Ask a movie fan “What’s the greatest Western ever made?” and the discussion could go on for hours.
The movies in that conversation likely would include John Ford’s “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers,” Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” and its sequels, and maybe Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”
Ask author W.K. Stratton that question and he has one answer: Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”
Stratton saw “The Wild Bunch” when it came out 50 years ago, when he was a 13-year-old kid at his local theater in Guthrie, Okla. It changed his life.
“I had never seen anything quite like it, in terms of the violence that was portrayed in it,” Stratton, now 63, said in a recent phone interview. “By the standards of the late 1960s, it was really realistic.”
Stratton — who has written books about college football, boxing and rodeo — dives into the making of this 1969 classic in a new book, “The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film” (Bloomsbury Publishing; 352 pages, hardcover; $28).
Stratton will talk about the movie and his book at two free screenings in Utah this week: Tuesday, 7 p.m., at the City Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City; and Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. (with a discussion starting at 5:30 p.m.), at Star Hall, 159 E. Center St., Moab. The screenings are co-presented by Utah Humanities and the Utah Film Center.
The movie, set in Texas and Mexico in 1913, tells of a gang of outlaws — played by tough-guy actors William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates — trying to make one last score before retiring. The heist becomes an ambush, and the gang flees across the Rio Grande, only to get caught up in the Mexican Revolution.
The aging gunslingers also are facing the end of their era. “These men have outlived their time,” Stratton said. “They were formed by the old outlaw days. Now they find themselves in the early 20th century, where they’re being assaulted by technology in the form of automobiles and the machine gun. It kind of forebodes what technology can do to basic humanity.”
The book digs into how timing and lucky coincidences brought the cast and crew together in Mexico to make the movie happen.
It all starts, Stratton said, with Peckinpah, “a kind of visual poet” who was on the outs in Hollywood at the time after the failure of “Major Dundee,” a 1965 frontier epic starring Charlton Heston.
“‘Major Dundee,’” Stratton said, “had been a fiasco for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his own inexperience at trying to direct a David Lean-like epic picture.” (Lean had released “Doctor Zhivago” the same year as “Major Dundee,” and “Lawrence of Arabia” three years earlier.)
Peckinpah retreated to TV work and script-doctoring, while working with screenwriter Walon Green to develop the screenplay for “The Wild Bunch.”
Stratton was fascinated with Peckinpah. “I started reading whatever books I could find about him,” he said, noting that he found 36 books on Peckinpah by the time he started writing his book.
“I had the urge to make my own kind of statement about Peckinpah in some way,” Stratton said, and he thought “The Wild Bunch” “is a picture that deserves that kind of attention. ... I started finding a lot of interesting things about this film, important things about this film, that had been overlooked by other writers.”
Among the most interesting things, Stratton said, were the contributions of Latino filmmakers in the cast and the crew.
“I discovered that every Mexican character was portrayed by a Latino actor, most of them from Mexico,” Stratton said, noting that Jaime Sánchez, who played the youngest gang member, Angel, was from Puerto Rico.
Casting Latinos to play Latinos was unusual in 1960s Hollywood. In “The Professionals” (1966), the Mexican bandit who was the movie’s villain was played by Jack Palance, who was born in Pennsylvania of Ukrainian parents. And the Russian-born Yul Brynner famously portrayed the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1968’s “Villa Rides” (for which Peckinpah is one of the three credited screenwriters).
Peckinpah and Green had studied the Mexican Revolution — Green had interviewed a Mexican general who had fought alongside the revolutionary leader Álvaro Obregón — and they incorporated their knowledge into “The Wild Bunch.”
Most of the movie was shot in Parras, the home town of Francisco Madero, the first president installed during the revolution. Peckinpah cast Madero’s kid brother, Raul, as an extra. And the locomotive used in the film, National de Mexico No. 650, was in service during the revolution.
“I went to some trouble to interview as many of the surviving Mexican actors as I could find,” Stratton said. “Their insights and comments provided me with some good information.”
Stratton cites the story of stuntwoman, actor and singer Yolanda Ponce, who got her first acting credit in the film.
In the first scene shot in the production, Ponce stunt-doubled for an actress whose character was trampled to death by a horse. At the end of the stunt, another stuntman accidentally backed a horse onto her, and the horse stepped on her abdomen, fracturing her pelvis. Three weeks later, still nursing a sore belly, she came back to work, filming a scene where she shot Holden’s character with a shotgun — with a rope tied around her waist, yanked by two crew members to simulate the gun’s recoil.
Though “The Wild Bunch” is seen as a one-of-a-kind movie, a monolith unto itself, its existence was based on other movies of its era.
Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy — “A Fistful of Dollars” (1965), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966) — “opened a whole new door to realism in Westerns, which is sort of ironic, because they’re also absurdist works,” Stratton said. “If Sergio Leone was shooting a scene and a fly landed on some actor’s forehead, he left it in. He was the one who really first gave us a clue to how dirty it was in the American West.”
Meanwhile, George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” (1969) set a Hollywood record for the amount of money — $400,000 — screenwriter William Goldman was paid for the script. It and the Leone films “really stirred things up in Hollywood, in terms of how much money could be made with Westerns,” Stratton said.
Arthur Penn’s gangster romance “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) introduced a new level of gun violence to movies — and showed Peckinpah how to employ “squibs,” packets of fake blood attached to small explosives, to simulate bullets hitting bodies.
Peckinpah saw “Bonnie & Clyde” and wanted to “take it to the next level,” Stratton said. But Peckinpah didn’t want the glamorized, almost sexual death scene that Penn shot of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. “Peckinpah had none of that. He made death anguished and dirty and painful,” Stratton said.
Toward the end of his book, Stratton quotes British film scholar Jim Kitses, who wrote that “‘The Wild Bunch’ is America.” Stratton agrees.
“[The civil rights activist] H. Rap Brown, all those years ago, said, ‘Violence is as American as cherry pie,’” Stratton said. “If we look at the debates going on in our society even now, guns and gun violence sadly seem to be permanently attached to American culture. So when you look at a picture like ‘The Wild Bunch,’ you say, ‘Yeah, that is America.’”
‘The Wild Bunch’ onscreen
Screenings of the 1969 Western “The Wild Bunch,” followed by a Q&A with W.K. Stratton, author of the book “The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film.”
- Salt Lake City: Tuesday, 7 p.m., City Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.
- Moab: Wednesday, discussion starts at 5:30 p.m., screening starts at 6:30 p.m., Star Hall, 159 E. Center St., Moab.
- Admission: Free.
- Presenters: Utah Humanities and Utah Film Center.
Editor’s note: Reporter Sean P. Means’ wife is an employee of the Utah Film Center.
This coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Salt Lake Tribune makes all editorial decisions.
Correction: An earlier version listed an incorrect start time for the Moab screening.