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Reflecting on ‘The Wild Bunch’s’ Innovations 50 Years Later

W.K. Stratton’s new book, “‘The Wild Bunch’: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film” (Bloomsbury) makes the case for the 1969 Western about American outlaws who died bloody deaths in Mexico. Peckinpah’s masterpiece became a favorite of the Weather Underground and assorted cineastes and a solid hit for Warner Bros. Stratton spoke to Variety about the film’s many innovations and will be screening the film at 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at Laemmle’s 7 in Pasadena. A talk with critic Stephen Farber, presented by Vroman’s Bookstore, will follow the film.

The Wild Bunch’ pushed the violence envelope. What were its other important innovations?
‘The Wild Bunch’s’ greatest innovation lies in the production work itself. Specifically, photography. The most familiar images in the film come from the sequence that has come to be known as “the walk”: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, and Warren Oates, armed to the teeth, parade through the village of Agua Verde to confront the villainous General Mapache. It was mostly filmed using a rare telephoto lens worth tens of thousands of dollars. It was so rare that Warner Bros had only one of them. By using that lens, Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, were able to give the sequence a distinctive look that made the four actors visually heroic.

In addition to the look of the film, the use of slow motion was startling.
Peckinpah shot action sequences using up to six cameras from the same angle, all running at different speeds. He and his editors, Lou Lombardo and Robert Wolfe, had miles and miles of negatives to use. They used thousands of edits in intersperse different speeds of slow motion with real-time footage in what Kathryn Bigelow would eventually refer to as gestalt editing. Nothing like it had ever turned up in American movies before it.

And its authenticity? Even the music sounded real.
Peckinpah cast only Latinos to fill Mexican roles. Before, these roles had been filled largely by white people wearing make up and dark wigs. Jerry Fielding’s score was innovative as well, weaving many canciones heard in Mexico at the time of the revolution into a coherent, symphonic masterwork. ‘The Wild Bunch’ actually ended up with more minutes of music (more than 80) than most musicals from the ’50s and ’60s used. Peckinpah really pushed the bar when it came for breaking new ground. Even the locales where he shot “The Wild Bunch” had not been used in American films.

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