Curiously, with all the bold, ambitious, fresh talent storming into Hollywood in the 1960s/1970s – directors who’d cut their teeth in TV like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer; imports like Roman Polanski and Peter Yates; the first wave of film school “film brats” like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese — one of the most popular genres during the period was one of Old Hollywood’s most traditional: the Western. But the Western often wrought at the hands of that new generation of moviemakers was rarely traditional.
During the Old Hollywood era, Westerns typically had been B-caliber productions, most of them favoring gunfights and barroom brawls over dramatic substance, and nearly all adhering to Western tropes which ran back to the pre-cinema days of dime novelist Ned Buntline. With the 1960s, however, the genre began to change; or, more accurately, expand, twist, and even invert.
To be sure, there would still be Westerns revolving around familiar Western myths, with some Old Hollywood directors – energized by the upscale refurbishing New Hollywood was giving the genre — turning in some of their most entertaining work i.e. Howard Hawks and El Dorado (1966), and Henry Hathaway with The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969). There were also somewhat younger directors – like Burt Kennedy and Andrew V. McLaglen — who followed in their elders’ footsteps, finding there was still plenty of box office mileage left in the traditionalist iconography of a swaggering John Wayne – albeit one bloated and craggy with middle age – duking it out with sneery Bad Guys in the likes of The War Wagon (1967), The Undefeated (1969), and Chisum (1970).
But among the new blood coming into the industry, there were those who saw in the venerable old form the potential to expand its dramatic reach and heft (George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969), to inject an unprecedented level of realism and honesty (Sidney Pollock’s Jeremiah Johnson, 1972), to peel back the myths and find the less-then-legendary underside of the legendary Old West (Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, 1970). They discovered in the Western a pliability allowing the use of the mythic setting of the American frontier as a vehicle to comment on such contemporary subjects as racism (Pollock’s The Scalphunters, 1968), war (Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, 1972), the dehumanizing corporatization of the American spirit (Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971).
In the vanguard of those who re-energized the Western by utterly revamping it stood Sam Peckinpah. Although he would essay other genres over the course of his career, his most potent vehicles were usually Westerns, and his most monumental contribution: The Wild Bunch (1969).
Born in Fresno in 1925, Peckinpah had often spent time on his grandfather’s ranch, and grew up hearing stories about his family’s forays into lumber, ranching, hauling borax, and wagon-making during what was then a not-too-distant era when northern California had still been very much a vestigial part of the Old West. Peckinpah would draw on those stories and that upbringing to give his Westerns – even at their most romantic – a sense of authenticity and a flavor few other Western moviemakers have matched. At the same time, Peckinpah’s Westerns – among the genre’s finest – cast often controversial reflections of a troubled present day, with a recurring theme throughout his Westerns, both period and contemporary, being that of, according to critic Kathleen Murphy, “…the American Dream profaned…going, gone rotten…”
Peckinpah first made a name for himself as a maestro of the genre in 1950s television, first by writing and directing for such popular series as Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and Zane Grey Theater, then by creating the hit series The Rifleman, followed by the critically-lauded – if short-lived — The Westerner. He moved to features with the little-noticed The Deadly Companions (1961), but followed with one of the acknowledged classics of Western cinema: Ride the High Country (1962).
Peckinpah did significant but uncredited re-writing of N. B. Stone, Jr.’s original High Country script, infusing it with his own sense of the West, and an eye for unique details as in a bizarre horse vs. camel race early in the movie, but most especially in his portrait of the rowdy, slapdash mining town of Coarsegold, a muddy tent city whose only permanent structure is the saloon/brothel. Peckinpah’s touch is also in the rustic yet graceful dialogue (“I just want to go into my house justified,” says aging lawman Joel McCrea ruminating on his encroaching mortality), and the poignant little human moments like McCrea excusing himself from a room so no one can see him pull on spectacles to read a letter. Still, the invigorating rough patina Peckinpah brought to the movie braced what was essentially a gentle and respectful core story; High Country was not an overturning of Western traditions, but a salute to their passing.
Peckinpah began to show a more openly revisionist hand with his flawed but nevertheless intriguing Major Dundee (1964), co-written with Harry Julian Fink and Oscar Saul. Charlton Heston is a Union cavalry officer guilty of some unspecified misstep on the Civil War battlefields in the east, now punitively assigned to the lowly job of overseeing a prisoner of war camp amid the New Mexico wastelands. To redeem himself, Heston assembles a motley collection of volunteers, including several of his Confederate prisoners, for an unauthorized pursuit into Mexico after an Apache raider.
Dundee is a complete inversion of the quietly dignified cavalrymen of John Ford’s West of a generation before. Dundee is an arrogant, condescending, hubristic, inflexible, unforgiving egotist, a man Peckinpah conceived as one who “…kept failing in what he was doing” in a self-aggrandizing, self-destructive quest the director likened to that of Ahab chasing his white whale.
The Wild Bunch would provide Peckinpah with his breakout commercial success, and also push him to the fore as one of the most controversial directors of the time. With The Wild Bunch, co-written with Walon Green from a story by Green and Roy N. Sickner, Peckinpah severed all ties with the Westerns of old, and created a period piece that – as much as any other movie of the time – captured the moral chaos and dislocation of the late 1960s.
It is the early 1900s, a time of transition for the West. Men on horseback carrying six-guns stand side-by-side with “horseless carriages” and heavy machine guns. Under the beginning credits, a squad of soldiers commanded by William Holden rides into a Texas border town heading for the railroad office. On the surrounding roofs, a scruffy, rotten-toothed gang of ambushers wait. The credit sequence ends with a tight close-up of Holden’s half-lit, weathered face as he turns to his men lining up the office staff and customers at shotgun point. “If they move,” he snaps icily, “kill ‘em!” Freeze frame, the deep thrum of the final note of Jerry Fielding’s title music, the credit “Directed by Sam Peckinpah,” and the moral compass of the movie takes the first of many freewheeling spins with this revelation that the “soldiers” are a band of notorious outlaws in disguise, and the repellant bushwhackers actually represent the law; a posse commissioned by the railroad.
A temperance march comes down the street in front of the railroad office. Tipped to the ambush by the clumsiness of the posse, the Bunch intends to use the passing parade to cover their escape. Peckinpah builds to the coming detonation with brilliant skill: the music of the temperance band – “Shall We Gather at the River” – grows louder as the marchers near; on the rooftops, the posse waits in almost pre-orgasmic expectation, grinning, embracing and kissing their rifles; in the railroad office, weapons are cocked, eyes narrow, as the Bunch wait for the right moment. On the soundtrack, underneath the growing volume of the temperance band, Fielding’s score introduces an almost imperceptible swell, and then comes the sound of a heartbeat, growing faster as the crucial instant comes. The marchers pass by the office, Holden shoves out a hostage to draw fire, a flash cut to two of the band members turning at the noise, and then one of the most violent action sequences in commercial cinema ensues.
As the town’s Main Street sinks into a chaotic mix of gunfire, running bodies, dust and spurting blood, any doubt about who the Good Guys might be is removed: there aren’t any. There are only two forces in opposition with the innocent townspeople caught in the crossfire between them.
Throughout the remainder of the movie, Peckinpah challenges the audience to sympathize with his group of violent outlaws, making no attempt to soften their edges or make them more ingratiating: they kill without compunction, steal with little thought as to whom they’re stealing from, they quarrel amongst themselves sometimes to an almost lethal extent. One moment bringing their utter self-interest into bold relief comes when, having been contracted by a thief-in-uniform Mexican general to steal American Army rifles for a fee of $10,000, a Mexican member of Holden’s Bunch – a Villa sympathizer (Jaime Sanchez) – balks at going along, protesting, “Would you steal guns to kill your mother or your father?” Holden replies drolly: “Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties.”
Yet, in spite of themselves, the Bunch do gain the viewer’s sympathy. Outlaws they may be, but they are also the last vestiges of an American West which, however brutal and lawless it may have been, was also a place of a kind of left-handed honor, of frontier independence, of undoubted courage. There’s an undeniable poignancy to their plight; last of the Old West outlaw bands, they are like gasping fish floundering from one puddle to another at the bottom of a drying pond as their world evaporates around them.
Even in their violence – ruthless, merciless, cold-blooded – there is an odd strain of honorability. They kill out of necessity, as opposed to the bounty-lusting posse hunting them who seem to relish the spilling of blood…any blood. Following the opening shoot-out, the bounty hunters pick over the dead for boots and valuables and quarrel over credit for kills, while one of their number squeals, “This is better than a hog-killin’!” When two of them (Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones) squabble over possession of a corpse, Martin dares Jones to dig the bullet out of the body “…and see if it ain’t my ought-six.”
The Bunch stand apart from the Mexican general Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) and his little army as well. The federales are no more than banditos in uniform who have stripped the countryside clean and spend their time engaged in constant debauchery when not indulging in the entertainment of torture. When Holden jokingly compares Mapache’s thievery to the Bunch’s own, one of the Bunch – an insulted Ernest Borgnine – repudiates the connection: “Not so’s you’d know it, Mr. Bishop, but we ain’t nothin’ like him! We don’t hang nobody!”
It was, however, not such dramatic subtleties, nor the inversions and overturnings of Western tropes which drew the most attention from the critical community at the time of The Wild Bunch’s release.
The debate about the growing quantity and quality of movie violence had grown more vociferous and heated as on-screen acts had grown more brazen and graphic. Psycho, in 1960, had offered up the butchering of a nude Janet Leigh, while 1964’s The Killers had ended with Lee Marvin coldly gunning down Angie Dickinson, and Point Blank three years later had Marvin tossing a nude John Vernon to his death from a penthouse terrace. There had been The Dirty Dozen (1967) and its story of twelve felons trained by the Army to be more efficient killers before being unleashed to carry out a massacre of high-ranking German officers and their mistresses. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had featured a succession of increasingly brutal gun battles climaxing with the slow motion death ballet of the titular couple falling beneath a hail of machine gun fire. The Wild Bunch took screen violence – and the debate over it – to still another level.
From the outset of the Bunch shoot, Peckinpah – ever a provocateur – had bragged, “We’re going to bury Bonnie and Clyde!” By the end of the first day’s shooting of the opening massacre, he had exhausted the company’s stock of blank ammunition and fake blood. When the “squibs” used to blow out the windows on the railroad office failed to sufficiently impress him, dynamite charges were used instead. Equally dissatisfied with the squibs used to simulate bullet impacts on his actors, Peckinpah demonstrated the effect he wanted by shooting a real gun at a mock-up human target. Thereafter, the special effects crew experimented with larger-caliber squibs loaded with blood and small pieces of meat. Peckinpah had the effects crew squib his actors front and back to give the impression – a first in movie violence – of bullets completely piercing a human body.
He was motivated by more than indulgent morbidity, his personal experience here again coming to bear on what he was trying to attain on-screen. There was an image he’d never forgotten from his youth hunting deer in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a memory of his first kill and the erupting spray of blood on white snow.
Escalating the visual impact still more was his decision to film these most brutal acts in slow motion. It was not a new device; the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had used slow motion as long ago as his 1954 classic Seven Samurai to extend and solemnize the exquisite horror of a mortally struck swordsman momentarily wavering on his feet before collapsing in death. A fan of Samurai, Walon Green had hoped to recapture that same, frozen moment of entrancing horror by incorporating the concept into his initial solo draft of The Wild Bunch screenplay. However, the effective mix of real-time and slow-motion in the film was worked out between Peckinpah and chief editor Lou Lombardo.
For some critics, Peckinpah’s perceived obsession with taking screen violence to a new extreme was the creative freedom of 1960s cinema taken to an indulgent, repugnant extreme.
But others saw hypocrisy – or denial – in such a stand. Over the course of Bunch’s nearly three-month shoot, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, there were race riots in several cities, and outside the Chicago convention hall where the 1968 Democratic convention was taking place, club-wielding policemen waded into ranks of anti-war protesters while the Vietnam War ground bloodily on. Said Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn, “You had to be an ostrich with a neck two miles long buried in the sand not to see we were living in a violent time…”
In 1994, Warner Bros. decided on a limited re-release of The Wild Bunch to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. As the studio was issuing a new director’s cut of the film, Bunch had to be re-submitted to the MPAA for a new rating. Though it had originally been released with an R-rating in 1969, after reviewing the new print, the MPAA slapped the film with an X (Warners would opt for releasing the new print without a rating).
Superficially, nothing about the new rating made sense. Time was supposed to ameliorate the impact of controversial films; not amplify them. Released in 1969 with an X-rating, Midnight Cowboy, for example,would be re-rated R in 1971. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was also originally released with an X which was later stepped down to an R.
Certainly, more graphically violent and gorier movies had been released since 1969, from a torrent of R-rated slasher flicks and gorefests like the Friday the 13th and various Living Dead films to such upscale mainstream releases as Die Hard 2 (1990; Bruce Willis stabs a villain through the eye with an icicle), Total Recall (1991; Michael Ironside plummets to his death after an elevator severs both his arms), and Silence of the Lambs (1991; featuring a disembodied head in a jar, a partially skinned female corpse, a grotesque posing of an eviscerated policeman, and serial killer Anthony Hopkins escaping detention by wearing the sliced-away face of one of his guards – the movie would win the Best Picture Oscar, and Hopkins take the Best Actor prize for his performance as serial killer “Hannibal the Cannibal”).
So, if not for Peckinpah’s elaborately choreographed mayhem, why the X? It could only have been for the movie’s power, its dramatic gravitas still intact after 25 years; that all the shooting and bloodletting wasn’t just empty action, but actually meant something — a rarity by the 1990s, and even more rare today.
In a 2004 documentary on Peckinpah, critic Elvis Mitchell remarked on the re-rating business and The Wild Bunch’s ability to disturb and provoke decades after its debut, saying this very quality made it everything a movie should be: “something that contains the weight and the cultural resonance of its time. It’s supposed to be a statement, a signature.”
In retrospect, one could see how lucky Peckinpah had been. He had come along at just the right time, able to make one of the most provocative movies ever released into American cinema’s commercial mainstream at a time when studios were up for such gambles, and the mass audience was hungry for movies which told them something – even unpalatable, disturbing somethings – about themselves and the world they lived in.
It says something about how we, the audience, have changed since then. Immersed in numbing escapism, we sit with fingers in our ears, stretching our necks – as Arthur Penn had said – to bury our heads deep in the sand, rearing up mightily offended when unpleasant real-world truths leak through.