Epitaph for All: How 'The Wild Bunch' Takes Men to the End

William Holden stars in the 1969 classic "The Wild Bunch." (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts)

Author and film historian W.K. Stratton's love affair with Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" started when he first saw it at the Melba Theatre in his hometown of Guthrie, Oklahoma, when he was about 13 or 14 years old. He was a smoking, drinking, sometimes thieving teen who spent endless hours slow-dancing with girls to The Beatles' "Hey Jude." And he loved Westerns.

Something about seeing "The Wild Bunch" grabbed Stratton's heart in a way few other Westerns had.

"The visual impact was stunning, something like stepping into an Old Master's painting hanging in a museum and remaining inside it for two hours," he writes in the introduction to his book, "The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film." The blood-and-guts action sequences, he recalls, "left me shaky."

It's safe to say that "The Wild Bunch" is a landmark film of its time: Few movies had told a story like this one by 1969 -- and told it in such a visceral, bloody, and confrontational way. (That vision helped cement Peckinpah as a benchmark for action directors in the years to come.) In contrast to previous decades of heroic tales of cowboys in white hats doing good, "The Wild Bunch," set in 1913, crafts a story of an American West in decline. There, a band of six outlaws and killers have outlived their time, and the ubiquitous signs of progress -- automobiles and machine guns and modern hand grenades -- are at odds with the way they understand their world and their place in it. In this gritty masterpiece, the men, led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, look for one last score, but find themselves thrust into the Mexican Revolution and on the run.

"The Wild Bunch" 101

Stuntman-actor Roy Sickner -- one of many to pose for the famous Marlboro Man cigarette ads in the 1960s -- came up with the basic story for the film, initially setting it in the 1870s or 1880s. It was screenwriter Walon Green who moved the setting to the Mexican Revolution era of 1913-1914.

"It's a movie about men. Men who are not able to have wives and families," said Stratton, who will introduce the film on Saturday, May 11, at The Screen, and sign copies of his new book. "Their family relationships are with each other -- other outlaws. These are guys who go to prostitutes for sexual release and then they are ready to saddle up the horse and ride on. They don't want any return trip.

"I think a lot of men relate to these things as they are getting over that last hill that we all face at some point. And some of us are in a place in our lives now where that hill is getting close."

Stratton's book delves into the roots of the film: the casting of faded stars with their own messy issues; the Oscar-nominated soundtrack; the virtual acrobatics of filming the epic battle sequences; and the reaction, critically and otherwise, to its release. Behind every moment is the figure of then-43-year-old Peckinpah, largely working without studio interference and tempering his love of alcohol and other stimulants to get the job done.

Now, 50 years later, Stratton said the film has a timeless relevance that may not be easy to define. "There's plenty to interpret in this film. ... Who are the men who are the main characters? Where did they come from? What's their backstory? This picture gives viewers a lot to think about."

The movie's violence, Stratton said, was a way for Peckinpah -- a middle-aged master looking for a foothold in Hollywood after a series of misfires, box-office flops, and overlooked gems -- to show audiences that getting shot hurt.

"Peckinpah had this notion that if he portrayed violence as it really is -- painful and dirty and agonizing and not like it had been portrayed in movies or TV up to that point -- then it may do something to cause a catharsis and lead people to rethink their violent tendencies," said Stratton, who interviewed many people for the book, including co-screenwriter Walon Green. (Peckinpah died in 1984.)

"He realized later he was wrong, and that he had almost introduced a new pornography: the pornography of violence."

Apparently, not everyone wanted to witness that kind of brutal reality. Perhaps the real world was violent enough. Vietnam, the United States' first unpopular war, had raged since the mid-1950s. In March 1968, American soldiers slaughtered men, women, and children in a Vietnam village called Son My (or My Lai). In April, James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. In June, as Peckinpah wrapped up filming, Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. In August, more violence broke out in the homeland -- at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago -- and in distant Eastern Europe, when five nations banded together to invade Czechoslovakia.

In industry comment cards, some viewers called "The Wild Bunch" "one big bloody mess," or "truly a product of our sick society," or wrote, "Christ have mercy. What happened to the old John Wayne movies?"

The violence in the movie does not obscure the story of four aging men trying to find a place of refuge in a world that wants them dead. At the heart of that story is the relationship between Pike Bishop (Holden, a hard-drinking actor who had hit rock bottom before Peckinpah cast him) and Dutch Engstrom (Borgnine, then best known for his comic turn on the 1960s TV comedy series McHale's Navy), the moral conscience of the group. It is Dutch who best understands, as Pike puts it, the need to stick by their partners no matter how many bullets are raining down.

As Stratton relates it, as the actors portraying "The Wild Bunch" -- Holden, Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sánchez, Bo Hopkins, and Edmund O'Brien -- worked together, they became The Wild Bunch, aging mavericks still trying to prove they were up to a new challenge. And a "collective madness" began to develop on the set: There was drinking, and pot smoking, and bar fights, and a lot of people went to jail. But when these actors needed to be on, they were on.

Most of the actors realized that, like their characters, their own time had passed, Stratton said, and that maybe they were facing the tail end of careers that began 20 or 30 years before.

By the end of "The Wild Bunch," they are riding the river together. They are four tired old lions, still baring their teeth and roaring, ready to take a long walk to hell to save a member of the gang who has fallen on the wrong side of the road in a revolution none of them understand. They all realize they wouldn't have it any other way.

At 63, Stratton sometimes wonders whether he's outlived his time, too. "When I look in the mirror and see my reflection, I feel the pain of being a man," he said. "Tradition means nothing. The Code of the West, which I wrote about in the book, also means nothing. You say something, like, 'the value of a man or woman is based on whether he or she is someone you trust enough to ride the river with.' But a phrase like 'ride the river with' means nothing these days."

The bloody trajectory of "The Wild Bunch" isn't so bad, he said. "Damned right, it's the way to go. Going out that way, doing something meaningful, making a foolhardy effort to save a comrade. ... That makes a whole lot more sense than sitting in a nursing home waiting for death."

"The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film" by W.K. Stratton, Bloomsbury Publishing, 336 pages, $28.

This article is written by Robert Nott from The Santa Fe New Mexican and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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