A Hollywood conundrum: How can a film be branded with an NC-17 rating today when the same movie was rated R in 1969?
Answer: When the film is Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch."
A restored director's cut of "The Wild Bunch" was to be re-released theatrically in revival houses in Los Angeles and San Francisco next month until Warner Bros. received word from the Motion Picture Assn. of America that the movie would be rated for adults only--"no children under 17 admitted."
The studio had planned to celebrate the special showcasing of the just-restored Western--heralded by many critics and cineastes as a seminal film of the '60s--as a way to cross-promote the release of the new laser-disc version of the picture. A similar strategy paid off handsomely last year with the second director's cut re-release of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner."
The studio willingly resubmitted this newly struck print to the MPAA for what it thought would be a pro forma review, considering this latest version does not differ from the first R-rated version released by the studio in 1969, including Peckinpah's "European cut" that is currently available on Warner Home Video.
"I'm very disappointed it's turned out the way it has . . . I just don't understand," said Barry Reardon, president of Warner Bros. domestic theatrical distribution. Reardon said Warners hasn't yet decided whether to appeal, saying the studio has four movies to release in the next five weeks. "Once I get past that, we will sit down and see where we are."
MPAA President Jack Valenti's explanation is: "In the last decade, there has been a public outrage about violence . . . and the judgment of the ratings board, which is comprised of parents, is that the degree, the intensity and the persistence of violence is beyond the ken of young children." Ironically, Valenti championed Peckinpah's longer version back in 1969, arguing on First Amendment grounds.
The mystery over the re-rating is confounding on several levels for Warner and many filmmakers, including director Martin Scorsese, who made a personal appeal to the studio to restore a 70-millimeter director's cut print. Through a spokesman, Scorsese was said to be dismayed by the MPAA's action; "The Wild Bunch" had a profound influence on him as a young filmmaker.
There is no disputing that "The Wild Bunch" is a gory, violent film. "Along with 'Bonnie and Clyde,' 'The Wild Bunch' is the great, essential American film from the '60s because it confronted point-blank the audience's fears and fascinations about violence, and it did so in the ways of an artist. People who condemn the film for being upsetting are superbly beside the point," says Peter Rainer, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and a reviewer for The Times.
Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Jaime Sanchez, the movie follows a band of outlaws who, by 1913, find themselves increasingly passe and wind up in Mexico, where they stage their violent last stand. (Critics say "The Wild Bunch" theme is very much in evidence in this year's multi-Oscar-nominated Western "Unforgiven.")
Peckinpah biographer David Weddle said that back in 1969, following a tumultuous research screening in Kansas City prior to the film's domestic release, Peckinpah realized that some of the action was too tough to take and agreed to cut the most horrific moments. Under threat of getting an X rating (now NC-17), one scene showing a particularly graphic shot when Sanchez's throat is slit and blood spurts from his neck was toned down. Another, when actor Johnson pulls a woman's breast out for co-star Oates and compares the size of her nipple to that of his thumb, was cut out completely.
The picture opened first in Europe, playing at its original running time of 145 minutes. Warners subsequently released that version in Los Angeles, New York and Texas where it fared poorly, Weddle said. When Peckinpah was vacationing in Hawaii, the studio removed eight minutes before booking the movie into more venues. Compared to other Westerns released at the time--"True Grit" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"--it attained only modest box-office success.
In the intervening years--and in addition to Scorsese--"The Wild Bunch" influenced a generation of filmmakers, including now-established directors Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Shelton, Walter Hill and Quentin Tarantino.