"The Wild Bunch"

A terrific Oscar-nominated documentary explains what Sam Peckinpah knew in his heart: It's not just blowing up a bridge, but the way you blow up a bridge, that counts.

Published October 20, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Wild Bunch"
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien
Warner Studios; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Documentary "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage"

The must-see extra on the DVD of "The Wild Bunch" is Paul Seydor's Oscar-nominated documentary "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," which was previously available only in a limited-edition laser gift box.

When I met Sam Peckinpah's second daughter, Kristen, on the set of "The Osterman Weekend" (1983), I gingerly asked her what it was like to grow up in the wake of such a volatile, galvanizing character. "You have to understand," she told me, "how inspiring it is to be around someone so completely devoted to his art." Watching "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," everyone can understand. Pacing in white jeans and shirt sleeves (or no shirt at all) in the blazing sun, this compact, concentrated figure is both charismatic and devastatingly poignant. Whether he's commanding his armies or glowering inscrutably from his director's chair, his presence emits an electric and emotional hum. He's the magnetic center of the chaos that surrounds him -- T.S. Eliot's "still point in a turning world."

This documentary's joltingly fresh footage of Peckinpah working at his peak conveys a rare, urgent feeling, a sort of turbulent hopefulness. It gets across Peckinpah's intuitive command of epic filmmaking and complex storytelling at a time when it looked as if the world could be his, before he was stigmatized with the grandstanding public persona of "Bloody Sam." Too many movies about moviemakers lack one essential ingredient: a keen account of how a director interacts with cast, writer, cinematographer, crew. But a corkscrew twist of fate enabled Seydor to create an uncanny 34-minute chronicle of precisely those relationships. "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage" is a magical salute to movie production on a grand scale. It's also a moving tribute to Peckinpah the committed artist -- the 20-hour-a-day filmmaker.

Sharing producer's credit on the picture is record producer Nick Redman. A longtime proponent of the work of Peckinpah and his composer, Jerry Fielding, Redman had already begun collecting "Wild Bunch" items when Warner Bros. research manager Bill Rush made an amazing discovery: 72 minutes of silent black-and-white 16 mm footage of Peckinpah and company on location in northern Mexico. No one at the studio was able to give these home movies valid shape and point; some bureaucrats even dubbed them worthless. Redman took them on as a creative challenge -- and called in Seydor.

Redman knew that Seydor was uniquely qualified for the job of cutting these home movies together: A gifted film editor ("Turner & Hooch," "White Men Can't Jump"), he's also a former college professor and the author of "Peckinpah: The Western Films," which Redman aptly describes as "the first academic treatise I'd ever read by a person who understood what a montage was." Redman suggested that Seydor treat the footage as an opportunity to create a documentary version of his book's chapter on "The Wild Bunch." Actually, Seydor does more. Drawing on the work of Peckinpah interviewers and biographers from Stephen Farber and Aljean Harmetz to Garner Simmons and David Weddle, he has conceived of the film as a new entry in the Peckinpah legacy.

Seydor takes privileged glimpses of three days of an 81-day shoot and marries them to production stills and bits and pieces of the finished movie, using everything to dramatize (not just illustrate) the insights of witnesses and participants quoted on the soundtrack. Some speak for themselves, like Sam's first daughter, Sharon, screenwriter Walon Green and the late Edmond O'Brien (in an interview also unearthed in the Warner bins). Actors and readers give voice to the others -- notably, Ed Harris as Peckinpah, in a superbly dry, probing interpretation. What emerges is a wonderful introduction to Peckinpah's radically detailed historical film about American outlaws in revolutionary Mexico -- a masterpiece that's part bullet-driven ballet, part requiem for Old West friendship and part existential explosion. Seydor's movie is also a poetic flight on the myriad possibilities of movie directing.

In plain-spoken words and eloquent pictures, Seydor gives us Peckinpah as a demanding and attentive actor's director, ripping the clothes off O'Brien's back and providing him with a single "dead man's" suit to wear; and as a master planner, whether making 350 Mexican soldiers look like 6,000 for the climactic massacre (which the crew called "The Battle of Bloody Porch") or preparing to blow up a bridge while a string of wary stunt horsemen stretches across it. Best of all, Peckinpah registers as an improviser of genius. We see how his cryptic decision "to do a walk thing" fortifies the Wild Bunch's final confrontation with a Mexican overlord and makes this most intricate of all westerns pay off. Although the documentary stays focused on Peckinpah, it shows how even a visionary artist depends on his power to energize his forces. That "walk thing" is solely the director's idea. But assistant director Cliff Coleman helps him layer in the background of Mexican troops and peasants groggily awakening to a red-hot morning. And the actors are so deep into their roles that with little apparent guidance they adopt beautiful, telling postures: Ben Johnson and Ernest Borgnine cradle their rifles in their arms on either side of the quartet; Warren Oates carries his as casually as a walking stick; William Holden, ever erect, holds his barrel down like a sidearm.

The film is replete with offhand wisdom and unstressed feeling; it's the rare movieland documentary blessed with generous spirits. Green, for example, articulates unusual appreciation for the director's handling of his script, even when he recollects quarreling with Peckinpah's decision to change a cable crossing of a river into a race across a dynamite-laden bridge. "Christ, you're not going to blow up another bridge," he griped. "It's not just blowing up a bridge," responded Peckinpah, "it's the way you blow up a bridge."

From the opening minutes, when Seydor puts the audience in the elating position of filmmakers heading into uncharted realms of Mexico on a go-for-broke adventure, he allows us to experience film production as an odd communal organism with a bittersweet brief time span. He folds in the "back story" of Peckinpah's volatile past as cunningly as Peckinpah folded in the back story of the Wild Bunch; you keep rooting for Peckinpah to do things right and redeem years of unemployability. When the grips disassemble the light and camera rigs, and the stars and extras disperse, you're stung by loss. You believe it when Peckinpah says, "The end of a picture is always the end of a life."

Seydor was lucky that the three days covered in the 16mm footage included such high drama as the "walk thing," the beginning of "The Battle of Bloody Porch" and the preparation for detonating the bridge. But the translucent, parchmentlike quality of the black and white has an alchemy that goes beyond spectacle. The historical content of "The Wild Bunch" mingles with the history of the making of the film, so that when you see Mexican and American soldiers on horseback, or an outlaw killing time with a lasso, you don't know where one continuum ends and the other begins. The sense of the past is engulfing and immediate.

When Seydor intercuts glorious color scenes from the completed movie, they cinch Peckinpah's place in posterity. They affect adult movie lovers the way Oz breaking into color affects kids: Your heart surges to see Peckinpah's hopes realized. Seydor suffuses his film with fierce affection for the frontiers of the Old West and of new Hollywood (circa 1968-69). "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage" is a piercing elegy to a born director and to a vanished strain of unbridled creativity in American movies.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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