PERFORMING ARTS HISTORY/CRITICISM
Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-1-6328-6212-9, 352 pgs., $28
February 12, 2019
Making feature-length movies is always a complex gamble. But if you build a big-budget film around controversial movie and television stars, a blacklisted director, nervous investors, and deadly settings in a Mexican desert, your project may end up in a spectacular crash.
Or, an iconic movie may emerge, one that continues to be celebrated, studied, and debated fifty years after its initial screening.
Austin writer W.K. Stratton’s engaging new book both celebrates and dissects the making of The Wild Bunch, a genre-exploding 1969 Western that shocked moviegoers and movie critics alike. Indeed, some viewers fled from theaters, sickened by the film’s unusually raw depiction of violent death. Others stormed out in protest of how it shattered their expectations of seeing good triumph over evil once again.
Set in 1913, The Wild Bunch movie focuses on a gang of aging killers and thieves. They hope to pull off one final train robbery and retire, but they have been double-crossed. Bounty hunters suddenly open fire, killing some of the gang. Innocent civilians also die in the crossfire. The surviving gang members barely escape and flee to Mexico, hoping for safety. But they continue to be pursued. Finally, they get drawn into the Mexican Revolution and meet dark fates.
The movie, which starred controversial luminaries such as William Holden, Edmund O’Brien, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, and Ben Johnson, resurrected director Sam Peckinpah’s struggling career. It also helped save Hollywood, which was reeling financially while anti-Vietnam War protests and other social upheavals swept through the U.S.
Stratton points out that after the movie was released, “The Wild Bunch never went away, not in the way other 1969 pictures were chopped up and neutered for television, then largely forgotten. A cult grew around it.” Indeed, in 2008, the American Film Institute named The Wild Bunch one of America’s top ten Western movies.
Stratton notes that “Peckinpah told [Syd Field, later a Hollywood screenplay guru] that, ultimately, he was trying to tell a simple story about what happens when killers go to Mexico. Ironically, the effect on the viewers of this story would be anything but simple.”
The author contends: “There is much, much more than just carnage … The Wild Bunch is about men out of their time, the catastrophic effect of technology on the human soul, loyalty, honor and dishonor, failure and success, good and evil, and, finally, redemption.” He adds that “the men it portrayed were savage yet vulnerable, and, when backed into a corner, able to do the right thing.”
A key strength of Stratton’s book is how it tracks the movie from earliest screenplay drafts to final cut and beyond. He also offers telling glimpses into numerous production crises, creative arguments, and personality clashes. Peckinpah ended the movie with scenes of extreme violence and only a partial resolution. Stratton writes: “Capturing Peckinpah’s violence run amok required intense, difficult work on the part of the crew, and what starts as a call for moral redemption ends in a senseless bloodbath that leaves for dead all the members of the bunch and large numbers of soldiers as well as some civilians.”
William Kip Stratton is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film and eight other books. Born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, Stratton put himself through what’s now known as the University of Central Oklahoma while working as a newspaper reporter.
Stratton has worked as a journalist for Tulsa World and maintains a long freelance association with the Dallas Morning News. In addition, he has been published in such magazines as Texas Monthly, GQ, Outside, Sports Illustrated, Mayborn, Southern Magazine, and the Texas Observer. He won the 2016 Edwin "Bud" Shrake Award for his Texas Monthly essay, "My Brother's Secret."
Stratton is a member of the Authors Guild, PEN Center USA, Texas Institute of Letters (and past president), and Western Writers of America. He lives in suburban Austin, Texas.