Muscular study of Sam Peckinpah’s groundbreaking 1969 film, “the last Western.”
Texas journalist, historian, and poet Stratton (Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion, 2012, etc.) charts the evolution of Peckinpah’s classic and perhaps best-known movie at the half-century mark. Peckinpah had had glimmerings of the story years before making it, with a script and cast that grew and changed considerably owing to several influences, not least of them the violent time in which it was finally made. Stratton pulls together big strands of story: the history of the Mexican revolutionary period, Peckinpah’s own fascination with Mexico, the history of U.S.–Mexico relations, the history of moviemaking itself. On the latter, the author draws a straight line from John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach, to The Wild Bunch 30 years later, both for its less-than-virtuous heroes and its paving the way for “a stampede of Western movies with increasingly sophisticated characters and plotlines.” Peckinpah wrote the movie with Lee Marvin in mind as the central figure, Pike Bishop, but Marvin’s agent wasn’t enthusiastic; in any event, Paramount lured Marvin with an unheard-of $1 million fee for another Western, the painfully terrible Paint Your Wagon. Peckinpah and his producer, Stratton reveals through some careful filmic detective work, considered Robert Mitchum, Sterling Hayden, and Charlton Heston before landing on William Holden, “a first-rate actor but also a deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself.” Holden wasn’t the easiest actor to work with, but with Robert Ryan, who had “a deeply lined face that seemed to be cut from boot leather,” he anchored what Stratton doesn’t hesitate to brand “a love affair between two men”—a “bromance," that is, one that broadened to include such players as Ernest Borgnine, L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin, Jaime Sánchez, and Ben Johnson. And a blood-soaked, protest-inducing bromance at that….
Essential reading for fans of the epochal (and reportedly soon to be remade) movie as well as movie-history and Western buffs generally.