later apprenticed in Hollywood under the action director Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), and did more than anyone else to bring the traditional Western into the gloom of modern cinema. Throughout much of his adult life, Sam Peckinpah (“The Getaway”, “Straw Dogs”) was affected by alcoholism, and, later, other forms of drug addiction. According to accounts, he suffered from mental illness, possibly manic depression or paranoia. It is believed his drinking problems began during his service in the military while stationed in China, when he frequented the saloons of Tianjin and Beijing.

His personality reportedly often swung between a sweet, softly-spoken, artistic disposition, with bouts of rage and violence during which he verbally and physically abused himself and others. An experienced hunter, Peckinpah was fascinated with firearms and was known to shoot the mirrors in his house while abusing alcohol, it’s an image that occurs in several of his films. Many of his films have been noted for behind-the-scenes battles with producers and crew members, Peckinpah’s actions had run it’s course and damaged his reputation and career during his lifetime. 

Peckinpah was known to have his films deal with the conflict between values and ideals, as well as the corruption and violence in human society. His characters are often loners or losers who desire to be honorable, but are forced to compromise in order to survive in a world of brutality. He was given the nickname “Bloody Sam” owing to the violence within his films. He was known best for his visually innovative and explicit depiction of action and violence as well as his revisionist approach to the Western genre.

“The Wild Bunch” much like most of his catalogue of films, drew fire for its violence. Scenes of blood being erupted from bullet wounds in great gushing spurts. Peckinpah used slow motion to create a ballet of death that was both horrific and weirdly gravely beautiful. Despite the controversy, “The Wild Bunch” really isn’t about violence, it’s about character. Pike Bishop, played by William Holden in a career-best performance, leads his battered bunch of aging outlaws out for one last score in Texas before fleeing to Mexico. It is 1913, and the shrinking frontier is closing in on Pike and a group that includes Pike’s right hand, Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), old man Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), the whore-running Gorch brothers: Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson) and their ally Angel (Jaime Sanchez), whose girl has dumped him for General Ma-pache (an unforgettably vile Emilio Fernandez).

In April 1965, producer Reno Carrell optioned an original story and screenplay by Walon Green and Roy Sicker, called “The Wild Bunch”. In 1967, Warner Bros and Seven Arts producers Kenneth Hyman and Phil Feldman were interested in having Sam Peckinpah rewrite and direct an adventure film called The Diamond Story. Peckinpah was considered a professional outcast due to the production difficulties of his previous film, “Major Dundee” (1965), and of him being fired from the set of Steve McQueen’s “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965). Although Peckinpah’s stock had improved following his critically acclaimed work on the television film “Noon Wine” (1966).

At the time William Goldman’s screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had been purchased by 20th Century Fox, “The Wild Bunch” was ready to go into production. Warner Bros had quickly decided that “The Wild Bunch”, had several similarities to Goldman’s work, and “The Wild Bunch” would be produced quickly in order to beat “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to the theaters.

By the fall of 1967, Peckinpah was rewriting the screenplay and heading into production. The principal photography was shot entirely on location in Mexico. Peckinpah’s epic work on “The Wild Bunch” was inspired by his hunger to return to motion pictures, and to showcase America’s growing frustration with the Vietnam War, and what he personally perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time. He set out to make a film which portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period but as well the crude men attempting to survive the era. His vision was fully realized in “The Wild Bunch”.

The film was shot with an anamorphic widescreen format. Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, also made use of telephoto lenses, that allowed for objects and people in both the background and foreground to be compressed in perspective. The effect is best seen in the shots where the Bunch makes the walk to Mapache’s headquarters to free Angel. As they walk forward, a constant flow of people passes between them and the camera; while most of the people in the foreground are as sharply focused as the Bunch themselves. 

The editing of the film has multiple angles that were spliced together in rapid succession, often at different speeds, placing a greater emphasis on the chaotic nature of the action and the gunfights. Lou Lombardo, had previously worked with Peckinpah on “Noon Wine”, he was personally hired by the Peckinpah to edit “The Wild Bunch”. Peckinpah had wanted an editor who would be loyal to him, one of Lombardo’s first contributions was to show Peckinpah an episode of the TV series “Felony Squad” he had edited in 1967. 

The episode, entitled “My Mommy Got Lost”, included a slow motion sequence where Joe Don Baker is shot by the police. The scene mixed slow motion with normal speed, having been filmed at 24 frames per second but triple printed optically at 72 frames per second. Peckinpah was thrilled and told Lombardo: “Let’s try some of that when we get down to Mexico!” The director would film the major shootouts with six cameras, operating at various film rates, including 24 frames per second, 30 frames per second, 60 frames per second, 90 frames per second, and 120 frames per second. When the scenes were eventually cut together, the action would shift from slow to fast to slower, giving time an elastic quality never before seen in motion pictures up to that time.

By the time filming wrapped on “The Wild Bunch”, Peckinpah had shot 333,000 feet of film with 1,288 camera setups. Lombardo and Peckinpah remained in Mexico for six months editing the picture. After initial cuts, the opening gunfight sequence ran 21 minutes. By cutting frames from specific scenes and intercutting others, they were able to fine-cut the opening robbery down to five minutes. The creative montage became the model for the rest of the film and would “forever change the way movies would be made”.

Further editing had to be done to secure a favorable rating from the MPAA, which was in the process of establishing a new set of codes. Peckinpah and his editors cut the film to satisfy the new, expansive R-rating parameters which, for the first time, designated a film as being unsuitable for children. Without this new system in place, the film could not have been released with its explicit images of bloodshed.

Peckinpah stated that one of his goals for this movie was to give the audience “some idea of what it is to be gunned down”. A memorable incident occurred, to that end, as Peckinpah’s crew were consulting him on the “gunfire” effects to be used in the film. Not satisfied with the results from the squibs his crew had brought for him, Peckinpah became exasperated and finally hollered: “That’s not what I want! That’s not what I want!” He then grabbed a real revolver and fired it into a nearby wall. The gun empty, Peckinpah barked at his stunned crew: “THAT’S the effect I want!!”. He also had the gunfire sound effects changed for the film. Before, all gunshots within Warner Bros movies sounded identical, regardless of the type of weapon being fired. Peckinpah insisted that each different type of firearm have its own specific sound effect when fired.

Peckinpah had spread gore over the bodies of actors and extras because he was attempting to do the one thing that America cinema and TV had failed to do: present violent death as something real. He was coming closer to it than any American director ever had. Ernest Borgnine in real life, had served with Patton in Europe during World War II. During filming Borgnine, broke down in tears because the carnage Sam Peckinpah was creating for the Battle of Bloody Porch sequence was too realistic, so much so that it evoked memories of real combat. With his dozens of squibs and gallons of fake blood, Peckinpah was inventing a new vocabulary for violence in film, this would change movies forever.

The promotional material for “The Wild Bunch” boasted that it used more bullets than the real Mexican revolution. Sure it was slightly tasteless, but it had a point. An estimated 90,000 rounds of blank ammunition were employed, and when the first day of shooting wrapped the company had run out of both ammo and fake blood. During the course of the shoot, Peckinpah raged that the squibs were not sufficiently realistic and demonstrated what he wanted with live gunshots. The props department responded by filling the squibs with more of the red liquid and raw meat. Satisfied, Peckinpah insisted that actors wore them front and back to mark the entry and egress of every bullet.

The climactic shootout of “The Wild Bunch” lasted only five minutes but five hellish minutes, and after that violence in the movies was never the same thanks to Peckinpah. “The Wild Bunch” is a big budget theatrical release, it was Peckinpah’s do or die chance to redeem himself and to revive his career. Neither Peckinpah nor anyone else knew at the time that the film would turn out to be a work of art that would radically revise Hollywood’s ideas about how violence is portrayed on screen.

Produced on a budget of $6 million, the film grossed $10.5 million at the US box office in 1970 and another $638,641 in the US on its 1995 restored box-office release, making a total of $11,138,641. It was the 17th highest-grossing film of 1969. In 1999, the U.S. National Film Registry selected it for preservation in the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. 

There are a few versions of the film available: 

• The original, 1969 European release is 145 minutes long, with an intermission (per the distributor’s request, before the train robbery)

• The original, 1969 American release is 143 minutes long

• The second, 1969 American release is 135 minutes long, shortened to allow more screenings

• The 1995 re-release (labeled “The Original Director’s Cut”, available in home video) is 145 minutes long and identical to the 1969 European release.

In 1993, Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the MPAA ratings board prior to an expected re-release. The originally R-rated film was re-rated to an NC-17, which delayed the release. The controversy was linked to an extra 10 minutes added back to the film, although none of this footage contained graphic violence. Warner Bros did trim some footage to decrease the running time and to ensure additional daily screenings in theaters. 

Today, almost all of the versions of the film include the missing scenes. Warner Bros had released a newly restored version in a two-disc special edition in 2006. It includes an audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars, two documentaries concerning the making of the film, and never before seen outtakes.

In 2011 it was announced by Warner Bros that a remake of “The Wild Bunch” was in the works. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“Gran Torino”, “PayBack”) was hired to develop a new script. With the untimely death of Tony Scott in 2012, who was scheduled to direct, put the project in limbo. In 2013, The Wrap reported that Will Smith was in talks to star in and produce the remake. The new version would involve drug cartels and follows a disgraced DEA agent who assembles a team to go after a Mexican drug lord and his fortune. No director has been chosen, and a new screenwriter was being sought. In 2018, it was announced that actor and director Mel Gibson would co-write and direct a new version of The Wild Bunch. The plans for Gibson’s film is currently in post production. 

Sam Peckinpah was not a subtle director, he preferred bold images. He simply lets beauty and terror pour out of him in powerful, poetic bursts that mark him still as a film master and “The Wild Bunch” as a bruising and brilliant work of art. It’s a cinematic touchstone, while influencing a generation of movie makers, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino to Hong Kong action legend John Woo. It is a masterpiece pure and simple and is one of the great defining moments of modern movies and “I wouldn’t have it any other way”.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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