Once Upon 1969: ‘The Wild Bunch’ and the end of a Western era

The Wild Bunch
Warner Bros. via MoviestillsDB
 
 

To celebrate the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, all this week we’ll be running pieces about the films of 1969 — the good, the bad, and the ugly, much like you’d find at the multiplex or at your local arthouse if you were going to the movies alongside Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. You can find all of these pieces here, alongside our forthcoming review of Tarantino’s latest.

To get to the heart of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, it’s not necessary to look to the renegade outlaws that lead the film, important and astounding as they are. Instead, look at the extras. The Mexican villagers caught in the crossfire of a vicious civil war, the women who run screaming, the children who sit on the sidelines taking in the images of bloodshed. While the titular batch of bank robbers may form the backbone of the classic western, Peckinpah’s dedication to his background actors provides the soul.

Released on June 18, 1969, The Wild Bunch today stands as a landmark film not just for its intense censor-pushing violence, but for its role as a melancholic ode to a classical film genre that was slowly losing its standing in a film industry that would soon be bulldozed to make way for the New Hollywood. It was a brutal, revisionist western influenced by the nightly violence of the Vietnam War, terrified of new technology’s power to kill, and a reflection of an older generation heading towards death’s door as the culture plowed forward without them. In his new book on the movie’s production history, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, author W.K. Stratton keenly writes that the film was “the product of a movie industry in turmoil. The studio system had become a beached whale exhaling its last gasps as young filmmakers were forging a whole new kind of American cinema, one that drew at least as heavily from foreign pictures as from native traditions.”

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Set in the height of the Mexican Revolution of the 1910’s, The Wild Bunch concerns a gang of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden). His crew includes Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Freddie (Edmond O’Brien), Lyle (Warren Oates), Tector (Ben Johnson), Angel (Jaime Sanchez), Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins), and Buck (Rayford Barnes). After a failed bank robbery leaves them with two dead and bags full of steel washers, the wild bunch heads for Mexico where they agree to be gun runners during the country’s vicious civil war. In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde created a new limit for film violence, and Sam Peckinpah would seek to top it in The Wild Bunch, a film as mythic as it is rawly political. At a time where the western genre — long a sandbox for artists to present their ideas of the American identity — was beginning to fade away, Peckinpah’s film said farewell with a hail of gunfire.

By the end of the Sixties, the western genre in Hollywood was already in its unrecoverable decline. Even as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stormed the box office to become the highest grossing film of 1969, the number of classical westerns being produced was paltry compared to the genre’s throw-a-stone prevalence a decade earlier. Instead, Italy had taken up the mantle for churning out fast and cheap westerns. Italian filmmakers had dabbled in the genre since the 1940’s, but it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and its sequels that opened the floodgates. A tidal wave of brutal, bloody, and hyper-stylized westerns — usually shot in Spain and other European locations that could double for the American West and Mexico — followed from filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci (Django, Navajo Joe), and Enzo G. Castellari (Any Gun Can Play, Keoma).

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When it finally premiered in America in 1967, A Fistful of Dollars turned its star Clint Eastwood into a sensation. A struggling artist during the 1950’s, Eastwood had generally appeared with low billing in B-grade genre fare, but he found modest success towards the end of the decade when he was cast as a co-lead in the television hit Rawhide (perhaps you’ve heard the theme song?). He would stay with the show for seven seasons, but even that taste of fame and success had grown tiresome. Wanting to break away from the immature good guy image of his Rawhide character, Eastwood opted to make a quick $15,000 by agreeing to travel to Italy to make what was sure to be a forgotten flop — but at least he would be able to stretch his acting chops.

During production there was no reason to assume A Fistful of Dollars would be anything but a flop. With its plot lifted directly from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) — a film Eastwood was familiar with and would later say motivated him to take on the project — Leone was awarded little faith from his Italian distributors. In the early Sixties, Leone had only two previous, forgotten sword and sandal films under his belt. When Dollars wrapped, the distributors hated, hated, hated the finished product. Italian critics joined in their contempt and lambasted the film in the press. A Fistful of Dollars was dumped into but a handful of theaters in September, one of the slowest months for movie-going in Italy, but against all odds audiences appeared — and they loved it. Made for $200,000, it would go on to gross more than $4 million in Italy alone, and upon its international expansion American critics quickly took to the film. It would spawn two sequels — For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

As Tarantino depicts in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with the fictional Rick Dalton, Eastwood’s sudden success inspired dozens of other struggling American western stars to travel overseas and make Spaghettis, some achieving local fame or securing legacies as cult icons. But 1969 would oddly be a slower year for Spaghetti westerns, sandwiched in between high rollouts in 1968 and 1970, but nevertheless the Italians delivered on content. Dario Argento co-wrote the Zapata western The Five Man Army, while Sergio Corbucci directed The Specialist. Lee Van Cleef starred in Sabata, directed by Sartana creator Giofranco Parolini, who jumped at the chance at making a knock-off of his own hit. Speaking of Sartana, the second of its five films debuted — I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death, directed by Giuliano Carnimeo. Frenchman Robert Hossein would make a minor cult classic in Cemetery Without Crosses. Tonino Valerii’s The Price of Power would prove politically poignant, using the assassination of President James Garfield as a metaphor to probe the still fresh death of John F. Kennedy. By 1969, Eastwood had once again wanted to branch out. He turned down a chance to work with Leone for a fourth time in the director’s Once Upon a Time in the West (a December 1968 release in Italy but it wouldn’t hit the U.S. until ‘69). When he was offered a $750,000 payday to appear in a film adaptation of the Broadway musical Paint Your Wagon, Eastwood opted for vocal lessons and the cash.

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If there’s any single indicator that the American western was in a strange state circa 1969, it’s that the one starring Elvis Presley was not a musical while the one starring Clint Eastwood was. Presley had spent much of the 1960’s in Hollywood working as an actor making turgid Rock n Roll musicals. While critically divisive, Presley was for a time among the most bankable stars working and the bulk of his films were massive successes. Hot off his 1968 Comeback Special, Presley had agreed to make Charro!, a bloody and vicious revisionist western that would be the final directorial effort of western TV legend Charles Marquis Warren. Presley would only sing the film’s non-diegetic theme song, and the rest of it would prove his first chance at showing himself to be a serious actor. But when he showed up on set the first day of filming, the mature-rated screenplay — rife with violence and nudity — had been sanitized and left unrecognizable from Frederick Louis Fox’s draft that drew Presley to the material in the first place. When the watered down film premiered in 1969 critics were bored and Elvis fans disappointed by the lack of music. Ironically, the lead role of Jess Wade was initially offered to Eastwood who rejected it. Despite the creative failure, the film still made a nice profit — proving 50 million Elvis fans can most certainly be wrong.

Paint Your Wagon, meanwhile, is an odder affair. Lee Marvin had been attached to star in The Wild Bunch since the film was first conceived in the early Sixties. But as the film took the bulk of the decade to enter production, Marvin moved on with other projects and in 1966 starred in Richard Brooks’ The Professionals. In his book, Stratton details that fearing the role of Pike Bishop would be too similar to the one he played in Brooks’ film, and hoping to avoid typecasting as heavy brutes, Marvin ultimately passed on The Wild Bunch — the role went to William Holden. Instead, he wound up accepting a $1 million check to star in Paint Your Wagon, despite no discernible musical skills.

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Like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Paint Your Wagon was another feature showing that Free Love was in the air. The lengthy musical is set in the fictional western settlement town of No Name City — Population: Men. Without any women around for miles, the locals are to say the least restless. Prospector Ben (Marvin) and his Pardner (Eastwood) make an honest living in the city’s mines, but their life is disrupted when a Mormon and his two wives comes through town. The “outraged” citizens swear plural marriage is a sin and that the Mormon must divorce one of his wives. He relents and leaves his wife Elizabeth (Jean Seberg, of Breathless fame) and the energized menfolk of No Name City decide to put her up for auction to the highest bidder (Yeah, really). A drunken Ben accidentally makes the winning bid, taking her hand in marriage, but when he later discovers a romance between Elizabeth and Pardner the couple quickly become a triplet and enter a polyamorous relationship (I’m not making this up, I swear). 

After their marriage is settled, the city votes to legalize prostitution to build the economy and placate the men. In order to fill their newly opened brothel Ben leads a brigade to kidnap a wagon full of French women to serve as sex workers all while the ensemble sings the romping showstopper “There’s a Coach Comin’ In” (THIS REALLY HAPPENS). The plot is as horrifying as its songs are sickeningly jolly. A Lee Marvin/Clint Eastwood dual marriage and song-and-dance human trafficking aside, the film would have been a financial success if not for the exhorbitant production and marketing costs eating into its margins. Though despite Marvin’s non-singing voice, his single from the film “Wand’rin’ Star” did become a number one hit in the U.K.

Sex was on the minds of many of 1969’s westerns. In addition to the anti-colonialist roughie The Scavengers, one particular western sex film would become notorious for a wholly unexpected reason. The Ramrodder, released in January, was a mundane softcore picture about a cowboy framed for the murder of a young native woman and also features innumerous topless dancing sequences. It would be entirely forgotten if not for the fact that it was filmed in 1967 at Spahn Ranch, and on its set Bobby Beausoleil would meet fellow actor Catherine Share. The two would have an off-screen affair, and it was through Beausoleil that Share met Charles Manson. Two years later in the summer of 1969, Beausoleil — at Manson’s behest — would murder his roommate Gary Hinman. Share would avoid direct involvement in Hinman’s death and the more infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, but she would find herself charged with attempted murder in 1971 for her role in the plot to kill fellow Family member Barbara Hoyt to keep Hoyt from testifying against Manson. Share would be released from prison in 1975 and today is an anti-cult activist. Beausoleil is still in prison serving out a life sentence. The obscure nudie western they made together on the Manson Family’s homebase is available to rent on Amazon Prime for $3.99.

Of course, the traditional western still made an appearance in 1969. John Wayne would finally win his Oscar for True Grit, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel of old timer cowboy Rooster Cogburn and a young girl, Mattie Ross, out for revenge to find the man who killed her father. Wayne had already survived cancer once by the time he played Cogburn — an otherwise standard performance for him except this time he was able to swear. By the height of Vietnam, Wayne also had established himself as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart. Having never fought in World War II himself (always saying he’d make one more picture before enlisting up until the spring of 1945), he threw his all into the war effort by making jingoist war features like The Green Berets (1968) and throwback propaganda such as No Substitute for Victory (1970). Like The Wild Bunch, True Grit was itself a farewell to the western. The Duke would still have a handful of films left in him throughout the seventies, including a sequel Rooster Cogburn (1975, his penultimate role), but indeed America had moved on without him. His Best Actor statue more of a lifetime achievement award in recognition of a symbol on his way out, much like Ethan Edwards standing in the doorway.

As the western entered its twilight years, younger filmmakers used the genre’s iconography to make pointed commentary on the state of Nixonian America. John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy starred Jon Voight as a Texan transplanted to the rough and tumble New York City where he’s forced to make rent as a gigolo, turning masculine cowboy iconography into that of a bisexual hustler lost in Warholian acid parties and dirty apartments. It would be the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. But it was Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider that sought to actually capture the spirit of the West. Starring himself and Peter Fonda as motorcycle riding hippie outlaws Billy and Wyatt (names that, as numerous critics before me have noted, recall western icons Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp). As wide helicopter shots display the glory of the open road along the brown western landscape, Easy Rider paints the counterculture baby boomers as their own brand of cowboys. Billy and Wyatt are kicked out of pubs and diners the way a black hat scofflaw might be kicked out of a saloon by the “we don’t take kindly to your type” crowd. Their odyssey sees them camping in the woods, having fireside chats about hopes and dreams. They yearn for freedom as a concept in and of itself, the way 19th century settlers broke out for California and the plains to find a fresh start.

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The Wild Bunch sees a crew of G.I. Generation old timers facing their mortality against a culture that is rapidly moving on without them. They are stymied by new technology, unwelcome by ordinary American society, and they face bloody deaths in a brutal symbol of time inexorably moving forward (Peckinpah’s camera turns to slow motion to prolong and reflect on their final moments before they’re distant memories). Easy Rider ironically sees the generational battle going the other way. The young baby boomers striving for freedom are similarly held back by a conservative society that refuses to accept progress or new ideas, and Billy and Wyatt are themselves killed in a hail of gunfire by the enforcers of straight America. In 1969, these two takes on the western genre see two different generations destroyed. But where Easy Rider comes from youthful angst, Peckinpah’s vision comes from the grim acknowledgement that progress inevitably means death for those who can’t keep up with it — a reckoning that every generation, including the baby boomers, must one day face.

The Wild Bunch was a rare western at the time to cast actual Latinx actors in all of the Mexican roles, forgoing the brownface that was standard throughout Hollywood’s classical era. Peckinpah’s sympathetic view of the impoverished and oppressed would reflect itself through the 1970’s wave of revisionist westerns that came in its wake. In 1970, Bonnie & Clyde’s Penn made the Dustin Hoffman led Little Big Man, a western that takes a sympathetic view of how Native Americans have been portrayed in film, and one which dares to use the word “genocide” to describe American colonialism. Another western that year, the controversial Soldier Blue, would like The Wild Bunch end in a vicious display of blood — this time a dramatization of the Sand Creek massacre perpetrated by American forces against Native civilians. Both films were not shy in their invocations of Vietnamese villagers who were being napalmed as filming took place.
Throughout the 1970’s westerns would still play a role in the landscape of the New Hollywood cinema, but in 1980 Michael Cimino’s notorious (and now rehabilitated) flop Heaven’s Gate would take the New Hollywood and in many senses the western down with it.

While the genre still persists today, in the stray prestige picture and direct-to-Amazon cheapies (perhaps reminiscent of the genre’s Poverty Row days in the Thirties), the western has become a rare and widely misunderstood piece of America’s filmmaking heritage. The westerns of 1969 may show a genre no longer sure of itself, but it certainly lays clear the diversity of ideas and aesthetics it was capable of providing.