Should we study and look up to greatness even if seems outdated vis a vis today's screenwriting standards? This question came up during tonight's #scriptchat discussion of the Chinatown screenplay and continued for a couple of hours later. I will elaborate in the next post. But for now, since I referenced both The Wild Bunch screenplay and Rembrandt during the chat, I thought I'd post an article I wrote about this movie for an ezine I used to write for, which expresses my intense feelings for this masterpiece.
The Wild Bunch
Dir: Sam Peckinpah
After seeing The Wild Bunch for the first time, my reaction was: "If this is a movie, then what have I been watching all my life?" I got depressed. Because there was no way I could even come close to such achievement, the film made me feel that I should quit making movies. I questioned my talent, my ability and above all, my courage. Six million dollars, 81 shooting days, 330,000 feet of film, 1288 camera set ups and 3,600 shot-to-shot edits later, Sam Peckinpah changed the face of cinema and my idea of what truly great filmmaking was about.
Peckinpah had been fired from his last film, and after three years of unemployment, The Wild Bunch was his opportunity to direct again. In its simplest terms, the story is about bad men in changing times, or as Peckinpah himself put it: "what happens when killers go to Mexico." It's an unrelenting, bleak tale about aging, scroungy outlaws bound by a private code of honor, camaraderie and friendship. The lone band of men ("the Bunch"), led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), have come to the end of the line and no longer are living under the same rules in the Old West. They are being stalked relentlessly by bounty hunters, one of whom is Pike's former friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who would side with the outlaws if it weren't for the threat of being sent back to Yuma Prison. In the bloody opening sequence, the Bunch ride into Starbuck, a dusty, small town. They hold up the bank and in the process annihilate the town. However, the job is a set-up: the loot they get away with is worthless steel washers. To escape the bounty hunters they cross the border into Mexico, where they agree to do a job for the dictatorial Mexican General, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). It is to be their last job.
In the context of the times, the much-imitated and influential film was considered extremely violent. It's impossible to determine whether it's the most violent "ever made," or if it was the most violent of its time, and the question is probably irrelevant. What can be said is that with the newly gained freedom attained through the development of the Code and Rating Administration and in the midst of a volatile zeitgeist, Peckinpah, with the help of the brilliant editor Lou Lombardo and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, developed a stylistic approach that, through the use of slow-motion, multi-camera filming and montage editing, seemed to make the violence more intense and visceral. Peckinpah's intent was to "take the facade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved when they start to go into the typical Hollywood/television reaction syndrome and then twist it so it's not fun anymore--just a wave of sickness in the gut."
Who would rob, kill, steal guns, give the guns away to the peasants and go back to rescue a comrade and die for him? Every Western tried pull off that story but it never worked. It's pure romance. Peckinpah's objective from the onset was to make that story work. The budget escalated and the producer, Phil Feldman, complained to Warner Bros. exec Ken Hyman, who gave Peckinpah carte blanche after seeing the footage that was coming in. Hyman knew something extraordinary was taking place in that Mexican village. Peckinpah and his crew were creating a full landscape in the fullest artistic sense; sequence after sequence, a whole world of themes and emotions play out without dialogue. Peckinpah's genius for improvisation produced brilliant sequences that materialized out of thin air. The Bunch's march to their death was a scant three-line description in the screenplay. Nobody, including Peckinpah, knew what he was going to do because he never formulated a shooting plan before arriving on location. Once he was on set, before you knew it, Peckinpah built and built and built until it became that scene. The climax, The Battle of Bloody Porch, is one of the most extraordinary sequences on film. Again, Peckinpah did not have a clue as to how he was going to shoot it. He had four cameras rolling for 12 days and, legend has it, Cliff Coleman, the assistant director, was so good that the stuntmen, actors and even bullets never missed a mark, making the sequence relatively easy to edit.
As is the case with all great artists, Peckinpah had an extraordinary ability to take what people really couldn't see and turn it into something extraordinary. As the Bunch reaches the Mexican border to take refuge in a village, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the only Mexican in the group, recognizes differences from Texas at the edge of the border river, but not the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson). Their conversation points out their cultural differences and varied perspectives:
Angel: Mexico Lindo.
Lyle: I don't see nothin' so 'lindo' about it.
Tector: Just looks like more Texas far as I'm concerned.
Angel: Aw, you don't have no eyes!
That's Peckinpah speaking to the rest of the world: "you are not seeing what I'm seeing." Peckinpah was a man who wasn't afraid to look at himself as honestly as he could and to strip away the artifice that makes mainstream audiences tick. He really believed in who he was and what he could do. In a scene around the outlaws' campfire, Pike dreams of one final, successful job before retiring:
Pike: This was gonna be my last. Ain't gettin' around any better. I'd like to make one good score and back off.
Dutch: Back off to what? (No answer) Have you got anything lined up?
Pike: Pershing's got troops, spread out all along the border. Every one of those garrisons are gonna be gettin' a payroll.
Dutch (sarcastically): That kind of information is kind of hard to come by.
Pike: No one said it was going to be easy but it can be done.
Dutch: They'll be waitin' for us.
Pike: I wouldn't have it any other way.
I didn't quit. In fact, I always look to this movie to set me straight when I start to lose my way. Like Pike, I want to be able to say "I wouldn't have it any other way" and really mean it. The Wild Bunch is an uncompromising ballet in which the action, the detail, and the lives of the characters are as Peckinpah imagined they would be. After the final sequence of principal photography was completed, Bud Hulburd, the special effects engineer, remarked: "I just had the opportunity to hang a Rembrandt. It will probably never happen again." He was so right.