In an interview, Ben Johnson said that the Mexican women who "frolicked" with him and Warren Oates in the huge wine vats weren't actresses but prostitutes from a nearby brothel, who were hired by Sam Peckinpah so he could tell people that Warner Bros. paid for hookers for his cast.
According to L.Q. Jones, he and Strother Martin approached director Sam Peckinpah with an idea to add more depth to their characters (T.C. and Coffer). The idea was to add a hint of a homosexual relationship between their characters. Peckinpah liked the idea and the footage made it into the final release version.
There were not enough uniforms for all of the stunt people and extras in the gun battle. If someone was filmed getting shot, the costume people would repair a uniform by washing off the fake blood, taping and painting over the bullet holes, drying the paint and sending either the same or a different performer out to get shot again.
Before filming began, William Holden and Sam Peckinpah argued over the mustache Peckinpah felt that Holden's character, Pike Bishop, would wear, because Holden reportedly did not like his image on film with one. Peckinpah won the argument, and Holden wore a false mustache during filming.
Following the film's production, it was severely edited by the studio and producer Phil Feldman (in Sam Peckinpah's absence), cutting its length by about 20 minutes - remarkably, none of the excised footage was violent. Due to its violence, the film was originally threatened with an "X" rating by the MPAA's (Motion Picture Association of America) newly created Production Code Administration, but an "R" rating was its final decision. The film was restored to its original "director's cut" length of 143 minutes and threatened with an NC-17 rating when submitted to the MPAA ratings board in 1993 prior to a re-release in 1994, holding up the film's re-release for many months. The reinstated scenes (including two important flashbacks from Pike's past, and a battle scene between Pancho Villa's rebels and Gen. Mapache's forces at the telegraph station) depicted the underlying character and motivations of the leader of the Bunch.
Deke Thornton describes Gen. Mapache as "a killer for Huerta". He was referring to real-life Gen. Victoriano Huerta, who had overthrown and murdered Mexican President Francisco I. Madero in 1913, setting off a civil war. The Mexican town this film was shot in, Parras in Coahuila state, was Madero's birthplace. Ironically, Emilio Fernández, who plays Mapache, actually did fight as an officer in Huerta's army, although in a 1923 rebellion started by Huerta and not the 1916 revolution in which this film is set. Huerta was eventually defeated, and Fernandes was captured, tried for treason and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He escaped and fled to Los Angeles, CA, where he found his way into the film industry and began a lifelong friendship with director John Ford. After he returned to Mexico, he became an actor and director and became known as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of Mexican cinema.
This film was adapted from a story thought up by Roy N. Sickner, an actor and stuntman. Walon Green wrote the script, which was then rewritten by Sam Peckinpah. Green felt that Peckinpah's rewrite was substantial enough to deserve credit, but he had to lobby the WGA (Writers Guild of America) to allow Peckinpah a credit. Green has always said he was grateful to Peckinpah for not rewriting too much of the script just to get credit. Green, Sickner and Peckinpah all shared Academy Award nominations for best screenplay (the only Oscar nomination Peckinpah ever received in his entire career.) They didn't win.
Excluding the start and end credits, this film contains about 2,721 edits in about 138 minutes of action. This equates to an average shot length of three seconds. The "Shootout at Bloody Porch" contains about 325 edits in five minutes of action, for an average shot length slightly under one second.
Robert Ryan's incessant complaints about not receiving top billing so annoyed director Sam Peckinpah that he decided to "punish" Ryan. In the opening credits, after freezing the screen on closeups of William Holden's and Ernest Borgnine's faces while listing them, Peckinpah froze the scene on several horses' rear ends as Ryan was listed.
After filming the scene where Ernest Borgnine and William Holden sit by a campfire and their characters vow they "wouldn't have it any other way", it was hard for director Sam Peckinpah to yell, "Cut!" because he was crying.
During the opening robbery sequence, two children are seen holding each other, and watching as one of the robbers rides by on horseback and scoops up a bag of money laying on the ground. The boy in that scene is Matthew Peckinpah, director Sam Peckinpah's son.
According to editor Lou Lombardo the original release print contains some 3,643 editorial cuts, more than any other Technicolor film ever processed. Some of these cuts are near subliminal, consisting of three or four frames, making them almost imperceptible to the naked eye.
The last scene to be completed was the exploding bridge over Rio Nazas (substituting for Rio Bravo). Five stuntmen--each was paid $2000--and six cameras were used. The scene was shot in one take. One camera fell into the river and was lost.
The famous "Last Walk" was improvised by Sam Peckinpah during the shoot. Originally, the scene was to begin with the Bunch leaving the whorehouse and immediately cut to the confrontation with Mapache. Once the decision was made to lengthen the scene, many of the Mexican extras were choreographed by the assistant directors while the scene was filming.
The "modern" sidearms (the film's setting is 1916) that the Bishop gang carries are Colt M1911 automatic pistols and Winchester M1897 pump-action shotguns. The water-cooled heavy machine gun is the Browning M1917. US and Mexican soldiers use M1903 Springfield rifles. All of the aforementioned weapons were used in World War I by the US Army. While the 1897 Winchester shotgun was featured prominently, they were not used exclusively by the Bunch. The shotgun that Crazy Lee had at the start of the movie in the railroad office did not have an exposed hammer, which is something all 1897s have. Neither the 1897 nor the Winchester Model 12 had a trigger disconnector, which means that the trigger could be continually depressed and every time the the slide was pumped it would fire. Since this was what we see the Bunch doing as they are firing through the railroad office windows at the bounty hunters on the roof, at least the shotgun that Crazy Lee loaned briefly to Abe must have been an M12, based on it not having an exposed hammer. This can be seen most clearly when Crazy Lee is firing at the three people he was holding in the office, after they tried to escape.
Co-writer/director Sam Peckinpah stated that one of his goals for this movie was to give the audience "some idea of what it is to be gunned down." A memorable incident occurred, to that end, as Peckinpah's crew were consulting him on the "gunfire" effects to be used in the film. Not satisfied with the results from the squibs his crew had brought for him, Peckinpah became exasperated; he finally hollered, "That's not what I want! *That's not what I want!*" Then he grabbed an actual revolver and fired it into a nearby wall. The gun empty, Peckinpah barked at his stunned crew: "That's the effect I want!!"
Because the Colt 1911 .45 ACP pistols carried by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and the other members of the Wild Bunch are notoriously unreliable when firing blanks, Spanish-made Star Model B 9mm pistols were substituted for all of the firing scenes. Aside from being chambered for the smaller 9mm round, the Star Model B is externally almost identical to the Colt 1911.
At least three names from this film have been used in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). In addition to starring a vampire character named Angel, the series also had an episode (2.12 "Bad Eggs") that featured two vampire cowboys named Lyle and Tector Gorch. Also, Luke Perry's character's last name in the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) is Pike.
According to Paul Seydor in his book "Peckinpah: The Western Films A Reconsideration", it was a preliminary showing of a 151-minute-long rough cut in Kansas City on May 1, 1969, that started the controversy over the extreme violence of this film; several members of the audience in the theater reportedly ran out the exits into a nearby alley to vomit. This version of the film was to be cut by another six minutes or so before its release, but it was in this form that the film got the R rating from the MPAA, though the reaction to the film in Kansas City led the MPAA to briefly consider giving it an X rating.
Supposedly, more blank rounds were discharged during the production than live rounds were fired during the Mexican Revolution of 1916 around which the film is loosely based. In total 90,000 rounds were fired, all blanks.
The song "Polly Wolly Doodle" was prominently featured in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It with You (1938), where Dub Taylor (Rev. Wainscoat in this film) plays the song (several times) on a xylophone. "You Can't Take It With You" was Taylor's film debut. Sam Peckinpah's "Polly Wolly Doodle", presented in its sinister context, contrasts sharply with the carefree Capra rendition.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Gen. Mapache's headquarters, where the climatic shootout takes place between the Wild Bunch and Mapache's soldiers, was actually an abandoned winery outside the town of Parras in Coahuila, Mexico. The shootout that opened the film, which was when the Wild Bunch was ambushed by bounty hunters while robbing the railroad office in the Texas town of Starbuck, was actually shot on the Main Street of downtown Parras.
Apart from American stunt men dressed as Mexican soldiers, who performed some of the more dangerous stunts, all of the "troops" involved in the final shootout at Mapache's headquarters were real Mexican soldiers from a cavalry regiment stationed near Parras in Coahuila state, where this film was shot, who were hired as extras by the film company.
The role of Gen. Mapache was first offered to the German-Italian actor Mario Adorf. Adorf declined the offer when he learned that his character would cut a boy's throat, but regretted his decision three years later when he saw the movie.
According to Sam Peckinpah biographer Marshall Fine, there was concern on the set over the bridge explosion. Bud Hulburd, the head of the special-effects crew, was not particularly experienced, having ascended the ranks after Peckinpah fired his predecessors. Stuntman Joe Canutt appealed to both Hulburd and Peckinpah to no avail, so finally, out of concern for the other stuntmen, Canutt enlisted the help of screenwriter Gordon T. Dawson, who was instructed to stand behind Hulburd with a club. If the stuntmen began to fall before the final charge was set off, something that would've resulted in death, Dawson was to club Hulburd unconscious before he detonated the last charge. Luckily, the stunt went off without a hitch.