The turbulence that the United States experienced in the 1960s was also evident in the motion picture industry. Towards the end of the decade, it was clear that audience tastes were changing and that the Hollywood Studios needed to adapt, and adapt quickly. Movies such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy enjoyed commercial as well as critical success upon their release in 1969, success that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. That same year, Warner Bros. and director Sam Peckinpah would release a different take on the most tried-and-true genre, the Western, that would shatter traditions and expectations. The Wild Bunch, released 50 years ago this week, still stands as one of the greatest movies ever made.
Peckinpah had not directed a feature film for three years when he presented producer Phil Feldman a copy of The Wild Bunch. The script, by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on a story by Green and Roy N. Sickner, was an intriguing tale of a gang of aging outlaws trying to outrun the law, as well as the changing world around them. It presented an honest, unromantic look at the reality of the Wild West. Feldman wanted it, and a deal was struck: Peckinpah would make The Wild Bunch for Warner Bros. He would work on re-writing the script to get it ready to shoot so Warner Bros. could get their western adventure into theaters before the release of Fox’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
William Holden would play Pike Bishop, the leader of the Bunch. Holden brought gravitas and a grizzled weariness to the role. The weight of leading a group of unpredictable renegades is something that he translated into every glance, pause, and through-his-teeth line delivery. He’s an exhausted man, at the end of his line. His past is chasing him, and the changing world around him is making him feel his age. Pike is also haunted by the memory of the night that his friend Deke Thornton was captured, while Pike himself escaped. He is desperate for one big score so that he can get out of the game. In a career filled with memorable portrayals, this would be one of Holden’s finest.
Ernest Borgnine agreed to become Dutch Engstrom, Pike’s right-hand-man, and the glue that keeps the Bunch from splitting. His character is bound to the Bunch’s code of brotherhood. Borgnine’s performance gave heart and levity to the film.
Robert Ryan took on the part of Deke Thornton, the imprisoned former member of the Bunch, who has only been let out of jail to lead a group of bounty hunters tasked with tracking down his friends. Ryan’s pained performance gave tremendous weight, and life, to the backstory of Deke’s friendship with Pike.
Edmond O’Brien would be asked to play Freddie Sykes, the Bunch’s eldest member, a trusted horse-hand who’s an anchor for the Bunch. At times funny and serious, his performance added a great deal of flavor to the film. O’Brien would undergo hours in the makeup chair every day to take on the appearance of someone 25 years his senior.
Warren Oates and Ben Johnson would become the Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector. Both Oates and Johnson brought imposing presences to the screen. As Lyle, Oates became the most intense and impulsive member of the group. As Tector, Johnson brought stature and presence, which seem like the only qualities that can contain Lyle’s outbursts. The two truly have the chemistry of brothers.
Jaime Sánchez was cast as Angel, the sole Mexican member of the bunch, whose loyalties lie first with his family and his village and second with the Bunch. His troubled nature seems as real as his patriotism.
Emilio Fernández was cast as the villainous Army General, Mapache. His performance as Mapache brought a heightened sense of suspense to his scenes as he always seemed unpredictable and volatile.
Albert Dekker would take the part of Harrigan, the Railroad Man who is holding Deke Thornton’s leash. Harrigan is willing to do anything to catch Pike and the Bunch, including putting innocent townspeople in harm’s way during a shootout. Harrigan amasses a small group of unsavory characters to join Deke on the bounty hunt. L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin's performances stand out as T.C. and Coffer. They bring their depraved characters to life with a childish energy – they take great enjoyment from making killing into a contest as they jockey to claim who has a higher body count after each bloody encounter.
Bo Hopkins turns in a brief but memorable performance as Crazy Lee, a young member of the Bunch. Chano Urueta became the stoic Don Jose, the elder of Angel’s village. Jorge Russek became Mapache’s Major Zamorra. Alfonso Arau would become Lieutenant Herrera.
The film, set in 1913 against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, was shot over 80 days in Mexico. For the Mexican Army sequences, the film would employ a full regiment of Mexican Soldiers as extras.
From the opening scene, Green and Peckinpah’s story declares itself unlike any traditional western.The Bunch: Pike (Holden), Dutch (Borgnine), Angel (Sánchez), Lyle (Oates) and Tector (Johnson); all wearing soldier’s uniforms, ride into a small Texas town with the look of assumed heroes. The tone shifts as they pass a group of children that are watching scorpions being overwhelmed by red ants, all with grins on their faces.
They continue further into the town, galloping past a congregation of temperance union members, until they arrive at a bank, where they meet up with more soldiers. They greet a townswoman in the street and kindly escort her inside. As they march up the bank steps, the scene cuts to a roof on an adjacent building, where a group of ragged men are waiting to attack – The audience is led to believe that these are bad guys. Pike and the Bunch swiftly enter the bank, grab the clerk and throw him to the ground. Pike turns, and barks out an order, “If they move, kill ‘em!” As the frame freezes and Peckinpah’s title credit lands, the audience knows that this journey will be unlike anything seen before.
A bloody shootout erupts and the Bunch narrowly escape, but their loyalties are showing signs of wear. Pike intervenes, declaring the code of the Bunch, "You're not getting rid of anybody. We're gonna 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. You're finished! - We're finished! All of us!"
The Bunch escape to Mexico and take refuge in Angel’s village. Pike and the Bunch end up making a deal with Mapache and promise to steal a shipment of American rifles for him in exchange for a large sum of gold. Things become complicated by Angel’s reluctance to provide arms to his village’s enemy.
In the end, the Bunch have to make a choice: stand by their code, or sacrifice one of their own. Pike delivers a simple but commanding decision, “Let’s go.” – and those two words send the film on a trajectory to a climax that could never be imagined.
Jerry Fielding’s wonderful score starts to build, as the Bunch loads up their shotguns. What comes next is one of the most thrilling sequences in movie history as Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard carefully choreograph the walk towards a sequence that is referred to as “The Battle of Bloody Porch.” It’s a brutal ballet of a shootout, the likes of which had never been seen before and has never been equaled since. It’s the signature sequence in the film – a moment that forever changed the Western genre and cemented Sam Peckinpah’s legacy in cinema history.
Peckinpah worked with Editor Lou Lombardo to cut the 330,000 feet of film. The initial version was previewed for critics at a Warner Bros. junket in the Bahamas. The reactions were mixed. Some, like critic Roger Ebert, thought it was a masterpiece. Others vilified the violence, saying it should have never been made. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael remarked in her review, “Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle…” To Peckinpah’s dismay, the studio would cut the film down for its U.S. release (though not for reasons of violence). The Director’s Cut would eventually be restored and re-released in 1995.
The violence wasn’t meant to be glamorized, but to show the true brutality of the world. In The Wild Bunch things aren’t black and white, they are varying shades of gray: The heroes do terrible things, the villains are killers who happen to represent the law, and the military is willing to kill civilians in a village. The only actions in the film that seem to faze anyone are ones that challenge their personal code. It’s here that character is revealed. It’s the reason why the audience cares when Pike, Dutch, Lyle and Tector march into the heart of danger to try to retrieve Angel. As much as the film does to destroy the romanticized idea of the Western, it creates a genuine heartfelt moment in its climax -- These men are willing to lay their lives on the line because they must save their friend.
Emilio Fernández was a famous Mexican director, considered to be “The father of Mexican cinema”. His role in The Wild Bunch would anchor him in American cinema history as well. In pre-production, he would share stories with Peckinpah, and one regarding scorpions and ants inspired Peckinpah, who put it into the opening sequence of the film.
There are two children holding each other in the street during the opening shootout. The boy is Peckinpah’s son, Matthew.
There were 3,642 shot-to-shot edits in the film – A record number at the time.
“The Battle of Bloody Porch” sequence took 12 days to shoot. The wardrobe department had a limited number of soldier’s uniforms, and had to resort to creative tactics, such as painting over fake blood, so that they could save time and keep the cameras rolling.