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The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever

An interview with Bill Mesce.

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Wild Bunch – Filming the opening scene – Warner Bros./Seven Arts

One of the most controversial films of its time, The Wild Bunch is the epitome of the no-holds-barred filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s. Since its release, fifty years ago, it has come to be recognized not only as an iconic Western but as one of the most important films in the American cinematic canon.

The Wild Bunch revived the floundering career of volatile, self-destructive director Sam Peckinpah–it also hung on him the label “Bloody Sam.” With the release of his new book The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever, Bill Mesce, Jr. takes a look at what Peckinpah’s transformation of the genre meant in the context of the times, and the insights it affords contemporary screenwriters and filmmakers.

SS: An interesting observation that you make within the book is on how Hollywood’s oldest genre, the Western, proved itself malleable to the needs of the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s and 1970s. And how the Western was moving from Action/Adventure to a more reflective use of the genre. Given contemporary political disaffection and protest, do you think there is an opportunity for emerging writers to adapt the current fascination for Superhero movies in a similar fashion? Or even to dive into the Western once more?

BM: The Western was able to make that evolutionary move (not that it ever abandoned action/adventure) because it was part of a much larger change in what the movie-going audience of that time was eager for.  Remember, part of what made the 60s-70s creative bloom possible was a cinema-savvy, challenge-hungry audience.  I’m not sure we have that.  There’s a lot of noise about the young generation being more socially conscious about issues like climate change, race, etc. but if you look at the popular forms of entertainment, it doesn’t seem to be translating and they still seem to show a preference for the escapist and/or simplistic and/or stories of moral clarity.  Just look at the flicks dominating the year’s box office, and then go back and look at the box office winners from the 60s/70s.  It’s more than a change in tastes.  It’s a massive change in worldview.

Superhero movies seem constrained on the one hand by an audience that, even when a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan pushes limits, still want a superhero movie to be a superhero movie.  It’s a genre that’s practically ritualistic.  When was the last time you saw a superhero movie set in moral ambiguity, where the good guys lost (without coming back to triumph in a sequel?)  Recently, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola — both cinema children of the 60s/70s — have gone public with their frustration over the kind of over-the-top eye candy of superhero flicks have swamped the kind of substantive storytelling both filmmakers were known for.  And, on the other hand, the genre is constrained by the goals of the companies writing the checks for them; these are expensive projects and it’s in their financial interest to please, not challenge an audience and to milk franchises dry.  There was never going to be a STRAW DOGS II or a CHINATOWN II, but we’re on our third SPIDER-MAN incarnation because that’s where the money is these days.

Can the Western come back?  I doubt it.  Unless you spectacularly juice the action, like the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, to the point where it’s not that much different from any other big-action genre, I don’t know that there’s an audience for it.  They’re not kinetic enough for an audience grown accustomed to the action/effects extravaganzas that dominate the box office today.

SS: You talk of the environment of the Western offering a blank social slate upon which to writers can examine issues both universal and existential, how does this operate given the character archetypes are often so polarized into good and bad?

BM: Starting in the 1950s and growing more pronounced in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the extremes in that traditional Western polarization grew closer and closer.  For decades Westerns were often simple morality plays; the Good Guys against the Bad Guys.  While the traditions were still going strong in the 60s/70s, there were increasingly Westerns that played with, inverted, even attacked the traditional archetypes, or even blatantly broke with them, THE WILD BUNCH is a perfect example.  If you look at Arthur Penn’s sprawling LITTLE BIG MAN, there’s hardly a traditional Western archetype that doesn’t get skewered in that film.

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Wild Bunch – Sam Peckinpah and William Holden – Warner Bros./Seven Arts.

SS: In the wake of #metoo, is it reasonable to defend Peckinpah’s “manly-men-acting-badly” vision of the Western? Can you suggest how a modern writer might need to adapt the conventions of the Western, so they become meaningful for today?

BM: That’s an issue that I think exists with any period piece; walking the tightrope between being true to the time and keeping in mind contemporary sensibilities.  Some years ago, I did a book about how Peckinpah dealt with women in his period Westerns, and there’s an unsettling amount of historical foundation for those depictions.  The 19th century West was not a great time or place to be a woman.  I honestly wouldn’t know what to tell a writer today trying to thread that needle:  cheat the truth of the time and look like your sucking up to your audience’s sensibilities, or be honest and risk alienating them?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know it’s a bigger risk walking that line today than it was in Peckinpah’s day.

SS: It’s interesting that Peckinpah spent his early career writing for television. Are their lessons to be learned for today’s writers now that the paths into television and feature writing are competing more equally than ever before?

BM: That’s an interesting question and I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all answer.  Essentially, that period was Peckinpah’s apprenticeship where he learned his trade.  Listen to Steven Spielberg talk about his early days in TV and you realize that he, too, learned his trade in series TV, finally working his way up to a made-for-TV movie (DUEL), before making the step up to features.  But TV was also a different animal for both those directors.  Peckinpah, by background, was someone attuned to stories of the Old West and moved into TV through TV Westerns, and then graduated to the big screen with a small-scale Western; in retrospect, it seems a rather neat, even logical progression.  Spielberg found himself working with a lot of craftsmen held over from the collapse of the major studios, and he learned from them.  With all the different platforms today, TV seems more chaotic to me which, on the one hand, probably provides a number of these avenues of progression, but, on the other, may also make it harder to find those avenues.

SS: The book includes meticulously researched historical data that is sure to give it a wider appeal than to just fans of Peckinpah. In addition to an examination of Peckinpah the filmmaker, this is also the story of Hollywood and wider American society at a time of crucial change. What inspired you to write about Sam Peckinpah and his relationship to this period? And why now?

BM: By chance, I noticed this year would be the 50th anniversary of the release of THE WILD BUNCH.  It seemed natural.

I had seen THE WILD BUNCH back in the 1970s, about the same time I was becoming seriously interested in film.  The movie made a big impact on me, and after STRAW DOGS I became something of a Peckinpah fan.  Flash forward a couple of decades and while I still appreciated Peckinpah at his peak, I realized that — and this goes for nearly any filmmaker of interest — his story was complicated.  I had early on viewed him as a martyr, crucified by the studio executives who didn’t understand his work, but came to realize that a lot of his problems were of his own making.  I’d also been working in media myself and seen first-hand how changes in media were often the result of a combination of circumstances rather than somebody’s single stroke of brilliance, came to a great appreciation of the larger context within which certain films and filmmakers make their mark.  Put another way, I came to realize Peckinpah could not have made THE WILD BUNCH five years earlier or five years later because — for different reasons — circumstances would not have tolerated it.  In many ways, Peckinpah and THE WILD BUNCH were emblematic of the period in that the film was a product of a unique set of circumstances, and from that there’s a larger lesson to be learned about how films and filmmakers don’t exist in a bubble.

SS: The book includes a great chapter where you examine the cross-over between noir and the western. Whilst you mention The Misfits, there is no mention of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; is there a reason you excluded this movie from the wider discussion of the genre crossovers?

BM: No reason.  Frankly, once the project was accepted by McFarland, I had to compose the book in a hurry and now that you mention it, I could kick myself for not having made that reference.

SS: You note that “one of the paradoxes of Peckinpah’s career is that despite years of pumping out original scripts for television, he never directed an original feature script of his own.” Do you think this is a significant omission in his career? Is it necessary for all writers to aim to attain such an all in encompassing level of creative control?

BM: It would be an understatement to say that Sam Peckinpah was an individual with a LOT of personal issues.  After the finished book was accepted I belatedly found one interview where someone suspected that since his mother was schizophrenic that perhaps Peckinpah, too, might’ve had serious psychological issues.  He was frighteningly paranoid, combative, defensive, thin-skinned, all of it amplified by heavy drinking and later drug abuse.  That in mind, I think it would be risky to try to take too much instruction from the arc of his career.  I’ve often wondered if, having pumped out so much original material for TV, that as a generator of original material he was burned out.  That might be a personal bias on my part; I’ve worked on two dozen screenwriting gigs, but very few of them — and only one of the projects which made it into production — were originals.  I’ve found I simply don’t generate much original stuff but can get energized working on another piece of material.  It’s a limitation on my part, but it’s why I wonder if, at a certain stage in his career, Peckinpah, too, didn’t find himself faced with the same limitation.

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Wild Bunch – The village of Agua Verde – Warner Bros./Seven Arts.

SS: You examine Peckinpah’s working methods in considerable detail, stating that for him, the writing was never finished. Are you aware of any contemporary writers who work in this way, continuing to develop the screen story through production, and what would you say are some of the benefits/pitfalls?

BM: Film is not a writer’s medium.  The screenwriter serves a function and is often disposable.  The director is the ultimate arbiter of what goes on the screen, and, as in the past, I’m sure there are directors who like a “locked” script when they begin work and others who continue to mess with material (tasking one writer after another with the messing when not doing the messing him/herself) throughout the production and maybe even post-production process.

SS: Emerging writers are often confused by the distinction between “plot” and “story” but your book offers a great way to tell them apart. What tools or techniques do you find useful when screenwriting to ensure both plot and story are in sync?

BM: I get very balky about answering a question like this because I’ve come to learn that we each find our own way.  All the books and seminars and workshops have a value in that they show you different paths, and maybe one of them will work for you, maybe none of them will, maybe you cherry-pick elements from different ones to put together a process that works for you.

When I came up, we didn’t have Bob McKee and sites like this and the myriad online workshops, etc.  Essentially, I learned on the job and writing — whether I’m writing for the screen, stage, or page — has always been a rather organic process for me.  I don’t want to come off all artsy-fartsy — “I am driven by my muse!” — but all I’ve ever done is try to tell a good story as well as I can.  If I see an opportunity to integrate some sort of subtext — story — that I think enhances the project as a whole, I do it.  On the other hand, if I’m penning a piece of fluff, that typically won’t occur to me.

There are times I can be very analytical about what I’m doing, and other times when it’s simply a matter of, “Hey, you know what would be cool?”  But that’s me.

It helps that — more out of curiosity and pleasure than anything else — I’ve studied film, filmmakers, writing in its various forms.  As the years have gone by, that’s given me a rather deep data bank on which I can draw when a gig comes along, even an academic one like this book.  Once McFarland said, “Yeah, go ahead, we want it,” I knew quite quickly what all the components would have to be, not because I’m some kind of genius, but because I’ve been doing this a while.

There is no formula, there is no recipe.  If it works for you and it helps you produce good work, well, then you’ve found YOUR recipe.  But it’ll probably be different from mine.

SS: Before reading your book if someone had said the name Sam Peckinpah my first thought would have been “slo-mo” violence. Interestingly, you discuss how this technique was developed during the period and what elevates Peckinpah’s use of it. Has anything that you discovered during your research and writing the book really surprised you and informed your own approach to screenwriting?

BM: I’d say the book was more a product of what I’ve learned over the years rather than an exercise in discovery.  I’m not saying all of what’s in the book was in my head, but I did have a handle on a lot of it going in only because I’ve been kicking around a while.

How to be a screenwriter Screenplay ContestsBill Mesce, Jr. is a screenwriter and an award-winning author and playwright.  His screen credits include ROAD ENDS and uncredited work on Brian DePalma’s BLOW OUT.  Besides his fiction, he has written a number of books on film and the media including PECKINPAH’S WOMEN:  A RE-APPRAISAL OF THE PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN IN THE PERIOD WESTERNS OF SAM PECKINPAH, OVERKILL:  THE RISE AND FALL OF THRILLER CINEMA, REEL CHANGE:  THE CHANGING NATURE OF HOLLYWOOD, HOLLYWOOD MOVIES, AND THE PEOPLE WHO GO TO SEE THEM, INSIDE THE RISE OF HBO:  A PERSONAL HISTORY OF THE COMPANY THAT TRANSFORMED TELEVISION, and THE RULES OF SCREENWRITING AND WHY YOU SHOULD BREAK THEM.  He is currently an adjunct instructor at several colleges and universities in New Jersey.