Tonight: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and Warren Oates in Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece The Wild Bunch—the most controversial western of its time because of its extreme, choreographed violence.
The film concerns an aging outlaw gang on the Texas-Mexico border, trying to exist in the changing “modern” world of 1913.
Following the disappointment of Major Dundee, starring Charlton Heston, Peckinpah had difficulty finding work the next four years. So he spent the time laboring on a script with a cowboy actor/stuntman Ron Sickner.
The working title was The Wild Bunch, the name first used in newspaper stories to describe the real-life Western outlaw gang led by Butch Cassidy. Not coincidentally, 20th Century Fox was developing its own film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Warner Bros. bought The Wild Bunch in the hope that they could beat Fox’s more romanticized, “pretty boy” property into movie theaters.
Parts played by William Holden and Robert Ryan in tonight’s film were first offered to Richard Harris and Brian Keith, both veterans of earlier Peckinpah westerns.
The role that eventually went to Holden was turned down by Robert Mitchum, Richard Boone, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Sterling Hayden and Lee Marvin.
Marvin initially accepted the role and then changed his mind and took the more lucrative part in Paint Your Wagon.
Peckinpah scared actors away.
Holden hadn’t had a hit in 10 years, so he was easy to bargain with, particularly since his drinking problem and reputation for unreliability were increasingly well known.
Holden accepted $200,000 plus 10 percent of the gross after the film had made $10 million.
Ryan was signed after Peckinpah saw his work in The Dirty Dozen.
Principal photography ran from March 25 through June 30, 1968. Some of the film was shot in Spain, but most of it was shot in Mexico. Originally budgeted at $3.5 million, the film ultimately cost $6.2 million.
On location, Peckinpah drove the actors hard, ordering scores of retakes in the sweltering sun. He stormed, ranted and promptly fired those who displeased him.
Holden could only take just so much. He managed to resist hard liquor during filming, consuming only beer. But he was already on edge, complaining to everyone, according to biographer Bob Thomas, “how he fucked his way around the world after Audrey Hepburn refused to marry him.”
Tension mounted until Holden walked off the set.
“Where are you going?” the director demanded.
“If that’s the way things are going to be on this picture, I want no part of it,” said “The Golden Boy” calmly.
When Holden returned, Peckinpah screamed at others, but never again at Holden.
The director did succeed in provoking Ryan, however, who threatened to “knock your teeth in.” Ryan was a former college boxing champion, so Peckinpah left him alone thereafter as well.
Love-hate relationships were everywhere in The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah wanted it that way. He behaved as a foul-mouthed tyrant on purpose.
PLAYBOY got it right in assessing the film’s theme: “Desperate men with a worn out way of living, locked in a doomed and brutal struggle against a new order.”
It seemed to reflect who Peckinpah was. Dustin Hoffman said, “I think of Sam as a man out of his time. It’s ironic that he is alive now, a gunfighter in an age when we’re flying to the moon.”
Said Peckinpah, “I grew up on a ranch, but that world is gone. I feel rootless. … I’m crazy about heavies. I love them. I love outsiders. I go for loners. … I’ve got this weakness for all the misfits and drifters in the world. The Wild Bunch were people who lived not only by violence, but for it.”
And yet, following the campfire scene, where Holden and Ernest Borgnine vow they “wouldn’t have it any other way,” Peckinpah was unable to say, “Cut!” because he was crying.
In the opening robbery scene, two kids hold onto one another as they watch. One of the boys is Peckinpah’s son, Matthew.
The body count—the number of people killed on camera in the film—was 145.
Even though they were blanks, more shots were fired during the production than live rounds were fired during the entire Mexican revolution of 1913—the same year in which this film is set. 90,000 rounds were fired by actors to depict this tribute to violence!
Actor Ben Johnson, the expert rider and former stuntman, who started in B-westerns, said that the two Mexican women who entertained him and Warren Oates in the large wine vats, were not actresses, but actual prostitutes recruited from a local brothel. Peckinpah, always the provocateur, loved being able to say that Warner Bros. paid for hookers for his film.
Borgnine’s limp wasn’t acting. He was wearing a cast on his foot after breaking it while making The Split.
The Wild Bunch was released on June 25, 1969 at the Trans-Lux East and West.
Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times: “The Wild Bunch is a fascinating movie and the first truly interesting, American-made western in years—Edmond O’Brien is a special shock, looking like an evil Gabby Hayes. … William Holden comes back gallantly.”
But the violence of the film prompted controversy from the outset. And on August 9, 1969, Sharon Tate and several friends were massacred by the Manson family in L.A. and bloodshed as cinematic choreography became a major topic of discussion that summer.
William K. Everson wrote, “The Wild Bunch became a paean to violence, and neither the pious pronouncements of its stars and director that it had to depict violence graphically in order to condemn it, nor the unquestioned virtuosity of its pictorial style could really counteract or justify the revulsion and nausea it created...”
Warner Bros. didn’t believe in the film and did little to support its release. Nor did the Academy choose to recognize the picture in any meaningful way. There were but two Oscar nominations—for Best Screenplay and for Jerry Fielding’s musical score.
But the DGA nominated Peckinpah for Best Director.
Leonard Maltin, who has only nominal interest in westerns, calls The Wild Bunch “an authentic American classic.” And in 2007 the AFI ranked The Wild Bunch the sixth best western of all time. And #79 among “the greatest movies of all time.”
So now—from 1969—Sam Peckinpah’s classic, The Wild Bunch.