Saturday, 5 September 2015

No.57. Sam Peckinpah: Part I: THE WILD BUNCH


(2008 Bluray ‘Director’s Cut’ version)

Sam Peckinpah emerged from the world of TV western series directing to carve a career that made him a controversial but unique talent in film. He would become an identifiable ‘brand’ in much the same way as Hitchcock; as famous as his actors for his particular style. His films often examined the same themes repeatedly, an unashamedly masculine world of bonding and a code of honour often defined by violence that is not only a solution but the true essence of a man’s fulfilment. There was a lot more depth and humanity to his work though than that narrow reading permits. Peckinpah would sadly find that later on his recognisable style would be as much a limitation as a blessing in his career, and this would take a disastrous toll on his behaviour and professionalism in his decline.

Sam Peckinpah’s movie directing career almost ended before it had properly begun. He made his feature film debut in 1961 with THE DEADLY COMPANIONS and then the highly-regarded RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, but the Charlton Heston/Richard Harris historical epic MAJOR DUNDEE (1965) was beyond him in its grandiose Hollywood scale. It almost scuppered career. His drinking and erratic behaviour (which hinted at the storm to come) concerned Columbia heads so much that they cut short the filming schedule. Heston, who initially had a very fractious relationship with Peckinpah, soon took to defending him and gave up his salary to enable the beleaguered young director to finish. The final film was a disaster and has since appeared in multiple versions. Peckinpah went from this to being fired shortly after starting work on THE CINCINATTI KID; producer Martin Ransohoff thought he was ‘vulgarising the picture’  with such creative choices as shooting it in black and white.

It took three years before another studio would give him a chance, and this came with THE WILD BUNCH through Warner Brothers in 1968. Peckinpah co-wrote the screenplay with Walon Green. Simply put, it concerns a group of hard-drinking, whoring outlaws hitting their retirement and still pulling their final scores. They are led by Pike (William Holden), along with Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Jamie Sanchez as Angel – and Edmund O’Brien as grizzled old man Sykes. After a bloody and failed robbery in Texas, they venture across the border into Mexico at the time of the Mexican Revolution in 1913. When Angel sees his lover with General Mapache of the Mexican federal Army, he becomes enraged and shoots her dead.  Pike mollifies the General by offering to rob a train shipment of rifles in return for gold coins. Meanwhile, they are being pursued by Deke (Robert Ryan), Pike’s ex-partner, with a team of bounty hunters. Fearing a double-cross, Pike parcels out the rifle crates in multiple transactions. He gives Mapache a Howitzer in good faith. When Mapache discovers Angel kept a rifle crate for himself to use with revolutionaries against him, he captures and tortures Angel. Dutch escapes back to Pike and his men. Pike attempts to bargain for Angel with no luck. The turning point comes when the Wild Bunch decide to go in and rescue Angel, fatally risking their lives in a climactic machine-gun blood-bath for one of their own in a new understanding of conscience and loyalty. After the resultant carnage. Deke rides in and surveys the human wreckage. With a resigned smile, he agrees to take up new adventures with Sykes…

It’s a shame that MAJOR DUNDEE wasn’t Peckinpah’s second Hollywood film; the making of THE WILD BUNCH established real confidence on a larger scale and a definite statement of themes in his work that could have enabled that film to have been handled more surely. Peckinpah was a stern disciplinarian on-set this time around. One day, he was exasperated by the unprofessionalism of the outlaw group when he discovered none of them had learned their lines before the day, figuring they’d have time in between set-ups to do so. He slowly and calmly decreed that since he’s hired them as ‘ack-torrs’ he was giving them twenty minutes to go and off memorise their dialogue. Anyone who did not fulfil this “would be replaced”. No-one dared call his bluff. Wisely so, as on future films he’d have one of his assistants permanently equipped with bus tickets to dish out, with the instant instruction that the offender was fired and being sent back to Hollywood. If he could have applied the same rigorous discipline to himself in later years, the director would have enjoyed a longer and happier life.

This is not to say that Peckinpah was rigid in his creativity. Usually, he would not decide what to shoot until the day, when he would discuss the scenes with his director of photographer, the great Lucien Ballard. The iconic long walk of the four outlaws as they resolve to go to Mapache’s compound for the final shoot-out was originally just referenced in three lines of the text. On the hoof, Peckinpah demonstrated a genius for improvisation, carving a visual path for them to their fate which his team had to hastily to build in extras and atmosphere, to create a highly-effective and boldly dramatic lead-in,

Filming of THE WILD BUNCH began in Mexico in March 1968 in a town that was so antiquated that the production was able to pay the townsfolk to delay by six months their long-overdue electric power supply. Filming ran smoothly, even in the complex stunt that involved blowing up the bridge with Deke’s men upon it.  Despite ensuring it was a balsa-wood structure and that that they’d waited patiently until the water level below was high enough to cushion stuntmen and horses, when it came time to shoot there were strong winds that created an unexpected current in the river. However, the  single ‘take’ was perfect, prompting effects supervisor Bud Hulburd to observe with justified pride: “ I’ve just had the opportunity hang a Rembrandt. It’ll probably never happen to me again”.

Peckinpah invested whole-heartedly in THE WILD BUNCH. He related to the outlaw gang, feeling a great kinship with them. The recurring theme of the ‘man out of time’ (depicted visually in the film by the advent of the motor-car) who is hard-living and has a strong moral code of loyalty was one that chimed with him and would echo in his later films. In fact, his mission statement was first summed up beautifully in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY by Joel McCrea: “All I want is to enter my house justified”. In Peckinpah’s world, a man must live a life that fully represents the best of his nature. Early in the story, Pike is stoic and overly harsh, such as when he orders Angel to come to terms with the loss of his woman: “Either you learn to live with it – or we leave you”. He sternly dictates to his men “When you side with a man, you stick with him – and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal!” When the gang leave Angel’s village, the ceremonial leaving scene (also spur-of-the-moment) filled with a lovely song by the villagers allows us to peer into the souls of these men as the light of humanity warms them a little more than before. By the time Pike resolves climactically to go back with his men and rescue Angel, imperilling their own lives, it is a noble sacrifice that was all too long coming. He knows this; that’s why he welcomes the chance to possibly die acting on his conscience. His men share this purposeful kamikaze bravery. As the Bunch consider their chance to depart from Mapache’s camp unscathed after Angel is murdered by the General, Dutch giggles, his eyes twinkling with delight at the sudden deliriously crazy notion of going full-throttle to death, taking as many men as possible with them. This is violence in support of a higher cause, a selfless act of redemption here, all the more potent and primal for being willingly embraced.

The intense violence in Peckinpah’s films has always been a difficult subject for many to resolve, but I see no problem in morally justifying his methods. Critics condemned his films for portraying blood-shed irresponsibly as suggesting it’s the only way a man should solve his conflicts and for him to truly reflect his masculinity. Firstly, as writer/director he has never sought to de-humanise his characters into being blood-lustful kill crazy monsters. He is careful to build causes and a moral code behind these awful actions – as well as repercussions for growth afterwards. As for the frequent accusations of going too far in on-screen carnage, is it not more irresponsible to sanitise violent actions, to pull the punch, to hide the result of a bullet-hit? Much as we detest violent resolutions to problems, since it does go on, by hiding the consequences we lie to ourselves and those old enough to be allowed to see them. That is the real ‘crime’. THE WILD BUNCH doesn’t finish with the battlefield deaths as though it’s a rousing air-punching high-point to be savoured. Look at the pacing and tone of the closing scene that follows. Robert Ryan is shown in lengthy quiet close-ups, allowing the audience time to de-compress from the intense brutality of what’s just happened. We may read regret or resignation into his wonderfully characterful lined road-map of a face.

A further defence of the violence that shows how out-of-touch its critics are is the sad reflection of what happened when Peckinpah left such controversial material out of his films, such as in his later THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and JUNIOR BONNER. He complained:
I am always criticised for putting violence in my films, but when I leave it out nobody bothers to see them”.

This is not to soft-soap the cumulative impact that the body-count and blood-splatter has. Indeed, when THE WILD BUNCH was re-submitted to the American MPAA board in the mid-1990s, it still received an ‘X’ rating, reserved only for pornography and extremely violent content. This would have been disastrous had theat been the film’s first release as many publicity outlets like newspapers refuse to carry advertising for ‘X’ rated films.
As we will see in the rest of this blog series, Sam Peckinpah had much more to offer both within the exploration of controversial material and without it, before his private weaknesses got the better of him. The candle still had a lot more bright burning to do…

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