The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, A Revolution in Hollywood, And The Making of A Legendary Film
The Wild Bunch wasn’t Sam Peckinpah’s favorite among his own movies, or so he used to say. He preferred its little-known, more capering follow-up, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a fable about cantankerous indomitability (in the grizzled person of desert rat Jason Robards) disguised as a whimsical lark. Starting with one of his rare affectionate portraits of women – Stella Stevens as the proverbial whore with a heart of gold, which doesn’t stop her brain from operating like an abacus – it’s got a quality rarely associated with him: charm.
Most likely, though, Peckinpah was just being contrary, since he undoubtedly knew that posterity would disagree with him. At least a couple of his other Westerns have their own dedicated cult followings: 1973’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, for one, whose reputation has steadily grown over the years. But he only made one whose barbaric romanticism and teeming visual energy seemed to simultaneously epitomize and explode the whole Western genre. Take The Wild Bunch out of his filmography, and he might be remembered – if at all – as yet another intriguing, ornery niche director who never delivered completely on his gifts.
While fans of Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia may disagree, no other movie of his went so defiantly for broke in showing off everything he could do. From the startling opening massacre during a botched robbery to the quarrelsome, larger-than-life dialogues among rough men testing their mettle against each other, it was as if Peckinpah knew in advance that this story about aging outlaws embracing their paradoxically exhilarating doom was his one shot at cinematic immortality. More prosaically, it was his bid to revitalize a career that was already fractious enough for Hollywood to have virtually written him off after he’d been unceremoniously fired from The Cincinnati Kid — Steve McQueen’s imitation of Paul Newman in The Hustler – just a few years earlier.
When it came out in 1969, The Wild Bunch was also the most violent movie any major studio had released up to then, culminating in the abattoir finale when the Bunch’s surviving members redeem themselves by slaughtering a corrupt Mexican general’s troops before they’re gunned down one by one. Peckinpah may have believed his own guff about wanting to deglamorize killing by rubbing the audience’s nose in its ugliness, but he couldn’t help turning it into a spectacularly staged, startlingly obsessive ballet instead. His willful primitivism and his sophistication alike were on display in all their contradictory glory.
That made discussing the movie’s merits proof of lunacy to reviewers who saw themselves as outraged moral arbiters first and knowledgeable judges of filmmaking brilliance only when the results didn’t seem likely to offend anybody. “Ugly, pointless, and disgustingly bloody,” one influential critic opined. Another deemed The Wild Bunch “undoubtedly the worst movie” of the year, which must have come as welcome news to the makers of, say, Paint Your Wagon, The Magic Christian, or Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.
Meanwhile, though, younger movie buffs, especially if they were male, were deciding that Peckinpah’s Homeric bloodbath was the most dazzlingly magniloquent, perversely beautiful thing they’d ever seen. Because my own generation’s aspiring cultural tastemakers were among them, you get one guess as to which camp’s opinion ended up prevailing in subsequent decades, if you can even call it an opinion. Revering The Wild Bunch as some sort of inarguably triumphant peak was more like a way of identifying one’s kindred spirits. By the 1970s, the movie’s raucous annual summer screenings at the Circle Theater in Washington, D.C., were a tribal ritual my friends and I never missed, and we had plenty of confreres nationwide.