I don’t claim to be a Sam Peckinpah expert or a film critic by any means. I am a poster designer at heart. My love for movies is the real deal: I know what I like, and I know what draws me to certain directors. Peckinpah the man, and his body of work, have always fascinated me: his filmmaking convictions, on-set creativity, story-telling techniques, editing style, and the kind of characters he brought to the screen. I also like his Hell’s Angel side. He knew what he was doing, even though most of the studio heads and producers working with him didn’t see it that way.
Working on a number of posters in a single month, I get asked quite often how I pick my subject films. Well, it always begins with the director. The same can be said with this article: when it came time to choose my first film to write about, the truest filmmaker that came to mind was Sam Peckinpah. After that it was pretty easy to pick a film. The Wild Bunch is a fantastic example of his talent. It’s a powerful picture filled with symbolism, breath-taking action sequences, and innovative editing. So let’s take a little journey through Peckinpah’s making of The Wild Bunch.
In 1965, after the disastrous filming of Major Dundee (during which Peckinpah dismissed various crewmembers, butted heads with Charlton Heston, and drank off set), producer Martin Ransohoff fired him and took the picture away. Shut out for three years from making films, Peckinpah was instead hired to work on Noon Wine for television. The show was a hit. After all, television was where Peckinpah got his start (he wrote a number of small screen westerns, including 11 episodes of “Gunsmoke” ).
Warner Bros. producer Phil Feldman then approached Peckinpah to rewrite and direct a film based on a Roy Sickner and Walon Green screenplay. Peckinpah accepted and started rewriting the film with Green. Peckinpah’s contributions to the final screenplay were significant, and Green was adamant in getting Peckinpah a screenwriting credit on the film. It was to be called The Wild Bunch and it would change the face of cinema. In 1967, prior to The Wild Bunch, Arthur Penn had released his ultra-violent picture Bonnie & Clyde to critical and box-office success. People had just started tasting a new form of violent cinema.
Peckinpah was eager to get back into cinema. This story would be told on an epic scale, shot on location in Mexico with an authentic look, a stark realism that Peckinpah thought was lacking from Westerns. It told the story of a bunch of outlaws that had outlived their time. The film was budgeted at $3.1M with a 70-day shoot. Casting was locked with a variety of veteran actors, including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. Peckinpah shot the film with anamorphic and telephoto lenses to give the picture a grand-scale beauty. One of the clearest examples of this is at the end, when the Bunch makes their final walk (which Peckinpah improvised on the day of the shoot).
The grainy goodness of the late 60’s, carried through into the 70’s, is one of my favorite styles in that era of movie posters. Look to such films as Midnight Cowboy and Two–Lane Blacktop for great original examples.
The story takes place in 1913. The dawn of a new era is upon the outlaws. Will they survive in this modern world? Pike Bishop (Holden), the leader of the Bunch, is tired and weary. His ex-partner Deke Thornton (Ryan) has been forced to become a bounty hunter and is chasing the Bunch down. Peckinpah used flashback techniques to tell Bishop and Thornton’s back-story and convey the film’s underlining themes: codes of honor and the value of a man’s word. These were important themes to Peckinpah both on the big screen and in real life—and I think it was one of the reasons he never got along with studio heads or producers.
After a failed bank robbery, the Bunch hide out in fellow crew member Angel’s Mexican village. They learn of the horrors of the Mexican revolution and meet General Mapache and his small army of tequila drinking buffoons. Mapache is responsible for the town-folk’s troubles. After the Bunch have drinks with the General, they agree to steal some weapons for gold to further Mapache’s war. This is where Peckinpah’s true skills as an action director are put to the test. Revitalizing a cliché done to death in Westerns, the old train robbery sequence is a masterful exercise in editing and sound design.
What follows the robbery, too, is one of the greatest stunt pieces ever committed to film. Thornton and his crew of misfits follow the Bunch to a dynamite-loaded bridge. They manage to get their cargo of stolen goods out of there just before Thornton and his team make their way onto the bridge. The scene is funny because it reminds me of a great moment in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an amazing explosion at the beginning of that film, when the characters try to crack a train safe using dynamite and blow up the train car instead. The Wild Bunch sequence has that same impact and ferocious intensity—and wood chips galore.
One shot of Holden strikes me every time I see it. At the outset of the explosion, both men stare each other down. Ryan starts shooting; Holden tips his hat as a salute to Ryan just as the entire bridge collapses from under Ryan and his men. It’s magnificent.
William Holden was one of the biggest actors and movie stars of all time. But his tale is a sad one, filled with torment and alcoholism. You felt it on the screen. I wanted to make a stand-alone poster just with Holden. After all, his character is a carbon copy of Peckinpah himself.
Honorable mention must go to the acting. As much as Peckinpah has been labeled a violent or sadistic director, I think he was an actor’s director above all (he directed theater before he started working in television). He loved his actors and brought out the very best in them every time. As an example of his prowess with actors, I’d like to go back to the beginning of the film. After their narrow escape from Thornton and his men, the Bunch meet up with Edmond O’Brien’s old and crusty Freddie, and divide up their share of the bank robbery. The scene was originally an eight-page frenzy of dialogue between all the characters, sort of classically Tarantino-esque. long before Tarantino was wielding a camera. The day of the shoot, however, none of the actors knew their lines. Peckinpah was furious, but very calmly told them all to get their act together and learn their lines. He gave them all 20 minutes to memorize everything, or he would replace each actor who hadn’t gotten all the dialogue down. The result is a masterpiece of repartee. Other examples of great acting he inspired can be found in smaller roles like those of L.Q Jones and Strother Martin, playing Thornton’s despicable vultures who’d kill their own mothers for a slice of bread.
1st Poster: The Bunch and their infamous walk, with Ryan just above the credit block. 2nd Poster: Holden’s Pike Bishop taking no prisoners, with trusted pal Dutch at his side.
The final scene in the picture was referred to on set as “Battle of Bloody Porch,” a relentless non-stop shoot-out which took the crew 12 days to film. I don’t think it has aged one bit. It’s a powerful, blood-laden final act, where extras were reused as soon as they had been patched up by make-up and wardrobe. If you want to get a better sense of how it was actually filmed, I recommend Nick Redman’s amazing documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, available on the Blu-ray edition of the film.
I think if the film was marketed today, each character would get their own poster. Example: a character poster for Warren Oates’ Lyle.
I encourage you to seek out The Wild Bunch and more of Peckinpah’s films. He shouldn’t be judged by his off-set behavior. He needs to be talked about so that his films will live on in the popular imagination. They need to be screened and seen. If you have the opportunity to hear him talk, I also really urge you to listen back on some of his interviews (here’s an interview compilation that will give you a taste of his style). He was a maverick, a legend, and I can imagine there will ever be another American director quite like him.
MM = Midnight Marauder