‘The Wild Bunch” never fails to get a reaction out of people, but never was the response to Sam Peckinpah’s visceral Western drama as strong as it was at the film’s initial public showing.
According to “If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em!,” David Weddle’s authoritative Peckinpah biography whose title is a key line of “Wild Bunch” dialogue, that 1969 Kansas City preview audience barely remained coherent. “Thirty people bolted up the aisle and out of the theater, some to vomit in the adjoining alley. . . . ‘I want to get the hell out of this place!’ someone cried a few rows away. . . . ‘Only a madman could call this creation!’ one livid patron scribbled furiously on the reaction card.” And so on into the night.
Though history does not record if any reviewers threw up when their turn came, the critical reaction to “The Wild Bunch” was equally passionate. “There is little justification for discussing this ugly, pointless, disgusting film,” went one notice, while another advised, “If you want to see ‘The Wild Bunch,’ be sure and take along a barf bag.”
But some critics, including Time’s Richard Schickel, who called it “a raucous, violent, powerful feat of American filmmaking,” spoke up for the defense. And in the intervening years, thanks to encomiums from directors like Martin Scorsese, who considers Peckinpah “one of the great masters of American cinema,” the film has come to be considered a modern classic.
After a few false starts, including a redundant go-round with with MPAA about the film’s R rating, “The Wild Bunch” is now back in circulation as Peckinpah intended it. Not only is the soundtrack remixed, but the 70-millimeter version that opens Friday at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood clocks in at the correct two-hour, 25-minute length. Back after a quarter of a century are 10 lost minutes, victims of two separate cutting sessions that took place not to tone down the violence, as is usually assumed, but because nervous Warner Bros. executives felt the film’s length was excessive.
Shot from a script by Walon Green and Peckinpah (from a story by Green and Roy M. Sickner, a stuntman pal of Lee Marvin’s, who was originally supposed to star), “The Wild Bunch” is set in 1913 along the Texas-Mexico border. It opens with one of the film’s celebrated set pieces, the attempted daylight robbery of a bank by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang.
Lying in wait for Bishop, however, is his old friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), now employed by the local railroad to hunt his ex-partner down. After a bloody shootout that shreds the town, the gang flees and Thornton and his motley contingent of “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash” (whose members include Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones) take up the chase.
By the time the Wild Bunch crosses the border into Mexico, they are only six in number: Bishop; his second-in-command, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine); a young Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sanchez); the sullen and psychotic Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson); and the aged and eccentric Freddy Sykes (a completely unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien).
In Mexico, the gang enters territory controlled by a rapacious warlord named Mapache (the great Mexican director Emilio Fernandez) and his lieutenants (one of whom, Alfonso Arau, went on to direct “Like Water for Chocolate”). Embittered and cynical, Bishop agrees to what he hopes will be one last job, stealing a trainload of American weapons for the general. Meanwhile, led by the implacable Thornton, the bounty hunters continue to haunt his trail.
Filmed on location in Mexico, “The Wild Bunch” had an especially grueling 81-day shoot, with the film’s apocalyptic finale taking a full dozen of those days. Twenty-two crew members would be fired before it was over, including the gunsmith who saw what he thought would be enough blank ammunition for the entire shoot used in a single noisy day. Finally, biographer Weddle notes, “ ‘The Wild Bunch’ would use 239 rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and automatics and over 90,000 rounds of blank ammunition--'More than was used in the entire Mexican revolution!’ Warner Bros. publicity would later claim.”
It was the violence that all the media focused on when “The Wild Bunch” was released, and seen today its bloodshed paradoxically makes both less and more of an impression than it did more than 25 years ago.
For the troubling fact is that in an age that roars in throaty approval when Quentin Tarantino graphically splatters brains over an automobile’s back seat, the violence depicted in “The Wild Bunch” is not as likely to disturb audiences in the ways it did on its initial release. Perhaps this is progress of a sort, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way.
Yet, on another level, the violence in this film continues to astonish because of the extraordinary level of skill it was executed with. Some of the stunts, like the slow-motion blowing up of a trestle with five horsemen on it, have never been improved on and have a clarity that makes them especially thrilling to watch today.
And though slow-motion action has become a cliche, its use was pioneered by Peckinpah and editor Louis Lombardo and no one has ever used it better. According to Weddle, the director “would film the major shootouts with six cameras, all operating at variable frame rates--24 frames per second, 30 frames per second, 60 frames per second, 90 frames per second, 120 frames per second--so that when cut together the action would constantly be shifting from slow to fast to slower still to fast again, giving time within the sequences a strange elastic quality.”
All that craftsmanship points out one of the things that is often forgotten, how skilled a filmmaker Peckinpah was, gifted with both natural talent and considerable experience honing it. The film’s compositions, worked out with cinematographer Lucien Ballard, are models of wide-screen work, and Peckinpah had the ability to make “The Wild Bunch’s” story unfold on screen as if it were actually happening, not following a script. In fact, some of film’s most haunting moments, notably the final walk of Holden, Borgnine, Oates and Johnson that is in many ways “The Wild Bunch’s” emotional high point, were improvised by the director on the spot.
Not only does all the fuss about “The Wild Bunch’s” violence feel like a false issue, it also tends to obscure much of what continues to be marvelous about the film. Not only Peckinpah’s craft skills, but how well he worked with actors.
By director Paul Schrader’s count (reprinted in “Doing It Right,” a new compendium of “Wild Bunch” criticism edited by Michael Bliss and published by Southern Illinois Press), the film’s six key cast members had appeared in 66 Westerns between them. Yet here, far from being tired, the actors give performances that are honest, straightforward and affecting, with Holden and Ryan doing work that has to be considered among the best of their careers.
Seen today, the greatness of “The Wild Bunch” lies in several related areas. One is the film’s at times forgotten emotional content, the mythic end-of-an-era chords it so potently strikes, its old-fashioned belief in the importance of codes of honor allied with its modern willingness to explore ambivalent attitudes toward violence.
What stands out with equal strength is how personal and eccentric a vision of the West “The Wild Bunch” finally is. From its bizarre opening image of red ants overwhelming a scorpion (suggested by Emilio Fernandez) to its emotionally torn and damaged characters and including even its largely cliched treatment of both women and Mexicans, this is not a by-the-numbers genre film but a reflection of Peckinpah’s own tortured psyche.
It’s because “The Wild Bunch’s” emotional content is so strong that the 10 minutes of restored material is critical to the film’s impact. As Peckinpah authority Paul Seydor, author of “Peckinpah: The Western Films,” notes, three of the six cuts were of flashbacks whose inclusion deepens the complexity of key characters.
And another cut, of a fight between Mapache’s forces and those of Pancho Villa, contains a charming interaction between Mapache and a small boy that understandably was one of the director’s favorites. No wonder Peckinpah was so angry that he exaggerated the damage when he told a reporter his producer Phil Feldman had “let those rotten sons of bitches at Warners chop out 20 minutes so they could hustle more popcorn.”
Those particular sons of bitches are long gone from Warners, which is doing its best to make amends by handsomely re-releasing Peckinpah’s cherished final cut.
“As long as you provoke a reaction, you’ve done your job,” the director once told his son Mathew. “If they jump to their feet and scream for your head, or give you a standing ovation, either way you’ve succeeded.” In the recent history of American film, no one did that any better than Mr. Sam.