There Will Be Fake Blood

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film BY W. K. Stratton. Bloomsbury Publishing. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.

The shooting of The Wild Bunch was not a pretty picture. If a film were made today the way Sam Peckinpah shot The Wild Bunch in Mexico in 1968, and if people found out, members of the cast and crew would be facing time in jail. The history of the film’s production fascinates because it was all so wrong. What happened encompasses many vices and several crimes, including manslaughter and statutory rape. It is an often repellent tale, a stew of toxic masculinity feeding a movie designed to dismantle the very myths about heroic cowboys, gun violence, and la frontera that it succumbed to as a production.

W. K. Stratton, a Texas poet whose new book details the making of the film, begins by pointing out that while Peckinpah and company reveled in—or wallowed in—the violence of their fictional frontier village, American soldiers nine thousand miles away slaughtered hundreds of innocent Vietnamese “in what became known in the United States as the My Lai Massacre.” What became known as The Wild Bunch inadvertently re-created on the screen scenes from the Vietnam War as they happened, and simultaneously reflected violence in the USA that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, both of whom were shot and killed while the film was in production in remote Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila.

William Holden in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, 1969.

The Wild Bunch starts with a mass shooting and ends with a mass shooting. The first, in the crowded square of a small town, gives the lie to the “good guy with a gun” idea of police protection. Caught in the crossfire between bank robbers on horseback and a railroad company militia, townspeople die in the street as bloody bullet holes explode on the actors playing them, who have been squibbed front and back, with hamburger meat added, “to give the illusion of tissue flying with the impact.” Peckinpah devised his standards of gory realism as a Marine stationed in China after World War II, where he witnessed the bloody battles between the Maoists and the Kuomintang, as well as the subsequent atrocities committed by the winners. His experiences there determined his themes and his aesthetic. He first experienced the feeling of the slow-motion effects his films became known for while riding a train in China as Communists attacked, a scene he transposed to the US-Mexico border in The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch’s second massacre utilizes a Browning M1917, an early machine gun. Peckinpah illustrates, with plenty of fake blood, the all-too-real violence automatic weapons would bring to warfare and then to civilian populations, “when a lone killer with an assault rifle,” as Stratton mentions, “could kill dozens of unsuspecting people in moments.” At points in The Wild Bunch, this machine gun, a predictor of mechanized warfare beyond human control, fires randomly without a shooter into the mass of federal troops it is there to protect. A German adviser to the Mexican Army yells out to the soldiers who can’t tame the gun that “it must be mounted on a tripod!” in order to kill with precision. His shouted instruction links this weapon to the six movie cameras cinematographer Lucien Ballard used to capture the inhuman mayhem of Peckinpah’s finale.

While The Wild Bunch reflects the racist violence we witness daily on the border in the age of Trump, in the concurrent age of mass shootings the film also underscores the continuing psychosis of a militarized culture where gun violence is commonplace and expected. The film predicts the ongoing PTSD of American life, even though it is set in 1913 and specifically concerns itself with Mexico in the 1910s, “the years of sadness,” as an elder Mexican villager in the film calls them. The Mexican Revolution, with its battles between the Federal Army of the Huertistas and Pancho Villa’s rebels, lasted almost the entire decade. As Stratton describes it, the war was “the most horrifically violent conflict ever to occur in North America.” By the time it ended, 10 percent of the Mexican population had perished in the fighting.

This conflict was watched over and prodded by US and German interests. Marauding bands of unemployed American cowboys rampaged on the border, competing with Texas lawmen in their brutality against the Mexican inhabitants of la frontera. In early October 1968, Mexico saw a return to such violence. Half a year after My Lai, in Mexico City’s eerie Plaza de las Tres Culturas, soldiers gunned down hundreds of student protesters in another government-sanctioned mass killing, the Tlatelolco Massacre.

In the Minutemen song “The Punch Line,” D. Boon sings about how “when they found the body of General George A. Custer. . . . He didn’t die with any honor, any dignity, or any valor. . . . American general, patriot, and Indian-fighter. . . . He died with shit in his pants.” That is exactly how Sam Peckinpah directed The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah was so afflicted with hemorrhoids that the film’s first assistant director, in Stratton’s words, “could smell Peckinpah before he saw him, the stench of Preparation H, shit, and blood assailing all noses in his vicinity.” The director further demonstrated his unconcern with honor, dignity, and valor by habitually wearing white jeans on set.

“Still, he didn’t allow [it] to slow him down,” adds Stratton, whose portrait of the director does not shy away from showing Peckinpah as a blackout drunk, a bad loser with a violent temper, and a man who got into bar fights he knew he couldn’t win, then depended on the street-fighting talents of stuntmen to extricate him before he got pulped.

Peckinpah’s no-account character existed in contrast to his achievements as a director and to the loyalty he inspired in his casts and crew. Even so, another of The Wild Bunch’s ADs thrashed Peckinpah on set, and the actor L. Q. Jones, who appeared in many of Peckinpah’s films and claimed he did not like to speak ill of the director, said he “wouldn’t piss in Peckinpah’s mouth if his brain was on fire.” (Jones might not be the best witness. He was arrested in Mexico a dozen times for disorderly conduct while on location for The Wild Bunch.)

It was a stuntman who gave Peckinpah the idea for the film. Roy N. Sickner had portrayed the Marlboro Man in TV commercials and was known as a violent adherent of the “never hit the talent in the face” school of on-set behavior. He hooked up with Walon Green, a writer-producer on Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic documentaries for television who was acquainted with various semi-psycho Hollywood stuntmen, and had internalized their twisted code. One stuntman, a racist who had shot and killed a security guard during a robbery, was never turned in by his cohorts, even though they knew he was guilty. The sociopathic atmosphere of their milieu inspired the characters in The Wild Bunch.

The cast and crew were divided into three factions: stuntmen like Sickner, veterans of World War II (which included most of the American actors in the film), and Mexican movie directors cast in the roles of generals, majors, and peasant revolutionaries. The directores arrived on location armed, simply because they were never without their pistols, something Luis Buñuel, a Spaniard in Mexican exile who knew them, confirms in his autobiography, My Last Sigh.

Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, who plays the film’s villain, General Mapache, had allegedly killed a man and was a veteran of the Mexican Revolution himself. Mexico’s greatest director of the 1940s, he had modeled nude for the Oscar statuette after fleeing his home country for Hollywood in the 1920s. A man of many anecdotes, he was once asked by the pope to direct religious films for the Catholic Church in Mexico. “I still believe in Huitzilopochtli,” he wrote the Holy Father, turning him down by referring to the Aztec god of war and human sacrifice. “Saints and miracles do not mean anything to me.”

Since almost all the Americans involved in The Wild Bunch had seen action in the Second World War, the film can be read as a crypto-reenactment of the violence they witnessed and its subsequent trauma. William Holden, the film’s star, was a particularly haunted vet. His younger brother had died in combat while Holden was on duty at a cushier post he had been assigned because of his star status. Holden, a suicidal alcoholic like Peckinpah, was a former gymnast who occasionally walked on his hands on hotel ledges while drunk. In 1966, driving his Ferrari a hundred miles an hour in Italy with two young women in the car, he rear-ended another driver and killed him. He was found guilty of manslaughter but let off by the Italian authorities with a suspended sentence. Outliers among the cast and crew were unsavory, too. Albert Dekker, the journeyman Hollywood actor and former California State assemblyman who played the corrupt railroad boss, showed up on location with a thirteen-year-old girl he claimed was his wife. When his role finished shooting, Dekker returned to Los Angeles, where days later he was found dead, hanging in his shower in Hollywood’s most infamous and bizarre case of autoerotic asphyxiation.

For Peckinpah, the cinema was a ritual that excised violence from the human soul. The poet-translator Anne Carson has written that ancient Greek drama does the same thing, so it makes sense that the actor Robert Culp, who turned down the lead role in The Wild Bunch, awkwardly stated that Peckinpah “created a tragedy and put it up on the screen, which is perhaps as important in its way, in its very rude, empirical way, as any single work by Sophocles.”

The special effects director thought The Wild Bunch so good that he considered it the culmination of his work in movies. After the bridge explosion scene was shot, he observed that he “just had the opportunity to hang a Rembrandt. It will probably never happen to me again.” By the film’s end, The Wild Bunch really does have the feel of the “Disasters of War” etchings by Goya to which Pauline Kael compared it. She went on to write that Peckinpah had poured “new wine into the bottle of the western” and then exploded the bottle.

As in The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper’s meta-western that came out two years after The Wild Bunch, the making of the film itself was a debased ritual. Peckinpah, unaware he should be making excuses or apologizing for what went on during the production, explained his goals this way: “I deal in violence in terms of very sad poetry.” He said he intended for that violence to purge the audience through “pity and fear.” He thought The Wild Bunch would help get war and killing out of our collective system. By the end of his life in 1984 he’d reached a different conclusion: “I was wrong.”

A. S. Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming (n+1 Books, 2018).