‘Why was this film ever made?’: the savage history of ‘Bloody Sam’ Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch
A special effects man on The Wild Bunch interrupted a script readthrough. He wanted to show something to director Sam Peckinpah. Outside, stood against a corral fence, was a man-shaped cut-out. It was dressed in clothes and rigged with squibs – little explosive charges that filmmakers use to create the impact of gunshots.
Peckinpah – known as “Bloody Sam” for his predilection towards ultra-violence – wanted to outdo the squib-heavy shootouts of Bonnie and Clyde. But as the squibs detonated, tearing little holes into the cut-out’s clothing, Peckinpah was unimpressed. “That’s not what I want!” he shouted. Peckinpah – a force of volatile, macho, and (usually) drunken intensity – pulled out a gun loaded with real ammo and blasted holes through the cut-out. “That’s the effect I want.”
From then on, they used bigger squibs packed with fake blood and burger meat. Peckinpah also rigged squibs to both the front and back of his actors – those imaginary bullets would appear to burst all the way through them. “I wanted to show people what the hell it felt like to be shot,” Peckinpah later said.
He certainly had the hardware. Bloody Sam brought more than 200 guns to the shoot in Mexico, and Mexican soldiers – hired as extras – brought hundreds more. The film used 90,000 rounds of ammo. “More ammunition was used in that final battle than in the entire Mexican Revolution,” said props master Phil Ankrom, repeating one of Warner Bros’ proudest promotional lines.
Released in June 1969, The Wild Bunch tore down the Western – the romanticism, the phony bloodlessness, the great American folktale. It was made against a backdrop of real American violence: Vietnam, assassinations, race riots, protests hit by police brutality. Peckinpah explained that he wanted to take the “façade of movie violence and open it up” so it’s “not fun anymore”. He added: “It’s a terrible, ugly thing. And yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement because we’re all violent people.”
The bloodletting caused controversy. There were walkouts at early screenings. Nuns were sent fleeing from a cinema in terror. One angry viewer sent a letter of protest to their congressman. At a press conference, a Reader’s Digest critic asked Peckinpah: “Why was this film ever made?” He was later grilled about screen violence by Barry Norman.
The Wild Bunch was violent, yes, but not really about violence. Set in 1913, against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, it’s about men who are lost in a world of their own making – a theme that still resonates like a shotgun blast. Outrun by automobiles, outgunned by automatic weapons, they have outlived their time. Now, the Wild Bunch are haunted by the past – by regret, shame, and remorse – and forced to do something good for the first – and last – time in their lives. Melancholy flickers around them mirage-like. The Wild Bunch is a tragedy: men on the inevitable journey towards death. Its revisionist legacy continues: The Harder They Fall, the Idris Elba-starring Netflix Western, is a direct descendent.
“I wasn’t trying to make an epic,” said Peckinpah. “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. The Wild Bunch is simply about what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.”
The story was conceived by Roy N Sickner, a stuntman, actor, and former Marlboro Man. The name “The Wild Bunch” was common outlaw parlance, sometimes used to describe the gang of outlaws led by Butch Cassidy – aka. the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Sickner’s idea was perfunctory Western fare: a train robbery, a chase, and a climactic shootout. He knocked the idea around with his drinking buddy, the grizzled “man’s man” star Lee Marvin, who was set to play the lead. The first proper script was written by Walon Green, who suggested setting the film in the Mexican Revolution.
“At that time, la frontera, the border between Texas and Mexico, remained dominated by horse culture,” wrote WK Stratton in a book on the making of The Wild Bunch. “However, it was being invaded by automobiles, electric lines, telephones, and what were, by the standard of the times, weapons of mass destruction: machine guns, hand grenades, bomb-dropping aircraft and semiautomatic sidearms. Green wanted to include all of it.” Green based the film’s villain, General Mapache, on stories of real-life generals – as told to Green by surviving revolutionaries he had met in Mexico.
Another of Lee Marvin’s drinking buddies picked up the script: Sam Peckinpah. At the time, Peckinpah was all-but blackballed as a director. His Charlton Heston-starring film, Major Dundee, was a debacle; afterwards, he was fired from The Cincinnati Kid. But Peckinpah was the real deal – a native Californian from Old West stock. The Wild Bunch story, said WK Stratton, “had bitten deeply into Peckinpah’s psyche.”
Peckinpah rewrote Walon Green’s lines and added a literally explosive scene: the Bunch blowing up a bridge across the Rio Grande. To Green, it was a Western cliché. “It’s not just blowing up another bridge,” Peckinpah told him. “It’s about how you blow up the bridge.” Much more than set pieces, Peckinpah added thematic depth: masculinity in the dying moments of the Old West, but caught in the turbulence of 1960s America.
Warner Bros producers Phil Feldman and Kenneth Hyman greenlit The Wild Bunch, but Lee Marvin dropped out, warned off the film by his agent. It was too close to Marvin’s other hardmen-vs-Mexicans actioner, The Professionals. Instead, Lee Marvin joined Clint Eastwood for the Western musical, Paint Your Wagon.
Even losing Marvin couldn’t derail the film. Westerns at the time were big money: the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood trilogy, The Magnificent Seven, and The Professionals were hits. Another bunch – wild or otherwise – were also in production, including True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Veteran stars William Holden and Robert Ryan were cast as Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton – old outlaw partners who split when the law catches up with them.
Bishop now leads the Bunch – the Old West’s last men standing – and wants to pull off one last hold-up. “I’d like to make one good score and back off.” “Back off to what?” asks his right hand man, Dutch. Thornton now works as a bounty hunter – forced to track down his old partner to keep out of prison himself – and is a ghost of his former self. Both actors were in the twilight of their careers – middle-aged men with their best days seemingly behind them. The Wild Bunch was that one last good score. The rest of the Wild Bunch were played by Ernest Borgnine, Jaime Sánchez, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Edmond O'Brien. “All the cast more or less became the Wild Bunch,” said Peckinpah in a later, slightly belligerent interview. “It was on-screen and off-screen.”
The film was too much for censors before a single blood- and burger-meat-packed squib had gone off. The Motion Picture Association of America looked at the script and recommended two pages of cuts – for swearing, nudity, violence and all-round lewd behaviour. But production rode on, unperturbed. With a budget of $3.5 million, The Wild Bunch headed to Mexico – Parras, Hacienda Ciénaga del Carmen and Torreón.
The film’s opening was inspired by the notorious actor-director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, who was cast as General Mapache. Fernández told Peckinpah that as a child he would drop scorpions onto an anthill, just to watch the ants overrun and kill them. “Get me the phone!” demanded Peckinpah, then barked orders down the line: “I want ants and I want scorpions – and I don’t care how you get them down here!” Twelve thousand ants were shipped in. “Like there weren’t enough ants and scorpions in Mexico already,” said Phil Ankrom.
The film begins with the Bunch riding into the Texas border town of Starbuck. They see a dark omen: a gang of kids dropping a scorpion into a swarm of ants – just as El Indio said. Looking like overgrown boy scouts, the Bunch are disguised as soldiers – an idea apparently suggested by Lee Marvin – and hold up a railroad office: a robbery-turned-gunfight-turned massacre. It is, before the first shot is even fired, a morally murky tale. “If they move, kill ’em!” says Pike about the innocents they’ve rounded up.
Yet it’s Thornton’s posse of bounty hunters – lying in wait for the Bunch – who emerge as more reprehensible, more disgusting, but on the right side of the law. Parras, which doubled for Starbuck, was the site of real-life revolutionary battles. For the action, Peckinpah had his crew rig the street with squibs to simulate bullets hitting the stone and woodwork. When the windows failed to break with the required panache, Peckinpah ordered dynamite be used instead.
Assistant director Cliff Coleman later told WK Stratton that unexploded squibs were left embedded in the buildings – and are presumably still there. There was real danger on the streets of Starbuck. Ernest Borgnine, playing Dutch, heard the sound of real bullets as they filmed the scenes. The Mexican soldiers had mistakenly loaded their rifles with their own ammunition.
For all the rough, rugged, quick-draw swagger, The Wild Bunch remains a technical masterclass: the Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Fielding – pensive, beautiful, galloping; the simmering cinematography by Lucien Ballard – shot through different lenses to mimic newsreel footage from the Mexican Revolution; and the rapid-fire, almost lawless editing by Louis Lombardo – inspired by both DW Griffith and Akira Kurosawa.
Ballard and Peckinpah set up multiple cameras to film at varying frames per second. Lombardo intercut between speeds and slow-motion during the action – somehow, the slow-motion hits the screen like bursts of action. Producers back at Warner Bros were stunned by the footage. Kenneth Hyman later recalled that he approved even more budget for Peckinpah based on the rushes. Peckinpah, however, was selective about what he let them see; when Lombardo showed footage to one executive before Peckinpah had seen it himself, he was furious. The exec was sent back to Los Angeles on a bus, pronto.
Now, more than 50 years on, some of the violence is still hard to stomach. One outlaw is blinded in the shootout at Starbuck, his face a featureless, fleshy mess. Bishop puts him out of his misery, but there’s no time for sentiment. An argument breaks out about whether to bury him or not. “He’s dead!” shouts Pike. “And he’s got a lot of good men back there to keep him company.”
The deaths are for naught: the Bunch soon realise they were set up; the bags of loot robbed from the railroad office are filled with steel washers. As relics of the Old West Bunch, they cling to a warped code of honour. “We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be,” Bishop growls. “When you side with a man you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished. We’re finished. All of us.”
Not that the code stands for much: they kill civilians, use women as shields, and ravage prostitutes – perhaps the hardest thing to stomach now. They also strike a deal with a crooked federale – the vile General Mapache – to steal US weapons from a train. Mapache is fighting the revolutionary forces, but he’s in it for what he can grab himself – arms, booze, women, a brand-new automobile. The drunken, machine gun-firing carnage of Mapache’s stronghold is more frightening than anything the Wild Bunch is capable of.
Mexican actor-director Emilio Fernández was perfectly cast as the leering, violent general. Fernández was rumoured to have once shot a producer and also shot a critic in the genitals. He did legitimately shoot and kill a farm worker and served a short sentence. Fernández showed up on The Wild Bunch with a “harem” of teenage girls. “I'd love to have owned the penicillin concession on that place,” said Cliff Coleman.
Fernández wasn’t the only one with disturbing sexual impulses. Actor Albert Dekker introduced the crew to a 13-year-old “wife”. Before the film was finished, Dekker was found dead at home – hanging from his shower, handcuffed, blindfolded, and ball-gagged. Hypodermic needles were stuck in his arms and obscenities scrawled across his body in lipstick.
Peckinpah – contrary to his legendary drinking and hell-raiser reputation – abstained on the set of The Wild Bunch. “Too much was on the line for him, both professionally and artistically,” wrote WK Stratton. After hours, however, Peckinpah got into a tussle with locals at a nearby cantina. Stuntman Billy Hart stepped in then got stepped on, breaking his ankle.
Peckinpah was renowned for getting brilliant performances from his actors – particularly when changing the perception of hammy, washed-up veterans. LQ Jones, who played one of the bounty hunters, recalled William Holden’s reaction to the intensity with which Peckinpah directed his supporting cast: “He’s going to want the same intensity from me, so I better get my a-- in gear.” Holden retreated from the set to do his homework.
Editor Louis Lombardo thought Holden was essentially “doing” Peckinpah. “He was running that Wild Bunch just like Sam was running the movie,” said Lombardo. “His gestures, his tone of voice – it was all Sam.”
Not every actor was impressed. Peckinpah pushed Robert Ryan to near-breaking point by leaving him hanging around for days on end in full costume. Eventually, Ryan grabbed hold of him. “I’ll do anything you ask me to do in front of the camera because I’m a professional,” said Ryan. “But you open your mouth to me off the set, and I’ll knock your teeth out.”
There were more injuries and near-misses: the actress and stuntwoman Yolando Ponce was badly injured when a horse trampled her; and original writer Walon Green almost had a plane crash while checking out a location. Green thought that Peckinpah was actually “impressed” by his almost-death.
Peckinpah had his own ailment: a brutal case of piles, which bled through the backside of his white Levi’s – giving a new meaning to the “Bloody Sam” nickname. Cliff Coleman could smell the mix of blood and Preparation H. Peckinpah was also prone to outbursts – “You’re ruining my picture!” he would shout. Twenty-two crew members were fired over the course of the shoot. Actor Warren Oates said the pressure was so intense “you could have boiled beef”.
When it came time to shoot the Bunch’s train robbery, William Holden found himself at the wheel of a literal runaway train. Peckinpah insisted that Holden drive the train himself, and shot the train screeching to a halt, its wheels sparking on the tracks, over and over. Holden pushed it too fast and lost control. The train smashed into flatcars parked on the tracks and sent the crew fleeing for cover.
For the bridge explosion – actually the last sequence filmed on location – the crew had to build a balsa-wood truss bridge across the Río Nazas. The bridge was fitted with a trapdoor that dropped stuntmen and horses into the water below. Peckinpah didn’t skimp on explosives. “I looked at the rigging and Sam had enough explosives to blow us clean onto dry land!” said stuntman Joe Canutt. “My mother didn’t have any stupid children, so I told Sam if he didn’t cut those charges, they’d have to find someone else to do the stunt. I also told that son of a b---h that I’d never work for him again.” It was still highly dangerous. One stuntman was knocked out and had to be fished out of the strong current.
For all the dynamite and bloodshed, some of the film’s most powerful moments are its quiet, reflective exchanges. When Mapache abducts one of them – a native Mexican named Angel (Jaime Sánchez) – the Bunch abandons him. But with nowhere else to go and nothing to do but redeem themselves, Bishop gives the command to rescue Angel. “Let’s go,” he tells the Bunch – a moment of skin-prickling manliness. As per the code, the Bunch now only have each other. Without each other they have nothing.
The Wild Bunch collect their weapons and walk to confront Mapache – an iconic shot. Peckinpah improvised “the walk” on the day – one of those moments that Cliff Coleman came to dread from Peckinpah. He was an obsessive perfectionist. Peckinpah made no bones about it. “A director has to deal with a whole world absolutely teeming with mediocrities,” he said.
The walk is magnificent and their battle against Mapache’s men, in the words of composer Jerry Fielding, is “a f---ing ballet”. The shooting begins when Mapache slits Angel’s throat in front of them. “The special effects department had rigged up a prop knife and a pump. The f---ing blood spurted from here to the f---ing street,” said Warren Oates. “It was just a malfunction of the pumping mechanism but it scared the s--- out of everybody who saw the dailies. The producers were speechless.”
For that final shootout – “the Battle of Bloody Porch”, a “four against 400”-type situation – Peckinpah rigged the courtyard with 10,000 squibs, all controlled by a switchboard and timed to go off with the action.
Costume man Gordon Dawson had a production line going to repair the uniforms as they were torn to ribbons: “They’d come in bloody, ragged, torn, they’d be taped up, painted over the tape, stuck in front of a heater lamp to dry, a guy would go over the patch with dirty gloves to make it look like aged cloth, then they’d get blown up again.” He had just 350 Mexican soldier costumes; they were blown up 6,000 times.
Fifty years on, The Wild Bunch still strides ahead of the genre: like a slow, purposeful march towards a showdown between two old gunslingers that never happens. By the time Deke Thornton arrives on the scene, Pike Bishop is dead.
Thornton has his own moment of redemption – he rides off with the only surviving member of the Bunch, old-timer Sykes, to fight in the Revolution. “It ain’t like it used to be,” Sykes tells him. “But it’ll do.” It is, we can assume, Thornton’s own walk towards death. Peckinpah broke down when the film was finished. He spent a year with his editors, editing more than 300,000 metres of film.
There was controversy – “Do you know, people came up and threw punches at me because they were incensed by the violence in The Wild Bunch?” said Peckinpah – but one man enjoyed the preview screenings: Lee Marvin.
As described by Marvin biographer Dwayne Epstein: “An inebriated Lee Marvin showed up at a much-anticipated screening of a preview at Warner Bros, heckled the film throughout the projection and, at one point, was even seen crawling down the aisle of the theatre.” LQ Jones wondered if Peckinpah had put Marvin up to it. “It’s just the kind of thing they would do.”
Peckinpah’s battle wasn’t finished. Because of disappointing box-office returns, a new studio executive ordered that the running time be chopped down. Phil Feldman – Peckinpah’s partner through production – decided on cuts without consulting him. Prints of the film, a true American masterpiece, were butchered. It was more readily available in Britain. “You have to go to Europe to see the picture in anything like the version I made,” said Bloody Sam.
In 1993, nine years after Peckinpah’s death, Martin Scorsese and others lobbied for Warner Bros to release the full version. The MPAA bumped up its rating to an NC-17, killing its commercial potential. It was finally released in 1995. Peckinpah could still pull triggers. “I suppose I’m something of an outlaw myself,” he would say.