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The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film

Review

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film

The genre of Western films has a life as long as the industry itself. As movies blossomed in the early 20th century, the California location offered producers and directors fertile ground for creating stories of the American West. For whatever reason, silent films often chronicled cowboys as both criminals and heroes. By the 1930s, director John Ford offered the nation its first Western saga, Stagecoach, and its first cowboy star, John Wayne. Forget that Wayne was born in Iowa and was a college football player rather than a ranch hand; it was all part of the cowboy myth. Western-themed movies would be a staple for decades, and several of the all-time great Westerns can be found on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films.

The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah and released in 1969, occupies position #79 on that list, several spots below Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which also appeared in theaters that year. W.K. Stratton’s THE WILD BUNCH notes that the two movies had both similar and competing production tracks as studios, producers and directors labored to get their movie into theaters first to gain whatever advantage possible in the battle for box-office dollars. Stratton’s chronicle of The Wild Bunch is a fascinating and detailed history of the making of an iconic movie that portrayed the West in a fashion far different from previous Westerns while still maintaining their natural artistic progression. Along the way, Stratton paints a portrait of movie production in an era when the industry was undergoing major transitions. Like any good history, he provides background for the making of the movie, placing it and the industry in its appropriate historical context.

"Stratton’s account is mesmerizing. Countless details of the movie industry and The Wild Bunch are included in the fascinating history he presents.... THE WILD BUNCH is essential reading for film buffs everywhere."

The saga of The Wild Bunch is an oft-told tale of the Hollywood industry. An iconic movie is a combination of many factors, some within the creators’ control, some beyond it. The final factors that no one can control are often timing and luck. As Peckinpah toiled on his movie, he feared for his career as a director. He had been fired from at least two films in the spring of 1967 and in despair told friends, “They’re never going to let me direct again.” But while working on the script for The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah benefited from a development in an unrelated movie that also would be a major contribution to the industry.

Arthur Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde, which glamorized two criminals who in reality were ignorant and violent. Aside from the fantasy aspect, Penn made pioneering use of slow-motion and squibs, tiny devices that filmmakers employed to simulate a bullet striking a person. Prior to this, film edits showed a gunshot and then a bloodied actor. Squibs produced a bullet-like tear in an actor’s clothing and an immediate flow of fake blood, allowing for a far more realistic depiction of gun violence. Bonnie and Clyde was a financial hit and pushed the limits of film violence in Hollywood. It also afforded Penn and other directors the opportunity to explore topics that had only been hinted upon in the movie industry.

Peckinpah had seen bits and pieces of The Wild Bunch story before commencing his work. A gang of outlaws seeking one final score before they retire decide to rob a bank. The scheme is bungled, and they flee to Mexico where all hell breaks loose. The shootout scenes are violent and unlike any previously seen in Westerns. Peckinpah assembled a team for his production that included actors William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O’Brien and Robert Ryan. The violence of their roles in the film, unlike any they had played before, makes The Wild Bunch cinematic magic.

Stratton’s account is mesmerizing. Countless details of the movie industry and The Wild Bunch are included in the fascinating history he presents. It was an era when the film industry was changing from a studio-controlled vehicle to one governed by individual actors and other artistic talent. THE WILD BUNCH is essential reading for film buffs everywhere. It has been reported that Mel Gibson will direct a remake of The Wild Bunch. Read this book first, as some sequels never do the original justice.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on February 15, 2019

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film
by W.K. Stratton

  • Publication Date: February 12, 2019
  • Genres: Entertainment, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1632862123
  • ISBN-13: 9781632862129