How ‘Wild Bunch’ director Sam Peckinpah made the quintessential Western

To W.K. Stratton’s way of thinking, The Wild Bunch is the perfect movie Western.

Well, almost perfect.

The Austin-based author of The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film (Bloomsbury, $28) is obsessed with every nuance of the 1969 classic — even the boneheaded mistake.

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film covers every aspect of the 1969 Western classic.(Bloomsbury)

“The film’s big faux pas is when the gang crosses the Rio Grande into Mexico,” Stratton says. “In all of those scenes, the river is flowing in the wrong direction. If you go from Texas to Mexico, one thing will always be true: The Rio Grande will always be flowing from right to left. In The Wild Bunch, it flows from left to right!”

Peckinpah, the perfectionist director, died in 1984 so Stratton never got the chance to question him about the goof. Maybe it’s just as well, because Peckinpah, known for his short temper, probably would have bitten his head off.

“Still, I would have loved to have asked,” Stratton says. “I’m sure it vexed him.”

The blood-soaked film about aging members of an outlaw gang and their last big steal was a controversial groundbreaker 50 years ago. Never before had movie Westerns been so violent, so callous, so real. The Wild Bunch rewrote many of the rules about Westerns and about filmmaking overall.

Stratton’s anecdote-packed book explores when, why and how The Wild Bunch was made.

The author — a frequent Dallas Morning News freelance contributor (“starting in 1989 with a review of a new book called Friday Night Lights“) — talked by phone about the film and his book.

Author W. K. Stratton.
Author W. K. Stratton.(Wyatt McSpadden)

Your book is a love letter to Peckinpah. You adore his body of work and especially this movie. You even vividly remember when and where you first saw The Wild Bunch. Isn’t that true?

Melba Theater in Guthrie, Okla., summer of 1969. I was about to go into the eighth grade.

People ask me how long the book took to write. It took four or five years. But in a sense I had been doing research since the 1980s, when home video made it possible to watch and re-watch the picture any time I wanted.

I suppose you also could say the book really started when I was 13 and first saw the picture — because that’s what got the ball rolling.

Do you hope the book inspires a renewed appreciation for the film and its director?

The name Peckinpah has become an adjective of sorts. It’s film-critique shorthand. You will read reviews that refer to movies as having “a Peckinpah quality.” I think there are a lot of younger people who know more or less what that means without really knowing where it came from.

Even though Peckinpah has a big cult following to this day, it would be nice to introduce him to those who know little or nothing about him.

Off-camera and behind-the-scenes, actor William Holden (left) plays daredevil by...
Off-camera and behind-the-scenes, actor William Holden (left) plays daredevil by tightrope-walking a support cable for the bridge that will be blown up in the movie The Wild Bunch.(Paul Harper)

Many movie lovers might be surprised to learn that before William Holden signed on, Lee Marvin was expected to star as gang leader Pike Bishop. What difference did this make?

I like Lee Marvin as an actor. Some of his movies are amazing. But I don’t think he could have brought the depth of character to Pike Bishop that Holden did. Holden was a movie star with serious acting chops. And he brought a lot of his own karma with him to that role.

He was 50 years old. He had squandered a lot of his career in the previous 10 years. He had let his alcoholism completely take over his life to the point that he had killed a man in Italy while driving drunk. He was carrying a lot of heavy stuff with him that I think came through beautifully in the picture.

Speaking of casting, can you talk about how the many Mexican characters were cast?

One of the things I respect about The Wild Bunch is that every role supposed to be a Mexican person is played by a Latino. I looked around, and, frankly, I couldn’t find any prior films made by a Hollywood studio that had that many roles for Mexican people in which every actor that filled that role was Latino. That was a major breakthrough in a quiet kind of way.

How will you celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film’s release?

It’s still firming up, but we are planning to do an event at the Texas Theatre on June 23. The picture was released in the U.S. on June 20, 1969. We plan to screen the picture and then have a book signing.

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film 

By W.K. Stratton

(Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $28)

David Martindale is an Arlington-based freelance writer.

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How ‘Wild Bunch’ director Sam Peckinpah made the quintessential Western

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