As I said previously, my favorite Western movie is ‘Monte Walsh’ from 1970, starring Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, and Jeanne Moreau. This is my favorite because I can personally relate so well to the principal character and his circumstances.
But the greatest Western film (snapping right at Monte Walsh’s heels), and coming in second in my own personal ranking, is this:
The Wild Bunch – 1969
Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan
Directed by SAM PECKINPAH in 1969, the story takes place primarily in Mexico during the revolution of 1913. It concerns the aging Pike Bishop and the last five surviving members of his outlaw gang who become mercenaries for a Mexican general at war against Pancho Villa’s forces. This wild bunch agrees to try stealing a shipment of rifles from the U.S. Army for General Mapache, all the while that Bishop’s ex-partner-in-crime, Deke Thornton, is leading a posse that is dogging the wild bunch and attempting to kill them on behalf of a railroad executive.
~ David Weddle
author of ‘IF THEY MOVE…KILL ‘EM!’: The Life And Times Of Sam Peckinpah’ (1994)
Below are some excerpts related to Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ from the David Weddle book “If They Move…Kill ‘Em”.
But there were valid concerns behind Sam’s obsessiveness. The first time around, the Warners sound department laid in the same gunshot effects they’d been using since Errol Flynn made ‘Dodge City’ in 1939. Every six-gun and rifle sounded the same. Sam threw a fit, insisting that new gunshots be recorded so that each gun in the picture had its own individual sound. By the time they were finished more than a hundred different gunshots were used on the effects track. “To mesh all of those onto one track and still bring out those individual sounds was a son of a bitch, but it happened, you’ll hear it,” says Lou Lombardo. “You know when Holden fires, ‘cause that forty-five barks, and you know when Strother fires that thirty-ought-six. Sam raised hell over that effects track, but he got them to bring it up to a level of quality that won them the S.M.P.T.E. sound-effects award.”
“I think everyone remembers where they were when they first saw The Wild Bunch,” says Ann Godoff, a film student at NYU at the time, and now an executive editor at Random House.
One of Godoff’s instructors, Martin Scorsese, remembers where he was. He tagged along with Jay Cocks, then a movie critic for Time, to a special screening of the film at Warner Bros. “It was just the two of us witnessing this incredible work of art. We were stunned, totally stunned, overwhelmed. ‘Ride The High Country’ was a good indication of a new approach to the Western. It was like the beginning of the end, and ‘The Wild Bunch’ was the end. But it was an incredible blaze of glory. … The exhilaration had to do with the way he used film and the way he used the images with a number of different cameras going at different speeds. You really get a wonderful choreographed effect, it’s like dance or like poetry. Jay and I had been expecting something really incredible, but we were still taken aback by it, because it was much more than we expected.”
“I saw ‘The Wild Bunch’ about the second or third day after it opened on Hollywood Boulevard,” says John Milius, screenwriter of ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ [and ‘The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean’] and director of such films as ‘Big Wednesday’ and ‘Conan The Barbarian’. “That was because George Lucas saw it and said, ‘This is the best movie ever made! It’s better than ‘The Searchers’, it’s better than anything! You all have to go see it!’
“So we went and saw it. I really liked the movie. There was a side of Peckinpah that was out of control; I liked that. And then you have that wonderful scene where they’re sitting there drinking and the old man says, ‘We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us, perhaps the worst most of all.’ You will remember that line all of your life, ALL OF YOUR LIFE! It’s something you take away from that movie and you’ll NEVER forget. How many movies ever give you that? There are many moments in ‘Wild Bunch’ that are like that.”
In England, where the film won almost unanimous raves from the critics, Alex Cox, director of ‘Sid And Nancy’ and ‘Walker’, was among the first to see it. “I’d never laid eyes on a western like that. It seemed to me to be so much a film about the Vietnam War, a film about guys in military uniforms taking hostages and committing atrocities, going to foreign countries and murdering people, and really not giving a damn for anything except their own little community. They had this tremendous sense of their own heroism and their own importance and their own sense of honor.
Ron Shelton, director of ‘Bull Durham’ and ‘White Men Can’t Jump’, was a minor-league ball player scratching out a living on dusty baseball diamonds in the Southwest. “I went to movies every day, basically to kill the afternoon ‘cause you didn’t have to be to the ball park until four-thirty and the theaters were air-conditioned. Well, in the summer of sixty-nine I went to a movie called ‘The Wild Bunch’ in Little Rock… It was just a western, but I liked westerns. After it was over I was exhilarated and I didn’t know why. I was exhilarated, and I’d just seen a bunch of killers kill a bunch of other killers. I wanted to know why I was exhilarated. …
I think I was exhilarated because of the sense of shifting loyalties and the compiling of irony upon irony without the movie getting bogged in the cerebral. It functioned at an emotional level that narrative art needs to, and compounded and confounded the mythologies and the ironies in a way that never felt self-conscious. The sad thing today is that action movies have degenerated into cartoons. We forget that at their best, action movies can be as complex and intelligent as anything in Shakespeare.”
Ethan Mordden writes in his recent book, ‘Medium Cool – The Movies Of The 1960s’, “The Wild Bunch is an astonishingly unique film virtually frame by frame, Peckinpah’s masterpiece and, as aficionados are gradually learning, one of the masterpieces of American cinema.”
‘The Wild Bunch’ won only two Academy nominations, one for Jerry Fielding’s score and another for the screenplay by Sickner, Green and Peckinpah: no nomination for editing… for directing… nor for best picture. The omissions were ludicrous at face value, but given the clubby beauty-contest criteria if not outright bribery on which the awards are based, it was a minor miracle that the enfant terrible got any nominations at all.
Time, the great equalizer, would correct this injustice, though Sam Peckinpah never lived to see it. ‘The Wild Bunch’ exploded on American movie screens in 1969 like a shrapnel bomb, easily the most controversial picture that season. But it has since risen to the status of a respectable classic. Its violence, though still intensely disturbing, has lost its sensationalism in the wake of the hundreds of high-tech (and truly nihilistic) bloodbaths that have followed it. The depletion of its shock value has cleared the way for a deeper appreciation of its thematic complexity, rich characterizations, textured detail, and its epic and profoundly romantic vision. It now regularly appears on critics’ lists of the the best movies of all time.
When home video opened a whole new market up in the early 1980s, ‘The Wild Bunch’ was one of the first twenty films that Warners released. The uncut version was eventually released on videotape as well, though the wide-screen images were cropped for TV, obliterating Peckinpah’s original compostions, and the soundtrack was in muddy mono – all those hundreds of hours Sam spent on the dubbing stage were lost.
Will Americans ever get a chance to see one of the greatest films ever produced in their country in the form that its creator intended? In the early 1990s, Martin Scorsese, Robert Harris, Garner Simmons, and Paul Seydor began lobbying various Warner Bros. executives for a theatrical release of Peckinpah’s version of the film. In February 1993 their efforts appeared to have paid off. Warners announced plans to release a 70mm, fully restored print of the film, complete with its original six-track stereo soundtrack. After premiering at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, the picture would go on to play in fifteen other American cities, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.
Then, like a scene in some black comic nightmare, disaster struck again. Not realizing that Peckinpah’s version had already been given an R-rating by the MPAA in 1969, the new generation of Warners executives submitted it to the Association for a rating. To the studio’s dismay, the MPAA rerated the film NC-17 (the equivalent of the old X-rating), which rendered the plan to release it commercially unfeasible.
Taken at face value, the MPAA’s action was absurd. Dozens of other recent “action” movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, and others have been packed with graphic violence that goes far beyond anything in ‘The Wild Bunch’. Why the double standard? ...
I’m happy to report that in 1995, Warner Brothers eventually worked through all the red tape and nonsense and did follow through on their plans to release ‘The Wild Bunch’ in a fully restored 70mm print of the "director’s cut". As originally planned, it was first shown at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, U.S.A. The Countess and I went to see it, not once but twice, six days apart. And here are my saved ticket receipts to prove it:
If you’ve never seen the full director’s cut of ‘The Wild Bunch’ and yet you consider yourself a fan of the Western movie genre, think again, slowpoke cowpoke! It is now available on DVD, and I watch my copy at least once a year.
My own full-length review of ‘The Wild Bunch’ can be read HERE.
~ Stephen T. McCarthy
(aka The Black Cole Kid)