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.
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.
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.
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.
This film has been credited with playing a significant role in the use of violence in modern cinema, establishing the limits of post-Production Code Hollywood, shaping the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system, and redefining the Western genre. Most effectively, it demystified the western and the genre's heroic and cavalier characters. Director Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green, who co-authored the script with Peckinpah, felt that this project required a realistic look at the characters of the Old West, whose actions on screen had rarely matched the violent and dastardly reality of the men on which they were based. Green summarized the authors' feelings when he said "I always liked Westerns, but I always felt they were too heroic and too glamorous. I'd read enough to know that Billy the Kid shot people in the back of the head while they were drinking coffee." Both Green and Peckinpah felt it was important to not only show that the film's protagonists were violent men, but that they achieved their violence in unheroic and horrific ways, such as using people as human shields and killing unarmed bystanders during robberies.
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 a screening in New York, Sam Peckinpah invited Jay Cocks, of Time magazine, who brought his friend Martin Scorsese. They sat in an empty Warner Bros. screening room with only two other critics, Judith Crist and Rex Reed. That final scene knocked them out of their seats. Recalled Scorsese, "We were mesmerized by it; it was obviously a masterpiece. It was real filmmaking, using film in such a way that no other form could do it; it couldn't be done any other way. To see that in an American filmmaker was so exciting." Cocks remembered that he and Scorsese "literally turned to each other at the end and were stunned. We were looking at each other, shaking our heads, like we had just come out of a shared fever dream."
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.
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.
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. Emilio Fernández, who plays Mapache, was a follower of a subsequent Mexican revolutionary, Adolfo de la Huerta (Victoriano Huerta and Aldofo de la Huerta were not the same person and actually represented opposing factions in the Revolution Victoriano Huerta died of cirrhosis as an exile in El Paso in 1916, long before Aldolfo de la Huerta's rise). Adolfo de la Huerta was eventually defeated, and Fernandez 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.
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.
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.
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. Peckinpah had it filmed with a special "depth-of-field" lens which had the effect of keeping all the people in the frame, including those in the foreground, in sharp focus as the Bunch walks forward.
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.
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.
The shoot itself went off surprisingly well. In all 79 days there were only two small accidents (Ben Johnson broke his finger on the machine gun and William Holden burned his arm with a misfired squib) but the dust and heat were relentless. According to legendary stuntman Joe Canutt, who also worked on Major Dundee (1965), "We were out in an area that was so dry the cactus had dried up and the horned toads carried canteens." Nevertheless, Sam Peckinpah insisted that the movie had to be filmed in Mexico. He had previously worked on the Paramount script for Villa Rides (1968) and had already worked Pancho Villa into the script, indirectly, through the subplot involving the stolen army guns. Some of the locations used were even evident in footage shot decades before during the actual Mexican revolution.
Warner Bros. previewed the film and audience reactions were often negative and hostile. Some sample comments were "Do not release this film. The whole thing is sick," and ""The worst potpourri of vulgarity, violence, sex and bloodshed I've seen put together." The studio wired Sam Peckinpah expressing the desire to cut the film further to go for a more positive response. Peckinpah agreed but only to one print to be run in one theatre. The rest of the theatres would show his initial cut. The studio had Phil Feldman cut the required scenes and then released all prints this way. After such a productive relationship with Feldman for so long, Peckinpah felt betrayed. It influenced his outlook on producers from that point on.
The name "The Wild Bunch" was first applied by the press to a gang of outlaws active in Oklahoma and Indian Territories, headed by Bill Doolin. Every member of that gang eventually died violently. Later, the name "The Wild Bunch" was applied by the press to the Hole in the Wall Gang of Butch Cassidy.
Sam Peckinpah had long decided on where he wanted to go with the look of the film. He recalled a hunting trip during the filming of Ride the High Country (1962) and, after shooting a buck, told a friend, "The bullet went in the size of a dime. But the blood on the snow was the size of a salad plate. That's the way violence is. That's the way death is. And that's what I want to do on film."
Sam Peckinpah didn't feel he was getting enough from the schoolteacher in the bank (she actually was a real teacher), so he told Bo Hopkins to stick his tongue in her ear and got the reaction from her he wanted.
Sam Peckinpah would drive his crew so hard that it sometimes created friction and confrontations between him and certain cast members. Early in the shooting, William Holden threatened to walk off the set if Peckinpah continued to verbally abuse the crew in his presence. Robert Ryan threatened to punch the director after he made Ryan spend ten days in costume and makeup without filming any scenes or allowing him a few days off to campaign for Sen. Robert Kennedy. Ernest Borgnine also promised to "beat the shit out" of Peckinpah if the director didn't allow him some relief from the throat-clogging dust that was affecting the actor's breathing on location. Editor Lou Lombardo would later recall, "Over time, we became the Wild Bunch. I saw what Holden was doing. He was playing Sam. He was running the bunch like Sam ran the crew."
Sam Peckinpah was inspired by his hunger to return to films, the violence seen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and America's growing frustration with the Vietnam War and what he perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time. He set out to make a film that portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period but the crude men attempting to survive in that era.
A wood splinter from a squib hit Bo Hopkins in his eye, splitting his eyelid. Sam Peckinpah got the actor a shot, wiped his eye, and shot again. The actor's courage received an ovation from the Mexican crew.
"La Golondrina" (Spanish: "The Swallow") is sung by the Mexican villagers as the Wild Bunch leaves Angel's village. It was written in 1862 by Mexican physician Narcisco Serradell (1843-1910), who at the time was exiled to France due to the French intervention in Mexico. The Spanish lyrics use the image of a migrating swallow to evoke sentiments of longing for the homeland. It became the signature song of exiled Mexicans. However, more importantly, by the time of the Mexican Revolution "La Golondrina" (or, actually, its proper name, "Las Golondrinas") had become a song of farewell in northern Mexico and the borderlands of south Texas. It was at this time that it became a common funeral song, a tradition that continues until today.
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!" He then grabbed a real revolver and fired it into a nearby wall. The gun empty, Peckinpah barked at his stunned crew: "THAT'S the effect I want!!" He also had the gunfire sound effects changed for the film. Before, all gunshots in Warner Brothers movies sounded identical, regardless of the type of weapon being fired. Peckinpah insisted on each different type of firearm having its own specific sound effect when fired.
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.
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!!"
The violence, so integral to the meaning of the story, was already causing problems with the Motion Picture's production code. When filming started, the production code was still in place. Well before its release, the production code was replaced by a ratings system that was very liberal and lenient in terms of what could be allowed on movie screens. But during the filming, that outdated production code was the cause of many of the film's changes in an attempt to rein in the bloodshed. The worst cut, no pun intended, comes when the throat of one of the gang members is sliced near the climax. The studio demanded no blood there and the scene depicts just the knife going across the throat with no spraying geyser of blood.
Sam Peckinpah's collaboration with producer Phil Feldman started out better than any he'd ever had, or would ever again. L.Q. Jones commented, "If it wasn't for Phil Feldman, I don't think Sam would have made anything of consequence. Phil understood that you don't harness a hummingbird." Feldman gave Peckinpah tips on characters, dialogue lines, scene placement and even changed Peckinpah's mind on how the scorpions-consumed-by-ants shots should be integrated into the opening credits.
Lou Lombardo showed Sam Peckinpah how he had edited a death scene for The Felony Squad (1966). He had triple-printed a death scene which made it last much longer, using slow motion and different angles. Said Lombardo, "That impressed [producer Phil Feldman] and Sam, too. He said, 'That's how we're going to do 'The Wild Bunch'--but not all of it'."
Lou Lombardo and Sam Peckinpah remained in Mexico for six months editing the picture. After initial cuts, the opening gunfight sequence ran 21 minutes. By cutting frames from specific scenes and intercutting others, they were able to fine-cut the opening robbery down to five minutes.
Sam Peckinpah, notorious for being a demanding director, fired 22 cast members during the course of the shoot. According to producer Phil Feldman, "Sam had no compassion for a guy with a job who had a family at home who makes a mistake; that wasn't his concern--Sam had no tolerance for that . . . He had no understanding of a mistake that the guy made that is correctable, after all. He was volatile, and if a guy committed a mistake on the set or elsewhere, he was ready to jump on him. And that's too bad".
For the key scene in which Pike blows the bridge out from under Deke, Sam Peckinpah gave very specific instructions to special effects technician Bud Hulburd, who was no expert on dynamite but was using 50-60 sticks of it for the explosive effect. Stuntman Joe Canutt was concerned that the men on horseback could be hurt or killed if they went into the water too early before the final dynamite charge was set off. However, Hulburd refused to heed Canutt's warning, so, according to Marshall Fine in "Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah", "Unbeknownst to Peckinpah and Hulburd, Canutt enlisted Gordon T. Dawson [in charge of the Costume & Wardrobe Department] to stand near Hulburd holding a club behind his back. Dawson's instructions from Canutt were explicit: If anyone goes into the water before Hulburd blows the right charge, hit Hulburd over the head with the club and knock him out before he can set off the last explosive. Fortunately for everyone, the sequence went off as planned. No one was accidentally blown up or clubbed over the head."
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.
Sam Peckinpah would occasionally make some changes to the script and certain scenes as he went along. For example, he added the character of Crazy Lee to the opening railroad office robbery and hired Bo Hopkins to play him. Sometimes he would drop dialogue he deemed unnecessary in scenes where the action told the whole story, such as the line Ernest Borgnine delivers to William Holden--"We're doing it right this time"--during the final shootout at Mapache's fort.
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, MO, 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.
Multiple scenes attempted in Major Dundee (1965), including slow-motion action sequences, characters leaving a village as if in a funeral procession and the use of inexperienced locals as extras, would become fully realized here.
In a 2002 retrospective, Roger Ebert, who "saw the original version at the world premiere in 1969, during the golden age of the junket, when Warner Bros. screened five of its new films in the Bahamas for 450 critics and reporters", said that back then he had publicly declared the film a masterpiece during the junket's press conference, prompted by comments from "a reporter from the Reader's Digest [who] got up to ask 'Why was this film ever made?'" He compared the film to Pulp Fiction (1994): "praised and condemned with equal vehemence."
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.
The night before his big scene in the bank, Sam Peckinpah told Bo Hopkins he wanted him to completely memorize "Shall We Gather at the River." The script called for only a few verses, but the director wanted him to sing the entire song, so Hopkins--with the help of Dub Taylor--stayed up all night memorizing it.
When Emilio Fernández suggested that the opening attack on the town reminded him of a scorpion on an anthill. Sam Peckinpah was inspired by the metaphor and called the producer in Hollywood to bring the insects to the location.
Before this film the gunshots in Warner Bros. movies all sounded the same, no matter what kind of gun was being shot. Sam Peckinpah, who'd grown up firing guns and doing other cowboy things on his grandfather's ranch near Fresno, CA, insisted on each firearm having its own distinct sound effect.
Before filming, Sam Peckinpah wrote in a letter to his friend, Charlton Heston, that the film "might turn out to be a reasonably good film." Afterwards, he would say, "Of all the projects I have ever worked on, this is closest to me."
Six cameras simultaneously recorded the action for the climactic shootout between Mapache's army and the Bunch. Nevertheless, the company shot for a month at the hacienda, six days over the 19-day schedule.
According to Susan Compo in her biography "Warren Oates: A Wild Life", Bo Hopkins had not worked with blood squibs before. For the scene in which he is shot during the railway office holdup, he was hooked up to copper wire holding powder capsules. "They'd been putting wires on me all day, all up my legs and on my chest. They asked me if I wanted to wear a T-shirt, and I said, 'Oh no, I want to feel it so I can react,' Like a dummy, I didn't know they went off and caused blisters."
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.
Wardrobe supervisor Gordon T. Dawson had his hands full keeping the extras who played Mexican soldiers dressed appropriately. He had plenty of uniforms--350 of them--but the Mexican soldiers in the film kept getting shot or blown up, and the costumes would be torn and/or bloodstained after almost every take. Dawson and his team worked around the clock to clean and repair them almost as fast as Peckinpah could ruin them. In all, those 350 uniforms clothed about 6000 men.
Execs at Warner Bros. got skittish when the film opened to mediocre box office, and they got producer Phil Feldman to chop 10 minutes out of the movie, thinking a shorter runtime (and thus more showings per day) might help. Feldman did it without even telling Sam Peckinpah it was happening. Adding insult to injury, Feldman also did a poor job of it, rendering some elements of the plot incomprehensible. A furious Peckinpah never spoke to Feldman again.
The film was shot with the anamorphic process. Sam Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, also made use of telephoto lenses, that allowed for objects and people in both the background and foreground to be compressed in perspective. The effect is best seen in the shots where the Bunch makes "the walk" to Mapache's headquarters to free Angel. As they walk forward, a constant flow of people passes between them and the camera; most of the people in the foreground are as sharply focused as the Bunch. The editing of the film is notable in that shots from multiple angles were spliced together in rapid succession, often at different speeds, placing greater emphasis on the chaotic nature of the action and the gunfights.
According to one report, Roy N. Sickner raised so much hell drinking and brawling in Mexico after arriving to work on the film that Mexican authorities physically escorted him out of the country, barring him from returning.
Actor/stuntman Bill Hart played Jess, one of the bounty hunters, and was also one of the stuntmen who rode the "exploding bridge" into the water. In an interview Hart said that the only mishap that occurred during that stunt was when one of the horses was hit by a beam from the bridge while it was in the water, was apparently knocked unconscious and drowned.
Walon Green later revealed the inspiration behind many of the main characters' names: "Pike was a name I always wanted to use, it's a kind of carnivorous fish and it suggested someone who is tough and predatory . . . Gorch was [named] after a real mill-trash family I knew . . . Mapache means 'raccoon' in Spanish, and it seemed to me something a peasant risen to a general might call himself . . . Coffer was named for a stuntman I knew named Jack Coffer who was killed. Jack was a real inspiration to me for the kind of guys who are really wild and crazy."
In his autobiography, Ernest Borgnine intimated that some of the crew were often annoyed with Jaime Sánchez: "He was barely 30 at the time and he was like a kid in a candy store. He just loved playing with his gun and he got to be a real fast draw. But it got to be irritating, having him constantly pull his six-shooter on us."
Sam Peckinpah was particularly suspicious of studio executives and didn't want them hanging around his sets. He warned editor Lou Lombardo, "Don't show anybody anything you cut until I see it. If Feldman [producer Phil Feldman] walks in, pull the plug on the moviola."
Much of the film was shot in Parras de la Fuente, Mexico (home of the oldest winery in the Americas). In 1968 the town was still small and rural enough to pass for 1913, but Sam Peckinpah was almost too late: local officials were on the verge of going electric. The addition of power lines would have ruined the scenery, so Peckinpah got his producers to pay the town an undisclosed amount of money to put it off another six months.
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 German-Italian actor Mario Adorf. He 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.
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.
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.
The bounty hunters' death scene was to be an elaborate shoot-out but producer Phil Feldman suggested killing them off-screen entirely. Sam Peckinpah liked it so much he wrote him to thank him saying, ""Your idea of taking out the killing of the bounty hunters was absolutely correct."