EARLY in the filming of The Wild Bunch in the spring of 1968, its star, William Holden – winner of the best actor Oscar for Stalag 17 in 1954 – had a day off. Holden spent part of the time watching his director, Sam Peckinpah, badger two character actors into giving him more for a minor scene.
“Is that the way you’re going to shoot the rest of the picture?” Holden asked. Peckinpah said it was. In that case, Holden replied, “I’m going home and studying.” As WK Stratton comments in his admiring and informative account of the making of The Wild Bunch, Holden had realised that “this was not going to be just another cowboy picture.”
The effort lavished on The Wild Bunch pays off in every frame – and that’s saying a lot because few if any Westerns have ever run so long. Nor had any previous movie depicted gunfights so graphically. And Peckinpah’s use of slow motion, notably in a shot of a bridge full of horsemen collapsing into a river, has often been imitated but rarely to such balletic effect. Not only did The Wild Bunch immediately become one of the greatest Westerns ever made; it also rejuvenated a cinematic genre that Stratton calls “the hoariest of them all”.
Peckinpah was no stranger to the region or the genre. Born in 1925 to a ranching family in Fresno, he studied drama at the University of Southern California and developed an affinity for the plays of Tennessee Williams. The connection can be felt, I think, in the poetry of certain lines in The Wild Bunch, whose script Peckinpah co-authored with Walon Green. Here, for example, is Holden’s character, Pike Bishop, lecturing his fellow crooks: “We’re going to stick together just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal.”
After doing some acting, the young Peckinpah had worked as a dialogue director and screenwriter. In the early 1960s, he directed three Westerns, one of them a critical and box-office hit (Ride the High Country) and another a fiasco (the much-tampered-with Major Dundee). The flop might have finished Peckinpah as a movie director if he hadn’t landed an assignment to bring Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Noon Wine to television. So impressive was the result that, amid the creative upheaval of late-’60s Hollywood, Peckinpah managed to get the green light – and a big budget – for a project he had been obsessing over for years.
The Wild Bunch rides up late in the annals of Western lore. It’s 1916, the Mexican Revolution is underway, and Pike is leading his gang of aging outlaws, the Bunch itself, on what they hope will be their last heist. If their robbery of a railroad office comes off as planned, they’ll be able to hang up their guns for good. Another contingent, led by Pike’s old partner Deke Thornton, is working against the Wild ones and on behalf of the railroad. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post