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 Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President, by Jill Wine-Banks

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice: The Untold Story of 18 African Americans Who Defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to Compete in the 1936 Olympics, by Deborah Riley Draper and Travis Thrasher

Presidential Elections and Majority Rule: The Rise, Demise, and Potential Restoration of the Jeffersonian Electoral College, by Edward B. Foley

Disney's Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park that Changed the World, by Richard Snow

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

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, by Jessica McDiarmid

The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump, by Stanley Fish

The Devil in Paradise: Captain Putnam in Hawaii (A Bliven Putnam Naval Adventure), by James l. Haley

Bloody Genius (A Virgil Flowers Novel), by John Sandford

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, by Eric Foner

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin

Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits, by James D. Zirin

The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down, by Abigail Pesta

Searching for Stonewall Jackson: A Quest for Legacy in a Divided America, by Ben Cleary

Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution, by Jeff Broadwater

The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century, by Clay Risen

Conviction: The Murder Trial that Powered Thurgood Marshall's Fight for Civil Rights, by Denver Nicks and John Nicks

Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World's Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West, by David Wolman and Julian Smith

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy, by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

The White Devil's Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco's Chinatown, by Julia Flynn Siler

Fidelity & Constraint: How the Supreme Court Has Read the American Constitution, by Lawrence Lessig

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

Haig's Coup: How Richard Nixon's Closest Aide Forced Him from Office, by Ray Locker

The Spy in Moscow Station: A Counterspy's Hunt for a Deadly Cold War Threat, by Eric Haseltine

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught In Between, by Michael Dobbs

The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts, by Joan Biskupic

Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Civil Rights, by Doug Jones with Greg Truman

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

The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, by Kamala Harris

Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy, by Francis Gary Powers Jr. and Keith Dunnavant

Camelot's End: Kennedy vs. Carter and the Fight that Broke the Democratic Party, by Jon Ward

The Spy Who Was Left Behind: Russia, the United States, and the True Story of the Betrayal and Assassination of a CIA Agent, by Michael Pullara

Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal, by Eric Rauchway

Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, by Karina Longworth

When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, by Jeffrey A. Engel

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster, by Stephen L. Carter

Operation Columba -- The Secret Pigeon Service: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance in Europe, by Gordon Corera

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It, by Brian Murphy with Toula Vlahou

Remembering the Greatest Coaches and Games of the NFL Glory Years, by Wayne Stewart