In 1969, Western movies enjoyed their finest year in a decade before drifting onto a side trail of American culture.
There was “True Grit,” showcasing an Oscar-winning performance from the genre’s great star John Wayne. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” had Paul Newman, Robert Redford and ’60s-style irony and cool. Sergio Leone roiled convention with the spaghetti Western “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
And there was director Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” No one had seen anything like its opening and closing shootouts — bloody and balletic, bodies flying in slow motion. Coming during the Vietnam war and amid political violence at home, its visceral scenes overshadowed a story of loyalty and betrayal, sin and redemption. Critics split over whether it was outstanding or the year’s worst movie.
In his new book “The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film” (Bloomsbury, $28), writer W.K. Stratton convincingly positions it as the best Western ever made — and among the greatest of movies.
A stuntman, Roy N. Sickner, imagined a story about gringo outlaws robbing a train in the United States and escaping to Mexico. Screenwriter Walon Green drew on his love of Mexican history and culture. Both wanted their wild bunch to be outlaws with a code of honor and the Mexico where they find love and death as free of cliches as possible.
So did Peckinpah, who reworked the script, cast stars of Mexican cinema for memorable roles and tried to present them as real characters, not stereotypes.
Within a month of its release, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts ordered the movie shorter to be made shorter so it could have more screenings, which sent Peckinpah into a rage. Much later, TV would show a sanitized version. Not until 1995 was a restored version rereleased.
Stratton’s most interesting perspective comes in recounting how Mexican culture influenced the movie.
Every now and then, filmmakers try to recapture the magic of the Western. Only a few recall the genre’s glory days. As one of Peckinpah’s wild bunch lamented, “Ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”