THE WILD BUNCH

The Wild Bunch was Kathryn Bigelow’s choice to write about for the Serious Pleasures project, although in truth, it’s hardly a film in need of rediscovery as the project required.
However, her reasons for choosing it makes infinitely more sense than Steven Spielberg’s choice of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), simply based on the fact that it’s his favorite film (!)  Bigelow clearly proves how the film changed her life and as importantly, that the film is about honor, NOT violence. I completely agree.
So, with that in mind, here’s the final entry from my contributions to Bill Krohn’s Serious Pleasures (Previous installments are Point Blank, The Sand Pebbles, The Hill, One-Eyed Jacks and White Heat) Bigelow’s piece in italics followed by my research. All of which took place while I was researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank.
God, I so love the movies!

Shattering The Hall of Mirrors
Kathryn Bigelow on The Wild Bunch

The New York art world in which I was entrenched in the mid-Seventies was struggling to free itself from the art object. Groups such as “Art & Language” were attempting to challenge the notion of art in social and political context. They were challenging the notion of art in the marketplace. They reduced art to text: Art becomes more and more only about itself in endless reflexivity, a found object in a world reflecting itself in an endless hall of mirrors. It was as if art had run out of content — so it was left to reflect itself; it was not reflective of the world outside the art world.

I left New York briefly for the west coast of Africa where I discovered the primal exquisite beauty of cultures in which visual experience and experience itself, were genuine raw, tactile and immediate: art reflecting long historical traditions that still meant something, traditions still very much alive in in the culture. Art was tied to a living culture, reflecting political and emotional concerns of people.

Upon returning to New York I happened into a late-night screening at the Bleecker Street Cinema of The Wild Bunch. As I stared at the play of flickering light, I was breathless, transformed. Like Goya in his “Disasters of War” series, using paint to expose the darker aspects of human nature, Peckinpah pierces the screen, lets it run with blood to illuminate his subject, which is honor, NOT violence. I was in its thrall from the opening image of the scorpions onward. Suddenly a sensuous violence shattered the hall of mirrors. It was a summing up of all that had come before, laying claim to all that follows. Up until that point I had never thought of making films, but with The Wild Bunch, I saw it was possible to to make something have within the SAME text the visual, cathartic and the sensual — along with the cerebral and reflexive. It’s a film about film as well as its own content, For me the flickering light in that lat-night screening was a moment where my history was irrevocably altered. 

Title page from the chapter on THE WILD BUNCH in SERIOUS PLEASURES.



THE WILD BUNCH
The history of The Wild Bunch began when Roy Sickner, a stuntman working on the Marlon Brando film Morituri! (1965) showed a treatment for a western containing an exciting train sequence and a climatic shootout to the film’s dialogue coach Walon Green. Green had previously been involved with successful television documentaries and was looking for a western to write that would be truthful in its depiction of the Old West.

Sickner’s treatment “was sort of based on Butch Cassidy,” recalls Green, “but I had never heard of Butch Cassidy when I wrote the movie. I called it The Wild Bunch — I didn’t know that there was a real Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. We wrote a treatment and then had to find a backer to put up $5,000 to write the screenplay.” Green showed the script to his drinking buddy, Lee Marvin, and Marvin showed it to Sam Peckinpah, who rewrote Green’s first draft. Marvin is also rumored to have worked on the screenplay, since he intended to play the protagonist, Pike Bishop. 

Lee Marvin in THE PROFESSIONALS, as he might have looked as Pike Bishop in THE WILD BUNCH.



The screenplay was submitted to producer Phil Feldman, who pitched the idea to Warner Brothers/Seven Arts executive, Kenneth Hyman. An August 1967 memo [from Feldman to Hyman] explains, “The reason for the enclosure is that a friend of Lee Marvin’s called Roy Sickner wrote s story some time ago which Marvin wants to do….Sam tells me he spent several hours with Lee just the other day on it.” Hyman liked what he read and negotiations ensued. 

Marvin was kept from participating by his agent Meyer Mishkin, who felt it would be a mistake for his client to star in another violent film. “I have been advised, among other things, by Meyer Mishkin, that Lee Marvin has accepted the Paint Your Wagon book…” wrote Feldman to Hyman in a December 12 memo. “That makes him totally unavailable in the year 1968.” 

The initial casting ideas followed in a memo Feldman had written to Peckinpah the previous month stating: “Pike would have to be a good eight to ten years older than Dutch, and therefore it would be Lee Marvin combined with George Peppard, or we could use Burt Lancaster combined with Steve McQueen or Paul Newman.” Other names bandied about included Jimmy Stewart and James Coburn, as well as Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck.

The week after Marvin dropped out, William Holden signed to play Pike Bishop. He was followed quickly by Ernest Borgnine (who was certainly not ten years younger) as Dutch Engstrom, and a cast of veterans including Robert Ryan, Edmond O’Brien and Albert Dekker, alongside Peckinpah regulars Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. Holden and Ryan had been major stars but hadn’t had a hit in years — like the characters they were to play, they were men in the twilight of greatness looking for one more chance to prove their worth.

An odd coincidence happened during the location scouting Mexico, according to Walon Green. The first location scouted was Parras de Madera, Mexico. The company had combed Mexico and Peckinpah still wasn’t satisfied. As they drove back they saw a sign that said ‘Parras’ and someone said, “There’s a town named that in the script.” It turned out to be exactly as described, Green remembers: “They called me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you wrote it to a specific town? You could’ve saved us all this running around.’ I said, ‘I didn’t.’ I’ve never been in that town in my life. I just picked he town that revolutionary Francisco Torreon was born in.”

Many stories of Wild West behavior have been told about the making of The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah often infuriated his co-workers, and during filming his main adversary was producer Phil Feldman. L.Q. Jones, who worked with Peckinpah on nine films, commented: “The greatest mistake you could make was becoming a good friend with Sam. I was probably his best friend. It was a mistake.” 

Peckinpah had numerous initial run-ins with cast members, particularly the veterans. William Holden appeared on the set several days before he was needed and watched as Peckinpah reshot one scene over and over, putting the cast through grueling paces. “Is that how you’re going to direct this movie?,” asked Holden. When Peckinpah answered in the affirmative, Holden announced that he was going home, but returned three days later. There were no further conflicts. 

(L-R) Sam Peckinpah and William Holden square off  during production of THE WILD BUNCH.



Robert Ryan wanted a brief vacation to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign; Peckinpah told him he couldn’t be spared and kept him hanging around ten days in make-up and costume without shooting a scene. Ryan, a former boxing champ at Dartmouth, eventually grabbed Peckinpah’s shirt front and said, “I’ll do anything you ask me to do in front of the camera because I’m a professional. But you open your mouth to me off the set, and I’ll knock your teeth out.” The director never provoked him again. 

Ernest Borgnine’s “testing” was briefer. The actor’s car constantly got stuck on the dusty road to the set. When Peckinpah drove by in his limo, Borgnine told him, “Get this road watered down or I’ll beat the shit out of you.” Two water trucks followed in short order. When Holden asked how he did it, Borgnine told him, “I just said the magic words.” 
While Peckinpah wrestled with the film, a marathon poker game was in progress. “We were playing one on The Wild Bunch that I think we started on Major Dundee [1965],” recalls Jones. “Probably between eight and ten thousand dollars on the table.” Holden, who had a reputation as a drinker, had vowed to drink only beer while filming The Wild Bunch, but in the middle of one game, he gave a startling “Whoopee!,” threw his bottle in the air and announced: “I’ve been drinking this godamn beer for five weeks and at last, I’m drunk!”

Once the film was completed, Peckinpah took a full year to edit. Angered at Phil Feldman’s suggestions about cuts, Peckinpah at one point called the Jewish Feldman a Nazi, but he did accept one important suggestion from the producer: Peckinpah planned on ending the film with Ryan waiting outside the gate of the recently massacred Fort Mapache: Feldman suggested adding flashback footage of The Wild Bunch, and to his surprise, Peckinpah walked into Feldman’s office and said, “You’re right.”

Walon Green has said that he wrote the now-famous slow motion action scenes into the script, but the final 128-page script dated February 12, 1968, contains no such notation. Like Green, Peckinpah was an admirer of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai [1954], which uses slow motion in its action sequences. 

(L-R) Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in the climatic scene in THE WILD BUNCH (1969).



An inebriated Lee Marvin showed up at a much-anticipated screening of a preview at Warner Bros., heckled the film throughout the projection and, at one point, was even seen crawling down the aisle of the theatre. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Peckinpah put him up to the whole thing,” mused L.Q. Jones. “It’s just the kind of thing they would do.”

The film was released June 25, 1969, to extravagant praise and scathing attack. William Holden was criticized for an interview in which he said film violence could purge the psyche, but Peckinpah took most of the brickbats. Throughout the controversy he maintained: “I wanted to show people what the hell it felt like to be shot.”

While it is true that the director’s credit appears at the beginning of the film right after William Holden says, “If they move, kill’em!” as if Peckinpah were taking his audience hostage, joining in his vision of blood-drenched romanticism is a matter of choice. As Edmond O’Brien says near the end of the film, “You wanna come along? It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” 

– Dwayne Epstein

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ONE-EYED JACKS

One-Eyed Jacks, the only film Marlon Brando ever directed, was Francis Ford Coppola’s choice of a film worthy of rediscovery when asked to write about one for the Locarno Film Festival project, Serious Pleasures. The project’s editor, Bill Krohn, is a friend of mine who granted me several of the titles to write about.The way it worked was a known director would pick a favorite film in need of rediscovery, write about why, and then I’d research and write about the film’s backstory. Previous examples posted include The Sand Pebbles, Point Blank, The Hill, etc. I was overjoyed to write about One-Eyed Jacks while still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank
The underrated western had the following storyline: After robbing a Mexican bank, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) takes the loot and leaves his partner Rio (Brando) to be captured, but Rio escapes and searches for Dad in California, who has become sheriff of a coastal town and married a widow (Katy Jurado) and adopted her daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Rio and his gang (Larry Duran, Ben Johnson and Sam Gilman) make plans to rob the town’s bank during a fiesta but dad has other plans. 
Coppola’s thoughts on One-Eyed Jacks are below in italics, followed by my detailed essay on the film’s production. The images are from photographer Sam Shaw’s book of working with Brando during the film entitled Brando In The Camera Eye.
Enjoy!

I know nothing about how Marlon Brando made One-Eyed Jacks, but I do know his intelligence, attention to detail and lack of caution. I saw the film when I was a film student, with my colleagues, and we were all impressed with its depth, its drive, its vitality, and the quality of the scenes, acting and spectacle. I have not seen the films for many years, but I was impressed with the scope of it. I liked especially the scenes on the beach, of which I understand there as another forty minutes that was lost. 

Title page for chapter I wrote in SERIOUS PLEASURES.



Although it was released in 1961, One-Eyed Jacks was initiated in 1955, when Paramount Pictures offered the much sought-after Marlon Brando a western and agreed to give him complete autonomy to produce it himself. Having formed his own production company, Pennebaker [his mother’s maiden name], Brando partnered with Paramount in the venture and began looking for the right script. 

Finding it proved difficult because he wanted to make a western that would break all the Hollywood cliches. He first tried writing it himself, working for several years with his close friend, Carlo Fiore, while completing his other commitments. Initially he wanted the film to be tongue-in-cheek, and gave it the working title of “A Burst of Vermillion” because the hero wore a colorful flowing scarf. Eventually, Brando submitted a 240-page draft that Paramount executives promptly turned down.

While he was considering other approaches (at one point he wanted to do a western version of The Count of Monte Cristo), Paramount producer Frank P. Rosenberg came a cross a book entitled The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider. Future film legend Sam Peckinpah wrote a screenplay which the usually hard-to-please Brando surprised everyone by accepting with no changes, even though everyone else involved thought it needed more work.

At the studio’s urging, Peckinpah set about re-working the script while Brando and his collaborators looked for a director. After seeing Paths of Glory (1957) and The Killing (1956), Brando signed Stanley Kubrick at about the time Sam Peckinpah was given the heave-ho. About the experience, Peckinpah later said, “Very strange man, Marlon. Always doing a number about his screen image, how audiences would not accept him as a thief, how audiences would only accept him as a fallen sinner — someone they could love.”

TV veteran Rod Serling then took a crack at the script, followed by Calder Willingham once Kubrick came aboard. Brando’s ideas about what he wanted may have seemed strange to Peckinpah but they were positively normal compared to the story conferences that ensued following the hiring of Stanley Kubrick. All parties involved met regularly at Brando’s Oriental-style Beverly Hills home for story conferences during which they were required to remove their shoes (Kubrick inexplicably went further by removing his pants.). The meetings were punctuated by a loud gong Brando struck whenever the arguments became too heated.

The gong was struck more frequently in the ensuing months, usually during arguments between Brando and Kubrick. when Kubrick suggested Spencer Tracy to play “Dad” Longworth, for example, he didn’t know Brando had already hired Karl Malden on the payroll. When Kubrick said, “I’ve read the script and I don’t even know what it’s about,” Brando told him: “It’s about me having to pay Karl Malden $25,000 a week.” 

After Kubrick and Brando argued for the umpteenth time, Brando excused himself and flicked his head at Rosenberg to join him in the kitchen. The two men agreed that Kubrick had to go, but Brando turned down Rosenberg’s alternative suggestions, saying that he should direct the film himself. Rosenberg voiced reservations about the actor cutting his teeth on such a large undertaking but when Paramount agreed, Brando became the director. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the making of One-Eyed Jacks is whether Brando took over directing begrudgingly or whether he had intended to do so all along. In his recent autobiography he insists that he took the project on by default after every major Hollywood director turned it down.

Paramount announced that Kubrick had left to pursue his own project, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962). When Carlo Fiore told him Brando would be directing, Kubrick said, “If he had hired another director it might have appeared that I was lacking in talent or was temperamental or something. But if Marlon directs it, it gets me off the hook…I can see Marlon’s point. You can’t really call a film your own if somebody else directs you.” Brando went further by having Rosenberg fire Willingham and bring veteran screenwriter Guy Trosper into the production. 

To those in Hollywood who considered Brando difficult, especially with directors, it may have seemed just desserts to have him finally behind the camera. They had not counted on the Brando ingenuity that had made him a major force in Hollywood in the first place. 

His approach to casting was unusual. During auditions he would tell an actor a phone call had been received that a close family member had been injured. If the actor gave Brando the response he was looking for, he got the part. For the romantic lead he preferred an unknown, adding, “No tits. I don’t want my leading lady’s heaving big boobs on that wide screen while I’m trying to get a point across to my audience” A young Mexican actress named Pina Pellicer, whose previous experience was a Spanish language production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” filled the bill.

Brnado explains what he wants to nervous leading lady Pina Pellicer, Tragically, she committed suicide in 1964.



The rest of the cast was made up of Brando cronies, including Malden, a friend of Brando’s from New York named Sam Gilman, and a former pickpocket turned stuntman named Larry Duran, as well as western veterans Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson. In Johnson, an alumnus of John Ford’s stock company, Brando had a model to build his own character on. He engaged the former rodeo superstar in endless conversations so as to acquire his speech patterns and vocal inflections.

The film, which was supposed to begin shooting on September 15, 1958, finally started to roll on December 2 for a scheduled six weeks as all of Hollywood wondered if Brando could pull it off. Some saw an incident on the first day as an omen: As the director looked through the viewfinder to set up a shot in front of visiting reporters, he complained that the device was useless because it made everything look so small. Assistant director Chico Day quietly took the viewfinder from Brando, turned it around and gave it back to him. “If you think this is bad,” Brando joked, “wait till the fifth day of shooting.”

(L-R) Actor/director Marlon Brando discusses a scene with assistant director Chico Day.



At the end of the first day, Brando was told something he would be hearing for the duration of the production — he was already behind schedule. In spite of these ongoing reminders, he had actually found himself enjoying the filmmaking process. In his autobiography he wrote, “One-Eyed Jacks is one of my favorite pictures…We shot it at Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula, where I slept with many pretty women and had a lot of laughs.”

Brando taking advantage of the Big Sur location.



The joy the usually moody actor felt was contagious. He offered extras $200 out of his own pocket for the best reaction onscreen. He was patient and sensitive with the nervous Pellicer, who was having trouble with the English dialogue; to help her register appropriate shock in one scene, he fired a gun off-camera. Sometimes his ingenuity would backfire. Larry Duran was supposed to look both shocked and angry in a pivotal scene. Before the take, Brando strolled over to have a talk; when the actor seemed at ease, Brando hauled off and hit him flush in the face, ran behind the camera and started to film. Unfortunately, he hit Duran so hard he knocked half the actor’s beard off. 

For Brando it was all part of the learning process. “Some scenes I shot over and over again from different angles with different dialogue because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admitted years later. “I also did a lot of stalling for time trying to work the story out in my mind while hoping to make the cast think I knew what I was doing.”

Since reporters were welcome on the set (Brando played host to everyone from Jacques Tati to a Japanese beauty queen), stories began to circulate, as Rosenberg told columnist Army Archerd, “This isn’t a movie. It’s a way of life.” If the director was trying to match a shot from the previous day after the weather changed, it would be reported that he kept the crew standing around while he waited to shoot the right wave. Similarly, it was reported that he had ruined days of shooting by getting drunk, when in fact he had tried to shoot a scene in which he was drunk by actually getting drunk. It was an experiment he had long wanted to try, but he ended up passing out and not getting the shots he needed. 

French film comedian Jacques Tati visiting the set of One-Eyed Jacks.



Paramount chief Frank Freeman let it be known he was coming to the set and if he was not satisfied, he would pull the plug. Rosenberg was amazed at how nonplussed Brando was when he told him. The next day, after viewing the dailies, Freeman appeared, told Brando he was doing a good job, gave him a bear hug, and walked away. Brando caught Rosenberg’s eye and thumbed his nose.

Finally, on June 2, 1959, after six months of filming, One-Eyed Jacks wrapped. Originally budgeted at $1.6 million, the film had ended up costing $6 million, and an arduous editing job still lay ahead. While most directors shoot an average of 150,000 feet of film and print 40,000, Brando had exposed over a million feet. 

What happened next depends again on which source you believe. Many Brando associates claim the film was taken away from him and chopped up to the point that he never again wanted to direct. Brando himself, although not happy with the final cut, has said, “I started editing it but pretty soon got sick of it and turned the job over to someone else. When he finished, Paramount said it didn’t like my version of the story. The studio cut the movie to pieces and by then I was bored with the whole project and walked away from it.”

At the studios’s behest Brando directed a day of reshoots in October of 1960, filming a new ending in which Pellicer’s character didn’t die. The 4 hour and 42 minute film was cut down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, and along the way whole subplots were removed, including one in which Brando’s character, recuperating in a Chinese settlement, rapes a young girl in a drunken stupor (The drunk scene that had given him so much trouble didn’t make it into the movie.). An ad-lib which Karl Malden inserted into every film he ever did must have been eliminated, too; One-Eyed Jacks is the only Malden film in which he the actor never says the name “Sekulovich,” which he had been obliged to change when he came to Hollywood.  

Old friends Karl (“Mladen Sekulovich”) Malden & Brando joke around between scenes.


When the film was released it received good reviews except for Brando’s own performance. He was quoted as saying at the time: “I didn’t feel it’s what I set out to do. In my film, everybody lied, even the girl. The only one who told the truth was the Karl Malden character. Paramount made him out to be the heavy, a liar. Now the characters in the film are black and white, not gray and human as I planned them.” As was the custom at the time, negative trims and outs were jettisoned so we will never see a director’s cut of One-Eyed Jacks

Besides being the last film shot in the expensive VistaVision process, permitting better color definition on the wide screen, One-Eyed Jacks was indeed like no other western, and through the years personalities as different as actor Charles Grodin and political satirist Mort Sahl have spoken of it as their favorite film. Like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch are fans and so is Monte Hellman, who has said that Fabio Testi’s poncho in China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) is a tribute to the poncho Marlon Brando wore in One-Eyed Jacks

The film’s title implies the duality of human behavior. At one point Brando’s character tells Karl Malden, “You’re a one-eyed Jack around these parts. But I’ve seen the other side of your face.” The title could apply equally well to the Rashomon-like contradictions contained in printed accounts of the film’s production, where everything seems to depend on one’s point of view — or on what one wants to have seen — like a one-eyed Jack. 

Original ad art for One-Eyed Jacks.

  • Dwayne Epstein.
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SAM PECKINPAH’S THE WILD BUNCH: MARVIN VS. HOLDEN

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is the subject of a new book by W.K. Stratton, aptly titled The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, A Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film.  I have yet to read this intriguing tome but, from individuals who’s opinions I trust, I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.
Having said that at the outset, I do take exception with something the author has said in promoting his work. What follows is a cut&paste of an interview author Stratton did for the online version of the Dallas Morning News with journalist David Martingale:
Q: Many movie lovers might be surprised to learn that before William Holden signed on, Lee Marvin was expected to star as gang leader Pike Bishop. What difference did this make?

Lee Marvin in The Professionals, as he might have looked as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch.


A: I like Lee Marvin as an actor. Some of his movies are amazing. But I don’t think he could have brought the depth of character to Pike Bishop that Holden did. Holden was a movie star with serious acting chops. And he brought a lot of his own karma with him to that role. He was 50 years old. He had squandered a lot of his career in the previous 10 years. He had let his alcoholism completely take over his life to the point that he had killed a man in Italy while driving drunk. He was carrying a lot of heavy stuff with him that I think came through beautifully in the picture.

William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch.

Why do I take exception to this? Well, readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank could probably guess. Through many interviews and the files at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy, I was able to meticulously piece together the events surrounding Lee Marvin’s involvement in The Wild Bunch (which was plentiful) as well as the events surrounding how he left the project.
Now, having said all that (and again, it’s in my book) I think Stratton’s answer is incorrect. Granted, such a point is entirely subjective but based on the info he provides to back up his point, in my opinion his argument is deeply flawed. Marvin had much more training as an actor (American Theater Wing, summer stock, Off-Broadway and Broadway) than Holden. Marvin saw more graphic, nightmarish violence in the war than a drunk driving fatality and was responsible for the killing of more enemy soldiers during the war, as well. In other words, Lee Marvin would have been much better suited to play Pike Bishop using the same logic that Stratton himself employs.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of William Holden’s work and thought he was great in The Wild Bunch and many other great films. Matter of fact, Holden and Marvin both died at the premature age of 63 and both looked much older due to their alcoholic lifestyles. I just think Stratton’s logic is flawed. Doesn’t change my mind about wanting to read the book. He seemed to have done his homework when it comes to using his sources…..

Bibliography for W.K. Stratton’s new book on The Wild Bunch includes yours truly.

Stratton’s book cover.

  • Dwayne Epstein
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