Scene Is Believing: The Wild Bunch

the wild bunch

A hundred and more bullets for the General

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is the film alliterative praise was made for: bold, balletic, ballistic, and bloodily beautiful. If Sir Christopher Frayling described Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West as “something to do with death” then add “life” to that imprimatur and slap it on Bloody Sam’s magnum opus. His outlaw “heroes” embody all his favourite themes: comradeship, independence, betrayal. Also a love for Mexico and its sultry passions, with a feeling of the times leaving them and their ways behind – all this culminating in a final, defiant raging against the dying of the light.

It is 1913: Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang have ended up in Mexico after a failed and bloody Railroad office robbery over the Texas / Mexico border, and have fallen in with the corrupt General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). For delivering a crate of U.S army guns to their compatriot Angel’s rebel villagers in lieu of delivering them with the full stolen consignment to Mapache, Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is captured and badly beaten. This is also partly in revenge for Angel having previously shot a former lover, now in Mapache’s favours, in jealousy. The gang have their opportunity to leave Mapache’s Agua Verde compound during a bawdy fiesta, but Pike decides no: earlier, he’d stated “When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that you’re like some animal.” What follows is the most incredible climax, a lot of the surrounding colour and shading largely improvised.

The scene comprises a scant few lines in the script, belying the detail and mayhem Peckinpah put on screen. Pike shakes off a sleepy whore and takes up his shotgun, locating Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and his brother, Lyle Gorch (Warren oates). “Let’s go,” he simply says. “Why not?” replies Tector. Peckinpah’s co-writer Walon Green says of the minimalist, terse exchange:

“If the movie doesn’t say it, there’s no line in the world that’s gonna help.”

They walk off, adding Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) to their number, who reads Pike’s expression without the need for words of intent. The bunch stride line abreast, guns cradled in crooks of arms through the dozing, drunken villagers, playing children and curious soldiers, until they arrive at Mapache’s post baccanalian courtyard, and demand Angel in front of hundreds of groggy, curious Federales. An insistent, determined drumbeat matches their steps, a counter-melody to the diagetic Mexican sing-off. This dramatic “walk thing” was improvised by Peckinpah on the spot. Quickly the walk was choreographed through the foreground and background onlookers – D.P Lucien Ballard used a telephoto lens to keep everything in focus.

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When Mapache seems to agree to his release, then relents and slits his throat, Pike blows a hole in him with an automatic, Dutch adding a shotgun blast. Everyone freezes; time stands still. They could back off, but something electric in the air tells them this is it. Dutch’s darting eyes glitter; he giggles. Lyle catches his eye and laughs too. Then Pike shoots the German army advisor to Malpache, and hell opens up on earth, hundreds of Mexican soldiers mown down by rifle, handgun and the General’s prized machinegun; the wild bunch shot to pieces themselves.

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This whole climactic shoot-out took 12 days to film. It comprised 325 edits in around five minutes of screen time. Multiple cameras shot simultaneously at different speeds, the frames spliced together later to make it appear as if time itself is elastic – we are experiencing the curious sensation of being in the melee, where time can appear to speed up, coalesce into a diamond sharp moment of clarity, or slow to a crawl, while bullets fly and explosions shake the senses. An effect Peckinpah had hoped to use in his earlier, relatively big budget Civil War Mexican incursion, Major Dundee – a homage to Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai.

Costumer Gordon Dawson had 350 army uniforms – many more of Mapache’s men fall than that. Extra costumes would be patched up, khaki paint covering those patches to match the uniform, heater lamps constantly drying off washed blood squib stains. The squibs (10,000!) were loaded with blood and raw meat, bloodstains painted black because, as he said, “blood blackens as it dries.

Innocents are both cut down and are drawn in – Pike shoots a young woman who shoots him in the back; a boy soldier finishes him off. A bullet riddled Dutch crawls to his side. The Mexican stand-off can end only one way. Peckinpah said:

“I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. ‘The Wild Bunch’ is simply about what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange thing is that you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.”

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Below is an excerpt from The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage, a 32 minute documentary by Paul Seydor, comprised of on-set footage discovered in 16mm cannisters in the Warner Brothers vaults in 1995.

“Whoever it was behind the camera,” acknowledges Seydor, “picked the right three days to shoot. And it’s all so loose and spontaneous, almost as if Peckinpah and the crew were unaware they were being filmed. I’ve theorized that the shooter was a member of the camera crew. The camera on which it was shot was a handheld Bolex, with a wind-up motor. They were essentially like the video cameras of today; people just shot them the way they take snapshots.”

Originally posted 2015-04-13 22:31:07. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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