|The Wild Bunch|
|Directed by||Sam Peckinpah|
|Produced by||Phil Feldman|
|Edited by||Louis Lombardo|
|Music by||Jerry Fielding|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.-Seven Arts|
|Box office||$11 million[unreliable source?]|
The Wild Bunch is a 1969 American epic Revisionist Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. The plot concerns an aging outlaw gang on the Mexico–United States border trying to adapt to the changing modern world of 1913. The film was controversial because of its graphic violence and its portrayal of crude men attempting to survive by any available means.
The screenplay was co-written by Peckinpah, Walon Green, and Roy N. Sickner. The Wild Bunch was filmed in Technicolor and Panavision, in Mexico, notably at the Hacienda Ciénaga del Carmen, deep in the desert between Torreón and Saltillo, Coahuila, and on the Rio Nazas.
The Wild Bunch is noted for intricate, multi-angle, quick-cut editing using normal and slow motion images, a revolutionary cinema technique in 1969. The writing of Green, Peckinpah, and Sickner was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar, and the music by Jerry Fielding was nominated for Best Original Score. Additionally, Peckinpah was nominated for an Outstanding Directorial Achievement award by the Directors Guild of America, and cinematographer Lucien Ballard won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography.
In 1999, the Library of Congress selected The Wild Bunch for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant". The film was ranked 80th in the American Film Institute's 100 best American films and the 69th most thrilling film. In 2008, the AFI listed 10 best films in 10 genres and ranked The Wild Bunch as the sixth-best Western.
In 1913 Texas, Pike Bishop, the leader of a gang of aging outlaws, seeks to retire after a final robbery of silver from a railroad payroll office. Corrupt railroad agent Pat Harrigan has hired a posse of bounty hunters led by Pike's former partner Deke Thornton, who ambush and kill more than half of Bishop's gang in a bloody shootout, which also kills many innocent bystanders as Pike uses a serendipitous temperance union parade to shield their getaway.
Pike rides off with the only survivors: his close friend Dutch Engstrom, brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch, the inexperienced Angel, and a fifth man blinded and mortally wounded by buckshot, who Pike mercy-kills. The loot from the robbery turns out to be worthless steel washers planted by Harrigan. Needing money, they head for Mexico accompanied by the cantankerous Freddie Sykes and cross the Rio Grande to the rural village where Angel was born. The village elder warns them about General Mapache, a vicious Huertista officer in the Mexican Federal Army, who has been stealing food and animals from local villages to support his campaign against the forces of Pancho Villa.
Pike's gang ask the general for work at his headquarters in the town of Agua Verde. Angel spots his former lover Teresa in Mapache's arms and shoots her dead, angering the general and nearly getting them killed, but Pike defuses the situation. Mapache offers gold to the gang to rob a U.S. Army train so Mapache can resupply his army's dwindling stocks of ammunition and provide samples of American weapons to his German military adviser Commander Mohr.
Angel gives his share of the gold to Pike in return for sending one crate of rifles and ammunition to a band of peasant rebels opposed to Mapache. The holdup goes largely as planned until Thornton's posse turns up on the train the gang has robbed and chases them to the Mexican border. The robbers blow up a trestle bridge spanning the Rio Grande as the posse tries to cross, dumping the entire posse into the river, but the exhausted posse continues their pursuit.
Pike, anticipating that Mapache might double-cross him, hides the goods and has his men sell them to Mapache in separate amounts. However, Mapache learns from Teresa's mother that Angel stole some of the weapons and reveals this as Angel and Dutch deliver the last of the weapons. Angel desperately tries to escape, only to be captured and beaten. Mapache lets Dutch go after he states that Angel is a thief who deserves to be punished, and Dutch then tells Pike and the others what happened.
Sykes is wounded by Thornton's posse while securing spare horses. Dutch criticizes Thornton for working with the railroad, but Pike says Thornton "gave his word" to the railroad and must see it through. Dutch angrily declares, "That ain't what counts, it's who you give it to." Pike and the gang bury most of the gold and return to Agua Verde, where the townspeople and soldiers are drunkenly celebrating the weapons sale and Mapache is dragging Angel through town on a rope tied to the back of his car. Mapache refuses to sell Angel back to the gang, and after a period of reflection while visiting a brothel, Pike and the others arm themselves to rescue their friend by force.
Mapache initially agrees to release Angel, only to cut his throat at the last second. The gang instantly opens fire and guns down the general. While the nearby soldiers are frozen in shock, Pike calmly takes aim and kills Mohr. This begins a bloody gunfight that kills Pike, Dutch, the remaining gang members, Mohr's aide, every member of Mapache's staff, and most of the assembled troops.
Thornton arrives and finds Pike already dead. Thornton finds a loaded revolver on Pike's belt and takes it as a sign that the days of men like him are over. Feeling outdated and tired, Thornton allows the remaining posse members to greedily strip Pike and his men of their possessions before taking them back to Texas for the bounty, while he stays behind. After some time, Sykes arrives with the elder from Angel's village and a band of rebels, indicating that they caught up with the bounty hunters, avenged the gang's deaths, and buried them properly. Sykes invites Thornton to join the coming revolution against the Mexican government. Thornton smiles and rides off with them.
In April 1965, producer Reno Carrell optioned an original story and screenplay by Walon Green and Roy Sickner, called The Wild Bunch.
In 1967, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts producers Kenneth Hyman and Phil Feldman were interested in having Sam Peckinpah rewrite and direct an adventure film called The Diamond Story. A professional outcast due to the production difficulties of his previous film, Major Dundee (1965), and his firing from the set of The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Peckinpah's stock had improved following his critically acclaimed work on the television film Noon Wine (1966).
At the time, William Goldman's screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had recently been purchased by 20th Century Fox. An alternative screenplay available at the studio was The Wild Bunch. It was quickly decided that The Wild Bunch, which had several similarities to Goldman's work, would be produced to beat Butch Cassidy to the theaters.
By the fall of 1967, Peckinpah was rewriting the screenplay and preparing for production. The principal photography was shot entirely on location in Mexico, most notably at the Hacienda Ciénaga del Carmen (deep in the desert between Torreón and Saltillo, Coahuila) and on the Rio Nazas. Peckinpah's epic work was inspired by his hunger to return to films, the violence seen in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), America's growing frustration with the Vietnam War, and what he perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time. He set out to make a film which portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period but also the crude men attempting to survive the era. Multiple scenes attempted in Major Dundee, including slow motion action sequences (inspired by Akira Kurosawa's work in Seven Samurai (1954), characters leaving a village as if in a funeral procession, and the use of inexperienced locals as extras, would become fully realized in The Wild Bunch.
Peckinpah considered many actors for the Pike Bishop role before casting William Holden, including Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, and James Stewart. Marvin actually accepted the role but pulled out after he was offered more money to star in Paint Your Wagon (1969).
Peckinpah's first two choices for the role of Deke Thornton were Richard Harris (who had co-starred in Major Dundee) and Brian Keith (who had worked with Peckinpah on The Westerner (1960) and The Deadly Companions (1961)). Harris was never formally approached; Keith was asked, but he turned it down. Robert Ryan was ultimately cast in the part after Peckinpah saw him in the World War II action movie The Dirty Dozen (1967). Other actors considered for the role were Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Ben Johnson (later cast as Tector Gorch), and Arthur Kennedy.
The role of Mapache went to Emilio Fernández, the Mexican film director, writer, actor, and friend of Peckinpah. Among those considered to play Dutch Engstrom were Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Alex Cord, Robert Culp, Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Jaeckel, Steve McQueen, and George Peppard. Ernest Borgnine was cast based on his performance in The Dirty Dozen (1967). Robert Blake was the original choice to play Angel, but he asked for too much money. Peckinpah was impressed with Jaime Sánchez in Sidney Lumet's film adaptation of The Pawnbroker and demanded that he be cast as Angel.
Stage actor Albert Dekker was cast as Harrigan the railroad detective. The Wild Bunch was his last film, as he died just months after its final scenes were completed. Bo Hopkins had only a few television credits on his resume when he played the part of Clarence "Crazy" Lee. Warren Oates played Lyle Gorch, having previously worked with Peckinpah on the TV series The Rifleman and his previous films Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965).
The film was shot with the anamorphic process. Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, also made use of telephoto lenses, that allowed for objects and people in both the background and foreground to be compressed in perspective. The effect is best seen in the shots where the Bunch makes the walk to Mapache's headquarters to free Angel. As they walk forward, a constant flow of people passes between them and the camera; most of the people in the foreground are as sharply focused as the Bunch.
By the time filming wrapped, Peckinpah had shot 333,000 feet (101,000 m) of film with 1,288 camera setups. Lombardo and Peckinpah remained in Mexico for six months editing the picture. After initial cuts, the opening gunfight sequence ran 21 minutes. By cutting frames from specific scenes and intercutting others, they were able to fine-cut the opening robbery down to five minutes. The creative montage became the model for the rest of the film and would "forever change the way movies would be made".
Peckinpah stated that one of his goals for the movie was to give the audience "some idea of what it is to be gunned down". A memorable incident occurred, to that end, as Peckinpah's crew were consulting him on the "gunfire" effects to be used in the film. Not satisfied with the results from the squibs his crew had brought for him, Peckinpah became exasperated and finally hollered: "That's not what I want! That's not what I want!" He then grabbed a real revolver and fired it into a nearby wall. The gun empty, Peckinpah barked at his stunned crew: "THAT'S the effect I want!!"
He also had the gunfire sound effects changed for the film. Before, all gunshots in Warner Bros. movies sounded identical, regardless of the type of weapon being fired. Peckinpah insisted that each different type of firearm have its own specific sound effect when fired.
The editing of the film is notable in that shots from multiple angles were spliced together in rapid succession, often at different speeds, placing greater emphasis on the chaotic nature of the action and the gunfights.
Lou Lombardo, having previously worked with Peckinpah on Noon Wine, was personally hired by the director to edit The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah had wanted an editor who would be loyal to him. Lombardo's youth was also a plus, as he was not bound by traditional conventions.
One of Lombardo's first contributions was to show Peckinpah an episode of the TV series Felony Squad he had edited in 1967. The episode, entitled "My Mommy Got Lost", included a slow motion sequence where Joe Don Baker is shot by the police. The scene mixed slow motion with normal speed, having been filmed at 24 frames per second but triple printed optically at 72 frames per second. Peckinpah was reportedly thrilled and told Lombardo: "Let's try some of that when we get down to Mexico!" The director would film the major shootouts with six cameras, operating at various film rates, including 24 frames per second, 30 frames per second, 60 frames per second, 90 frames per second, and 120 frames per second. When the scenes were eventually cut together, the action would shift from slow to fast to slower still, giving time an elastic quality never before seen in motion pictures up to that time.
Further editing was done to secure a favorable rating from the MPAA, which was in the process of establishing a new set of codes. Peckinpah and his editors cut the film to satisfy the new, expansive R-rating parameters which, for the first time, designated a film as being unsuitable for children. Without this new system in place, the film could not have been released with its explicit images of bloodshed.
Critics of The Wild Bunch note the theme of the end of the outlaw gunfighter era. For example, the character Pike Bishop advises: "We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." The Bunch lives by an anachronistic code of honor that is out of place in 20th-century society. Also, when the gang inspects Mapache's new automobile, they perceive it marks the end of horse travel, a symbol also in Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
The violence that was much criticized in 1969 remains controversial. Peckinpah noted it was allegoric of the American war in Vietnam, the violence of which was nightly televised to American homes at supper time. He tried showing the gun violence commonplace to the historic western frontier period, rebelling against sanitized, bloodless television Westerns and films glamorizing gunfights and murder: "The point of the film is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut ... it's ugly, brutalizing, and bloody awful; it's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It's a terrible, ugly thing, and yet there's a certain response that you get from it, an excitement, because we're all violent people." Peckinpah used violence as a catharsis, believing his audience would be purged of violence by witnessing it explicitly on screen. He later admitted to being mistaken, observing that the audience came to enjoy rather than be horrified by his films' violence, which troubled him.
Betrayal is the secondary theme of The Wild Bunch. The characters suffer from their knowledge of having betrayed a friend and left him to his fate, thus violating their own honor code when it suits them ("$10,000 cuts an awful lot of family ties"). However, Bishop says, "When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can't do that you're like some animal." Such oppositional ideas lead to the film's violent conclusion, as the remaining men find their abandonment of Angel intolerable. Bishop remembers his betrayals, most notably when he deserts Deke Thornton (in flashback) when the law catches up to them and when he abandons Crazy Lee at the railroad office after the robbery (ostensibly to guard the hostages). Critic David Weddle writes that "like that of Conrad's Lord Jim, Pike Bishop's heroism is propelled by overwhelming guilt and a despairing death wish."
The film opened on June 18, 1969, at the Pix theatre in Los Angeles and grossed $39,200 in its first week. Produced on a budget of $6 million, the film grossed $10.5 million at the US box office in 1970 and another $638,641 in the US on its 1995 restored box-office release, making a total of $11,138,641. It was the 17th highest-grossing film of 1969.
There have been several versions of the film:
In 1993, Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the MPAA ratings board prior to an expected re-release. To the studio's surprise, the originally R-rated film was re-rated NC-17, which delayed the release until the decision was appealed. The controversy was linked to 10 extra minutes added to the film, although none of this footage contained graphic violence. Warner Bros. trimmed some footage to decrease the running time to ensure additional daily screenings. When the restored film finally made it to the screen in March 1995, one reviewer noted:
By restoring 10 minutes to the film, the complex story now fits together in a seamless way, filling in those gaps found in the previous theatrical release, and proving that Peckinpah was firing on all cylinders for this, his grandest achievement. ... And the one overwhelming feature that the director's cut makes unforgettable are the many faces of the children, whether playing, singing, or cowering, much of the reaction to what happens on-screen is through the eyes, both innocent and imitative, of all the children.
Almost all of the versions of the film include the missing scenes. Warner Bros. released a newly restored version in a two-disc special edition on January 10, 2006. It includes an audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars, two documentaries concerning the making of the film (one of them is the Oscar-nominated The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage), and never-before-seen outtakes.
Vincent Canby began his review by calling the film "very beautiful and the first truly interesting American-made Western in years. It's also so full of violence—of an intensity that can hardly be supported by the story—that it's going to prompt a lot of people who do not know the real effect of movie violence (as I do not) to write automatic condemnations of it." He observed, "Although the movie's conventional and poetic action sequences are extraordinarily good and its landscapes beautifully photographed ... it is most interesting in its almost jolly account of chaos, corruption, and defeat". About the actors, he commented particularly on William Holden: "After years of giving bored performances in boring movies, Holden comes back gallantly in The Wild Bunch. He looks older and tired, but he has style, both as a man and as a movie character who persists in doing what he's always done, not because he really wants the money but because there's simply nothing else to do."
TIME also liked Holden's performance, describing it as his best since Stalag 17 (a 1953 film that earned Holden an Oscar), noting Robert Ryan gave "the screen performance of his career", and concluding that "The Wild Bunch contains faults and mistakes" (such as flashbacks "introduced with surprising clumsiness"), but "its accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belongs with the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers."
In a 2002 retrospective Roger Ebert, who "saw the original version at the world premiere in 1969, during the golden age of the junket, when Warner Bros. screened five of its new films in the Bahamas for 450 critics and reporters", said that, back then, he had publicly declared the film a masterpiece during the junket's press conference, prompted by comments from "a reporter from the Reader's Digest [who] got up to ask 'Why was this film ever made?'" He compared the film to Pulp Fiction: "praised and condemned with equal vehemence."
"What Citizen Kane was to movie lovers in 1941, The Wild Bunch was to cineastes in 1969," wrote film critic Michael Sragow, who added that Peckinpah had "produced an American movie that equals or surpasses the best of Kurosawa: the Gotterdammerung of Westerns".
Today, the film holds a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8.8/10 based on reviews from 65 critics with its consensus stating, "The Wild Bunch is Sam Peckinpah's shocking, violent ballad to an old world and a dying genre".
The Wild Bunch was cited as cinematographer Roger Deakins's favorite film, and film director Kathryn Bigelow named it as one of her five favorite films. In the 2012 BFI poll for The Greatest Films of All Time, The Wild Bunch received 27 votes from critics and directors such as Michael Mann, Paul Schrader and Edgar Wright.
|Academy Awards||Best Original Screenplay||Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner, Sam Peckinpah||Nominated|
|Best Original Score||Jerry Fielding||Nominated|
|DGA Awards||Outstanding Directing – Feature Film||Sam Peckinpah||Nominated|
|Motion Picture Sound Editors||Best Sound Editing – Dialogue||Won|
|Best Sound Editing – Feature Film||Won|
|National Society of Film Critics Awards||Best Cinematography||Lucien Ballard||Won|
Decades later the American Film Institute placed the film in several of its "100 Years" lists:
The film is ranked No. 94 on Empire magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time. In 1999, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant. In 2012, the Motion Picture Editors Guild listed The Wild Bunch as the 23rd best-edited film of all time based on a survey of its membership.
Sam Peckinpah and the making of The Wild Bunch were the subjects of the documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996) directed and edited by Paul Seydor. The documentary was occasioned by the discovery of 72 minutes of silent, black-and-white film footage of Peckinpah and company on location in northern Mexico during the filming of The Wild Bunch. Michael Sragow wrote in 2000 that the documentary was "a wonderful introduction to Peckinpah’s radically detailed historical film about American outlaws in revolutionary Mexico—a masterpiece that’s part bullet-driven ballet, part requiem for Old West friendship and part existential explosion. Seydor’s movie is also a poetic flight on the myriad possibilities of movie directing." Seydor and his co-producer Nick Redman were nominated in 1997 for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
In 2005, David Ayer was reported to be in final negotiations to direct and write a remake of The Wild Bunch. Jerry Weintraub would produce and Mark Vahradian would executive produce. The remake would be a modern reinterpretation of the original, involving heists, drug cartels and the CIA.
On January 19, 2011, it was announced by Warner Bros. that a remake of The Wild Bunch was in the works. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was hired to develop a new script. The 2012 suicide of Tony Scott, who was scheduled to direct, put the project in limbo.
On May 15, 2013, The Wrap reported that Will Smith was in talks to star in and produce the remake. The new version would involve drug cartels and follows a disgraced DEA agent who assembles a team to go after a Mexican drug lord and his fortune. No director has been chosen, and a new screenwriter is being sought.
In 2015, a Hollywood insider website announced that Jonathan Jakubowicz was set to write and direct a remake. "Our sources also tell us that the remake will update the story to a contemporary setting, revolving around the CIA, dangerous drug cartels, and a thrilling heist against the backdrop of the Southern California-Mexico border. Jakubowicz will be working from previous drafts submitted by David Ayer and Brian Helgeland."
In 2018, it was announced that Mel Gibson would co-write and direct a new version of The Wild Bunch.
To see the extended "Major Dundee" is to see the smoking ruin from which Peckinpah's masterpiece arose.