Taking A New Look At Sam Peckinpah’s Iconic Western, ‘The Wild Bunch’

“I can’t think of an American film that had as many roles for characters who were Mexican, in which every single role was played by a Latino.”

By Laura RiceFebruary 12, 2019 2:19 pm

When filming began for the 1969 western, “The Wild Bunch,” no one thought that 50 years later we would be calling it a classic. The film tells the story of a group of outlaws trying to pull one last job. Instead, they find themselves south of the border, and mixed up with a nasty general, during the Mexican Revolution. Sam Peckinpah directed, and the movie starred William Holden and Ernest Borgnine.

But a new book about the film isn’t focused on the plot, but on the unlikely story of getting it made. W.K. Stratton is the author of “The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film.” You may know his byline from Sports Illustrated, GQ or Texas Monthly.

Stratton says “The Wild Bunch” is “an exquisitely made motion picture.”

He says that’s true of the acting, the cinematography, and the score. And its heroes are unlikely ones.

“You have some very bad men,” Stratton says. “Yet, through some kind of magic of storytelling, Peckinpah gets us to care really deeply about these really bad people.”

Stratton says that by 1969, the iconic American western had fallen on hard times. Western films had flourished, and even grown in scope and artistic between the 1930s and 1950s. And they dominated television through the mid-60s.

“Sam Peckinpah kind of put the tombstone on it with this movie,” Stratton says. “He made it very realistic. He made it dirty. There are flies walking on people’s faces. And the death scenes in this are really disturbing.”

Stratton says Peckinpah wanted audiences to have a strong reaction to the kind of violence that had been mythologized in westerns of the past. And “The Wild Bunch” changed what was allowed in westerns, and in movies, generally.

Stratton says one reason he wanted to write about “The Wild Bunch” was to take another look at Peckinpah. That the director got to make “The Wild Bunch” was surprising, Stratton says. The Hollywood studio system that had once protected directors and actors had disintegrated by the late 1960s, and Peckinpah had a reputation for being difficult – more interested in making art than in the bottom line.

Another subject of interest for Stratton is Mexico – a country that played an important role in Peckinpah’s films.”The Wild Bunch” is largely set in the country, and much of it was filmed there.

“Mexico meant a lot to Peckinpah,” Stratton says. “I can’t think of an American film that had as many roles for characters who were Mexican, in which every single role was played by a Latino. This opened a door for a lot of thought about Mexican filmmakers working in the American film system”

Written by Shelly Brisbin.