Sam Peckinpah’s film The Wild Bunch is the story of a gang of outlaws who are one big steal from retirement. When their attempted train robbery goes awry, the gang flees to Mexico and falls in with a brutal general of the Mexican Revolution, who offers them the job of a lifetime. Conceived by a stuntman, directed by a blacklisted director, and shot in the sand and heat of the Mexican desert, the movie seemed doomed. Instead, it became an instant classic with a dark, violent take on the Western movie tradition.
In The Wild Bunch, W.K. Stratton tells the fascinating history of the making of the movie and documents for the first time the extraordinary contribution of Mexican and Mexican-American actors and crew members to the movie’s success. Shaped by infamous director Sam Peckinpah, and starring such visionary actors as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, and Robert Ryan, the movie was also the product of an industry and a nation in transition. By 1968, when the movie was filmed, the studio system that had perpetuated the myth of the valiant cowboy in movies like The Searchers had collapsed, and America was riled by Vietnam, race riots, and assassinations. The Wild Bunch spoke to America in its moment, when war and senseless violence seemed to define both domestic and international life.
The Wild Bunch is an authoritative history of the making of a movie and the era behind it.
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About the Author
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Roy N. Sickner was by any measure a piece of work. He was born Roy A. Cooley in Arizona, but his family relocated to Los Angeles when he was young. For all intents and purposes, he was an L.A. kid. Before his twelfth birthday, both his middle and last names changed. His near-lifelong friend Buck Holland remembered him as being a wild guy, even back in junior high school — wild, but also a hell of an athlete and a tough hombre. Sickner told school friends that his father was a full-blood Apache from Tree Branch, Arizona. They bought into it, even if they were not sure where exactly Tree Branch, Arizona, was — or even if it actually existed. As he tore up the football field at Santa Monica High, he did indeed seem like some sort of latter-day Jim Thorpe. He ran faster than anyone else, he was stronger than anyone else, and he possessed a winner's spirit. He also took up skiing and was a natural at it, enough so that he turned pro for a couple of years after high school. (Skiing would remain a passion for him, and eventually on the slopes he met businessmen who helped shape his career.) Beyond his athletic prowess, Sickner could endure endless physical punishment. He kept on keeping on, even if injured, never slowing down. He also indulged in crazy high jinks that filled the whiskey hours between dusk and dawn. He grew up to be one of those 1950s guys who could booze it up all night and still show up early for work to put in a hard, full day, impressing everyone he worked with, even if word spread to use caution before accepting an offer to go out drinking with him.
As an Angeleno with athletic skills and an unbreakable constitution, Sickner found his way into his hometown's highest-profile industry. Filming movies had always required the services of stuntmen, going all the way back to the age of the silent two-reelers. When the fifties turned out to be a golden age of the Western, it upped the need for doubles willing to fall off buildings or be dragged by horses. As with most other things in his life, Sickner was a natural at it. Though he convinced his high school buddies that he was half-Apache, Sickner never became much of a horseman, at least in the estimation of his friend Holland, who joined him as a stuntman. Sickner mastered everything else. He befriended Roy Jenson, another rowdy stuntman and actor, about whom Jenson's friend Texas-born novelist James Crumley wrote, he "makes looking mean, downright rock-hard bad, look easy." Sickner and Jenson developed the reputation for staging fight scenes better than anyone else in the business, using at least in part what they learned in real barroom brawls during the wee hours. By the beginning of the 1960s, Sickner was at the absolute top among the stuntmen working in Hollywood.
The major studios were all but moribund, victims of the passing of the moguls who'd built them, the assault on their audience base by TV, the anti-Hollywood sentiment of the Second Red Scare, the taxing of imported American movies by foreign markets, and the antitrust court rulings that forced the studios to sell off their theater chains. The studios also struggled to adapt to the tastes of a changing America, especially those of younger moviegoers. RKO, one of the Big Five studios, ceased production before the 1950s ended. A television production company, Desilu, owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, bought RKO's facilities and used the soundstages that gave birth to Citizen Kane to churn out thirty-minute installments of idiot-box pabulum.
But the decline of the studio system brought about opportunities in Hollywood that were all but inconceivable twenty years earlier. More and more, the studios were acting as distributors for films made by independent production companies. Often, this absolved the studios of actually investing money and resources into the making of a movie, though sometimes the studios did pony up some production money. A person with Sickner's connections could put together a project and sell it to an independent production company. After that, all involved would have to chase the money, recruit the star power, and then convince a studio that their product was worthy of distribution. If all the pieces fell into place, someone could go from stuntman and bit actor to producer pretty quickly. It just required the right project. The right star connected to it. And the right set of moneymen lined up to support it.
In 1963, Sickner worked stunts on a Yul Brynner flop from United Artists called Kings of the Sun alongside Jenson and another friend, Chuck Hayward, who often doubled for John Wayne. While in Mexico shooting the movie, Sickner began to talk to Hayward about an idea he had for his own film. The main characters were vague, and the storyline rudimentary at best: In the 1870s, a group of gringo outlaws rob a train someplace north of the Rio Grande, then escape to Mexico with a posse hot on their heels. Mexican authorities also get involved with the chase, leading to a big shoot-out at the end. Even though the story wasn't much, Sickner described several action scenes he envisioned. Hayward liked what he heard and added some of his own thoughts to the mix. The two men left Mexico in agreement that this movie concept was something worth pursuing. Within a short time, Sickner was calling his germinating film project The Wild Bunch.
It is unclear exactly how Sickner arrived at that title. The term the wild bunch turns up in King Vidor's 1955 cowboy picture Man Without a Star, in which characters refer to a gang of ruffians by that name in the screenplay written by Borden Chase, himself a onetime driver for a Prohibition-era bootlegger. There's no evidence that movie influenced Sickner in any way. It's likely the wild bunch came from newspaper stories about real-life criminals based in Wyoming working in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. The Wild Bunch was one of the names applied to the criminal operation headed up by Robert Leroy Parker, better known to history as Butch Cassidy. The group was also known as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. At the time Sickner conceived of his movie, which was years before the Paul Newman/Robert Redford hit movie, Cassidy and the outlaws associated with him were not well-known beyond Wyoming old-timers and a relatively small group of Western historians. Sickner seemed to have some knowledge of Cassidy, however, and mentioned him in conversations around the time he began talking up his ideas for the movie.
Before the term the Wild Bunch was applied to Cassidy and company, newspapers used it widely as the name for an intriguing group of bank and train robbers led by Bill Doolin in Oklahoma and Indian Territories in the 1890s. This Wild Bunch, sometimes called Oklahombres or the Doolin-Dalton Gang (later celebrated by the Eagles on their Desperado album) grew out of the remnants of the Dalton Brothers gang following the demise of its core members on the dusty streets of Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1892. Doolin had been a respected range foreman who turned outlaw rather than surrender to advancing barbed wire and plowed fields in what is now central Oklahoma. Most of the members of this Wild Bunch were like him, cowboys driven to outlawry by changing times and the loss of open range to homesteaders, as well as the cursed advancement of technology. Government leaders and railroad men attempting to "civilize" the area gave Doolin and his compatriots no truck. To a man, Doolin's Wild Bunch were tracked down and killed by deputy U.S. marshals, sheriffs, and posses. Here, too, no evidence suggests that Sickner had this group of plains desperadoes in mind when he chose the title for his movie. Another possibility is that he lifted the title from an early 1940s novel by Ernest Haycox.
Haycox was a Portland, Oregon–based author who published dozens of novels and short stories over twenty years. He distinguished himself by writing with a literary flair absent from the Western books that came before him. Slick magazines such as Collier's serialized his novels and paid him top dollar for his work. A young Sam Peckinpah numbered among the thousands of readers who valued Haycox's writing. Hollywood loved him, too. A dozen or so movies grew out of his stories and novels, including the seminal John Ford film Stagecoach. Such high-profile directors as Cecil B. DeMille and Anthony Mann also directed adaptations of Haycox's work. As someone who worked in the industry, Sickner had to have been aware of the Oregon writer's books and short stories, even if the story Haycox told in his novel The Wild Bunch had nothing in common with Sickner's Mexican shoot-out yarn. However Sickner arrived at The Wild Bunch, he could not have selected a more effective title.
Sickner began exploring the feasibility of his plans for the movie with different people. In 1964, he was hired on to double for Richard Harris in a movie being shot in Mexico, Peckinpah's Major Dundee. Sickner pitched The Wild Bunch to him on location, but Peckinpah was not in a place to be considering future films. He sat at the helm of a disaster in the making, and saving his current project was his sole concern. He would fail at that mission.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Wild Bunch"
Copyright © 2019 W. K. Stratton.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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Table of Contents
The Wild Bunch Roll Call, xi,
Introduction: Son of Liberty Valance, 1,
Part I: "A Wild Bunch", 13,
Part II: "Who the Hell Is They?", 51,
Part III: "We're Gonna Stick Together Just Like It Used to Be", 81,
Part IV: "This Time We Do It Right!", 151,
Part V: "I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way Either", 187,
Part VI: "It Ain't Like It Used to Be. But It'll Do", 281,