Book Reviews

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W.K. Stratton


Release date: February 12, 2019


Reviewed by Mike Farris



Taking its cue from Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch was one of the most violent, and bloodiest, movies, certainly for its time. Ironically, that very violence made a statement by its director against violence by portraying it in all its gory reality. “Peckinpah spread gore over the bodies of actors and extras because he was attempting to do the one thing that American cinema and TV had failed to do: present violent death as something real.” So says author W.K. Stratton in his fascinating new book The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film.


Viewers and critics may argue about the violence in the film, but one thing seems inescapably inarguable: The Wild Bunch is a masterpiece of great filmmaking. Stratton defends that thesis brilliantly, starting with the germ of a story first conceived by stuntman Roy Sickner, who had attained national prominence as the Marlboro Man in the Philip Morris tobacco company’s ad campaign engineered by the Leo Burnett Agency.


As Sickner articulated it, the initial story was vague: “In the 1870s, a group of gringo outlaws rob a train someplace north of the Rio Grande, then escape to Mexico with a posse hot on their heels. Mexican authorities also get involved with the chase, leading to a big shoot-out at the end.” Sickner even had his title picked out early on: The Wild Bunch. 


But, in Hollywood, ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s the execution of an idea that allows it to flourish into something more. That’s where Sam Peckinpah came in. Sickner, doubling for Richard Harris on the set of Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, pitched the idea to the director who, unfortunately, “was not in a place to be considering future films. He sat at the helm of a disaster in the making and saving his current project was his sole concern. He would fail at that mission.”

It took several years, but, as Peckinpah worked with screenwriter Walon Green, the story for The Wild Bunch began to take shape. It time-traveled from the 1870s to the era of the Mexican Revolution, which started in roughly 1910, and “would become a cautionary story about the dehumanizing effect of technology and the value of old codes of behavior versus what developed in the twentieth century.”


The late 1960s were the perfect time for a project like this, with the war in Vietnam playing out of America’s televisions and violence splashing across newspaper headlines. The year in which The Wild Bunch was filmed, 1968, was the year of campus protests, Charles Manson and his crazy family, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Westerns were in vogue and, in 1969, The Wild Bunch would be released along with The Undefeated, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.


It would also resurrect the career of Sam Peckinpah.


Stratton takes the reader step-by-step through the process of making this American classic, from setting it up with the new company formed by the fusion of Warner Brothers and Seven Arts to the hiring of cast and crew to securing locations in Mexico to shooting the film, complete with blood squibs (outdoing even Bonnie and Clyde) and exploding bridges. By the end of production, Peckinpah had shot an incredible 330,000 feet of film, which he somehow had to whittle down to a two-and-a-half-hour movie.


When finally released, The Wild Bunch ran into an onslaught of criticism. Rex Reed called it a “phony, pretentious piece of throat-slashing slobber,” while William Wolf described it as an “ugly, pointless, disgustingly bloody film.” But for every negative review, there was a positive one, showering effusive praise. Vincent Canby called it “beautiful and the first truly interesting American-made Western in years,” while Richard Schickel wrote that it was “the first masterpiece in the new tradition of what should be called the dirty Western.”


Stratton reaches his own conclusion: “As a work of art, The Wild Bunch deals with major themes: honor, betrayal, love, death and dying, the end of the American West, revolution, repression, people who have outlived their times, the dread of living in the age of technology. It ranks with the great movies of all time.”

For even the casual student of filmmaking, this book offers a master course in how to create a masterpiece—and in some instances, how not to. Stratton makes readers feel as if they are on set, or in production meetings, from start to finish. Even more, it gives a new appreciation for a controversial movie that, love it or hate it, was revolutionary at the time, but its themes, as articulated by the author, make it timeless.



See my reviews for the New York Journal of Books:

The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter's Journey to Reconciliation, by Peggy Wallace Kennedy with Justice H. Mark Kennedy

Lost Tomorrows, by Matt Coyle

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam, by Colonel (Ret.) William C. Haponski with Colonel (Ret.) Jerry J. Burcham