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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.

Even today, “Peckinpah” is still a magic name to the XY-chromosomal cinemaniacs among my now graying contemporaries. That’s what just about guarantees W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, A Revolution in Hollywood, And The Making of A Legendary Film a readership that’s pre-sold on Stratton’s claims for the greatness of Peckinpah’s achievement. Calling the book a labor of love would be an understatement; Stratton has steeped himself in every last detail of the genesis and production of a movie he plainly knows by heart. He’s also a spirited guide to Peckinpah’s abrasive worldview, which he’s no less plainly besotted with. But partly for that reason, his book inadvertently doubles as a reminder of the hoary time capsule Wild Bunch aficionados now inhabit, whether they like it or not.
They’re sure to be delighted by Stratton’s lively, massively informed chronicle of how The Wild Bunch came to be, from stunt man and aspiring screenwriter Roy N. Sickner’s 1963 germ for the idea onward. Although most of the principals are long gone — Peckinpah himself died in 1984, only 59 but so wrecked by booze, drugs, and increasingly erratic behavior as to be virtually unemployable – the author has talked to just about everyone who’s still alive and unearthed scads of memos and other documentation. His appreciative portraits of Peckinpah’s key collaborators on the project – cinematographer Lucien Ballard, editor Lou Lombardo, and composer Jerry Fielding, not to mention a cast including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan, along with familiar Peckinpah stock-company members L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson – are astute and valuable, and his account of the actual filming is a leave-no-stone-unturned mix of personality clashes, sordid behavior, and one technical challenge after another to be surmounted.
As for the results, Stratton’s verdict is unqualified. “I’ve never seen a better movie,” he concludes, which would come as unwelcome news to the makers of The Godfather, The Earrings of Madame De…, and North by Northwest, among others. You can’t fault his enthusiasm for The Wild Bunch’s most impressively wrought sequences: that opening massacre, the set-piece train heist midway through that combines masterly suspense with evocative moments of camaraderie, the stirringly martial “walk thing” Peckinpah improvised to bring the Bunch to their final confrontation, and the climactic “Battle of Bloody Porch” – as it was known to the crew – itself. But his feelings about the movie don’t appear to be remotely conflicted, and that’s enough to make you question his judgment at times. He’s so deep inside its world that there’s a bit of a Rip Van Winkle effect in his unwillingness to come to grips with how, half a century later, Peckinpah’s devotion to machismo at its most elemental might look damn near obscene, if not demented, to people with sensibilities different from Stratton’s own.
From a 21st-century perspective, lionizing the Bunch the way Peckinpah does almost can’t help making the director seem like a crackpot, not a visionary – despite the intensity he generated by seeing no apparent contradiction between the two. (Even those of us who doted on the movie’s hyperbolized masculinity back then can think it’s a fairly benighted ideal to aspire to in hindsight.) The mythic West of John Ford’s movies isn’t nearly as obstreperous, because the values being expressed are self-evidently archaic ones – perhaps to Ford’s regret, but archaic nonetheless, something the latter-day John Wayne ended up demonstrating every time he played a role in modern costume. Peckinpah, by contrast, meant The Wild Bunch’s impact to feel utterly contemporary; he never tired of saying that viewers in 1969 could see worse carnage on the nightly news, and that sanitized violence was a lie. That made his arrant sentimentality about the killers whose frayed but stubborn code of honor he was so rousingly valorizing even more incoherent.
The south-of-the-border setting opens up another can of worms, because what looked like unprecedented authenticity in 1969 looks more like flamboyant caricature now. Peckinpah’s infatuation with all things Mexican, especially by invidious comparison to his native U.S.A., was only a pose in the sense that self-dramatization was his natural idiom. “It’s all out front [there],” Stratton quotes him rhapsodizing about the country, more cornily than he knew – “the life, the color, the warmth.” All the same, this is still a movie that climaxes with a quartet of heroic, self-sacrificing gringos saving the Mexican Revolution from its own depravities by mowing down scores of luckless Huertista soldiers who aren’t much more humanized than ninepins. To his credit, Stratton does cite actor Ricardo Montalban’s complaint that watching the Bunch “annihilate the Mexican army” was bound to make Latino children say, “Gee, I wish I were an Anglo.” But it’s not an observation he’s got much interest in pondering.
He’s even more evasive about The Wild Bunch’s gleeful misogyny, taking refuge in prattle about Peckinpah’s avoidance of cliched depictions of sexpot Latinas in guerillerro bandoliers. That’s true enough so far as it goes, but it doesn’t have much to do with the euphoric howls I recall in theaters when Jaime Sanchez’s Angel blows away his faithless girlfriend with a vengeful scream of “Puta!” During the Battle of Bloody Porch, even William Holden’s Pike Bishop gets in on the act, grunting “Bitch” as he blasts some other treacherous female to kingdom come. Just about the only other women we see are prostitutes, only one of whom – the forlorn little hooker Holden’s character spends his final night with – is portrayed with any compassion. That’s probably because, unlike her on-screen sisters, she’s accomodatingly docile.
Here’s where you could wish that Stratton had enough critical acumen to recognize that, in this day and age, his love of The Wild Bunch had better be a case for the defense. It’s not impossible to mount one, because Peckinpah’s chaotic attitudes about manliness, violence, and the ecstasy of pushing Joseph Conrad’s “In the destructive element immerse” to its cinematic limit are so dynamically dramatized that he can make you complicit with his pathologies, turning your identification with them into a self-perception you can’t unlearn. Particularly if we’re exposed to them early, the movies that mean the most to us very seldom feel like matters of choice.
What’s undeniable is that The Wild Bunch is still a movie worth wrestling with, and possibly always will be. If Stratton’s book ends up sparking more arguments than he intended, that’s by no means a bad thing. While his enthrallment with his subject may have its blinkered side, he makes up for that with, among dozens of informative nuggets, the best portrait we’ve yet had of a filmmaker whose insurrectionary impulses were only equalled by his immersion in tradition. “I love cliches,” Stratton quotes Peckinpah telling future director Alfonso Arau, who played one of the Huertista general’s henchmen. “The work of the director is to love the cliché, adopt the cliché, and then work against it. You have to remake the cliché in a way nobody has ever made it before.” Love him or hate him, he also made sure that nobody ever would again.