Transforming a Tiny Mexican Town into an Iconic Hollywood Backdrop
Behind the Scenes of Sam Peckinpah's Classic, The Wild Bunch
Whatever criticisms could be leveled at Sam Peckinpah, no one could question his dedication to a film project once it was under way. He labored away at it like a fiend. It became the thing; nothing else much mattered. He was too deep into his alcoholism to give up drinking altogether, but he cut way back. Compared to his consumption during the previous hunting trip in Ely, Nevada—when he took his nephew to the local whorehouses to get laid and Sam wound up dead drunk on wire spools in the back of a truck—he was almost a model of sobriety. He limited himself to drinking beer at night after work was complete. Contrary to the reputation he developed in the 1970s, he was never drunk on the set while he was working on The Wild Bunch. Too much was on the line for him, both professionally and artistically. His intensity was unmatched by anyone else’s. He was at his creative best as he created The Wild Bunch, the story that had obsessed him for more than a year now.
Likewise, William Holden swore off hard liquor. He was a beer sipper in Parras, carefully eschewing entry into the blackout zone. He generally avoided the after-hours liquor-soaked high jinks that other members of the company engaged in after shooting wrapped for the day. He likewise stayed away from the prostitutas—some imported from Mexico City—and spent his evenings quietly. Several years earlier, he’d been on safari with the goal of killing an elephant in Africa. Once the guides had led him into place and an elephant was an easy rifle shot away, Holden was unable to pull the trigger. In an epiphany it came to him that he should be working to protect African wildlife, not destroy it. Conservation of African wildlife was now his passion—and would remain so for the remainder of his life. Evenings in Parras, beer in hand, he loved nothing more than to while away the hours talking about Africa to anyone who would listen. One person who showed up at Holden’s table night after night was Billy Hart, the Texas-born stuntman and actor, who hung on to every word Holden uttered about elephants and lions, totally fascinated.
Holden’s career and personal life may have been in a slide, yet he was part of Hollywood’s royalty, at least in the eyes of many in the cast and crew. He had a regal air, but he also strived to be very much a regular guy, just Bill Beedle from South Pasadena. One day he went for a walk and encountered a large rattlesnake, which he shot, then brought back to show his Wild Bunch colleagues—the kind of thing that any guy might do, although Eddie O’Brien’s son, Brendan, staying with his dad in Parras, saw Holden with the dead snake and was scared of the movie star thereafter.
Following Peckinpah’s lead, the other members of the Wild Bunch company worked incredibly hard, Holden among them. He had his vanities to be sure. Holden may have shown up looking like a fifty-year-old who’d aged more than his years—face heavily lined, gut soft. But when Sam asked him to wear a mustache as Pike Bishop, that was too much. Holden replied, “The hell I will.” But he didn’t hold out long. He was soon sporting a mustache in front of the camera. Sharp-eyed observers noted that Holden’s fake lip hair was similar to Peckinpah’s real mustache.
Film was disappearing faster than blank rifle cartridges.
Holden, the veteran of the old studio system way of making films, had never been a part of something like Peckinpah’s free, improvisatory approach. It was nothing like the methods of, say, Alfred Hitchcock, with everything precisely storyboarded. Yet Sam stayed in control of everything, though it was a lot to manage. Day four of filming of The Wild Bunch was not atypical: 244 extras, 80 animals, 43 animal handlers. The caterer provided 372 lunches. Guns were everywhere, 239 of them as props. Hundreds more arrived in the hands of the Mexican Army troops, hired as extras for the film; they brought their service rifles with them. After the original supply of ammo ran out on the second day of filming, Phil Feldman ordered in more than ninety thousand rounds from Warners, a jaw-dropping amount by 1968 standards.
Film was disappearing faster than blank rifle cartridges. Peckinpah shot more than twenty-five thousand feet during just the first week from 131 camera setups. Each can of exposed film had to be transported from Parras to Torreón either by car or small aircraft. From there, it was moved through questioning Mexican and American governmental officials at a port of entry into the United States. Thence it went to L.A., where it was developed and printed. The dailies were then transported back to Mexico, where Peckinpah and others viewed them. The process was labor-intensive, to say the least. Though fraught with possibilities for mishaps, it worked. Records indicate just one batch of lm was accidentally ruined during a border crossing.
Lucien Ballard was at his creative best, overseeing a crew of camera operators who filmed with a variety of cameras outfitted with different-size lenses. Typically, Ballard used six cameras for action sequences, each running at a different speed. To capture images at real time, a Mitchell or Panavision camera operated at twenty-four frames per second. To achieve slow motion, a cinematographer would run the film through the camera at a faster rate. Ballard had his cameras set at variety of frames-per-second rates: 30, 60, 90, even 120. Cameras were sometimes modified to allow them to achieve fast run rates, but even then, they would have to crank through yards and yards of lm before they hit the increased speed needed. (Peckinpah’s film editors would later monkey around further with speed of shots using an optical printer.) The dailies that came back from L.A. were stunning. Ballard the cinematic alchemist and Peckinpah had conducted tests with film-stock exposures with the goal of achieving a slight sepia cast to the images without diminishing the color palette. Ballard had succeeded. The effect gave The Wild Bunch a hint of being something of a relic.
Miles and miles of film were shot each week. The best frames, the ones that ended up in the movie, were like miniature works of art, in ways akin to Frederic Remington’s paintings of rough and reckless cowboys. In Burbank, Warners vice president Edward S. Feldman was blown way: “Suddenly, the dailies came back with a yellow tinge on them. And the yellowness was fantastic. It was as if you could feel the heat coming off the film. But we’re sitting in dailies and the head of postproduction at Warners then was a Teutonic editor named Rudi Fehr, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Ed, we’ll get it out in the lab.’ But I said, ‘You don’t understand. This is genius, whoever did this.’ He said, ‘But it’s not clear. It looks like the heat is coming off the ground.’ I said, ‘That’s what they’re trying to do.’”
Feldman realized that Warner Bros.-Seven Arts was achieving a new kind of realism. “What Peckinpah wanted to show, basically, was that dying was not glorious and people getting shot was not heroic. And he brought that quality to the picture.” With the action shot at all those different speeds, Ballard’s work created endless possibilities for Peckinpah’s film editors.
In typical Peckinpah fashion, he didn’t elucidate just what he meant by that.
Peckinpah and his crew were providing Ballard plenty of gold to capture on lm. Gordon Dawson was in full pit-bull attack mode as he and his crew churned out the costuming needed for each sequence. Who knew what Peckinpah would ask of him? James Dannaldson, who transported the ants on the plane while seated next to Coleman, stood around six feet eight inches. With Anglo faces in short supply in Parras, Sam decided he wanted Dannaldson to appear in front of the camera as—well, how about a banker? How was Dawson supposed to achieve that on the director’s whim when the guy was that tall? But Dawson sorted through all the clothes hanging on the hundreds of yards of piping and came up with something that would work.
Early on, Sam decided that he wanted Strother Martin, playing the bounty hunter Coffer, to look like a 1913 version of a Hells Angel. In typical Peckinpah fashion, he didn’t elucidate just what he meant by that. It was up to Dawson to figure it out. He rushed into a trailer and furiously began to dig around until he found a rosary, never paying any attention to the crowd of curious locals, most if not all of whom were devout Catholics, who had gathered to observe what the yanqui movie man was up to. Dawson grabbed some needle-nosed pliers and tore the tiny crucified Jesus from the rosary cross and tossed it onto the sidewalk outside the trailer door. He then wired a rifle cartridge onto the cross in place of Jesus. He turned to leave the trailer and saw the crowd of Mexicans, mouths agape, starring at him as if he were Lucifer himself. The bullet cross hanging from rosary beads became a signature prop for The Wild Bunch. I felt more than a twinge of emotion when I visited Dawson at his house in Woodland Hills decades later and he allowed me to slip that very bullet cross, which he’d carefully preserved as a souvenir from the shoot, around my neck.
Dawson’s challenges in dressing a cast representing people caught up in violent, changing times were not small. The costumes ran the gamut from then-contemporary knickers and newsboy hats for small boys to traditional cowboy attire. He had to outfit American soldiers in campaign hats with cavalry cords and Mexican federal troops as well. He had to come up with wardrobe for Anglo townspeople as well as Mexican villagers and revolutionaries. He was charged with telling a story through wardrobe. Martin’s and L. Q. Jones’s characters were the vilest to turn up in the movie, and they hardly looked like cowboys at all. Along with a newsboy cap, Jones wore an automobile driving coat that hung down to his knees, making it almost seem as if he were wearing a dress of some sort. Martin wore a filthy, battered narrow-brim hat with a wide hatband, a style with twentieth century stamped all over it, as if to say that he represents the depravity of new times.
He explained the contradiction: The movie camera was not the product of technology but rather a gift from the gods.
Peckinpah certainly wanted to push the theme of the evil that awaited mankind in the age of technology. There was no small irony here. He believed that technology suffocated the elemental humanity of people, that it was purely malevolent, trumpeted by conservatives of the ilk of Richard Nixon, whom Peckinpah loathed. I remember my college mentor, an English professor who embraced many left-wing tenets, telling us in class one day that we all had an ethical obligation to go home that day and use a shotgun to blast the screens of our TVs.
Peckinpah would have applauded that kind of sentiment even as he worked in cinema, the most technologically driven of all creative media of his day. He explained the contradiction: The movie camera was not the product of technology but rather a gift from the gods. In this he was not unlike the aging members of the Wild Bunch gang, cowboys ill at ease with the modern era who nonetheless seemed to value such technological advancements as the Colt M1911 semiautomatic pistol, pump shotguns, machine guns, and hand grenades. They no doubt likewise considered such things to be gifts from the gods.
In depicting the technological evils sprouting up in the early twentieth century, Peckinpah introduced a few anachronisms. Internet gun nerds have pointed out that Martin’s bolt-action rifle dates from the 1940s, not from the 1910s. The machine gun the gang acquires dates from late in World War I; it wasn’t in service in 1913. Other anachronisms beyond the guns appeared here and there. At the time, Peckinpah was making a picture he assumed would be seen only on the big screen, with few people taking it in more than once or twice. That someone would watch The Wild Bunch twenty or thirty times at home, pausing to examine details of rearms in high definition, was inconceivable in 1968 and ’69, and that led to small errors.
It was of no great consequence if Sam filmed Old Man Sykes being shot in the right leg and then he showed up at the end of the film with what might be a bandage on his left leg. The sore-thumb mistake that stood out the most was a shot of Pike Bishop’s gang fording what was supposed to be the Rio Grande, leaving Texas behind for Mexico. The water in the swollen river flows left to right. Anytime you leave Texas and enter Mexico, the Rio Grande below you will run from right to left as the river makes its way from New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico.
One day early on in the production, Holden had a day off from shooting, but Sam invited him to show up anyway to observe that day’s filming. The sequences showed the aftermath of the San Rafael/Starbuck shoot-out, with Martin and Jones as the primary actors. Holden watched as Peckinpah directed the two actors, nudging them to put more and more into their performances. It clicked then with Holden that this was not going to be just another cowboy picture. He arose from his chair and began to walk away. Sam stopped him: “Wait a minute, where are you going, Bill?”
“I’m going back to my room.”
“Well, why are you going back to your room?”
“Is that the way you’re going to shoot the rest of the picture?”
“I’m going home and studying.”
No one on the cast saw Holden until it was time for him to appear in front of the camera again. Jones, who witnessed the event, said, “He went back and started working on his script because he saw this was what Sam was going to do, and this is what the actors that he was working with were prepared to do. So Bill was going to carry his end of the load. He’d obviously seen the picture slightly different, and then realized, ‘Wait a minute, this is what Peckinpah’s going to do with the supporting actors, he’s going to want the same intensity from me, so I better get my ass in gear.’ And that’s what he did.”
Holden was doing more than just studying his script. He also was studying his director. As filming continued, cast and crew noticed that Holden was developing Pike Bishop into a character very much like Peckinpah himself, right down to the vocal inflections and hand gestures. One of the crew members told Peckinpah that Holden was “doing” him. Peckinpah said, “Ah, you’re full of shit.” But the character of Pike Bishop began to have much in common with Peckinpah, a man who had lost his grip and was struggling to regain it. Holden captured the intensity of Peckinpah in Parras.
From The Wild Bunch. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by W.K. Stratton