Thursday, December 10, 2009

"A walk thing": creating The Wild Bunch's most iconic moment

Pike Bishop (William Holden) pulls his boots on in the dingy room of a whore young enough to be his daughter - hell, his granddaughter. The girl washes herself lethargically while her baby cries, unattended, in a crib nearby. Pike's face is twisted in self-disgust. He's thinking back to what he and the Bunch saw on their return to Agua Verde: their comrade Angel (Jaime Sanchez) being dragged along behind General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez)'s automobile, beaten and bloodied.

Pike tosses some coins on a table and exits the room. Next door, the Gorch brothers, Tector (Ben Johnson) and Lyle (Warren Oates), have been similarly engaged. "Let's go," Pike barks. A look passes between them. Understanding registers on Tector's face. Lyle blinks, momentarily uncertain, then his whiskery features harden. "Why not?" he replies.

Outside, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) is sitting against the brothel wall, whittling a stick. Whittling is probably the wrong word - he's going at it with a knife like it was Mapache himself. It was Dutch who was with Angel when Mapache's men captured him. Dutch who rode away and left him to his fate, there being no other course of action. Dutch more than any of them hurts at Mapache's torture of Angel. Dutch doesn't even attempt to assuage himself in the arms of whores; he simply sits and hacks away with his knife and waits.

When Pike and the Gorch brothers emerge, he and Dutch lock eyes. No word is spoken. Words aren't needed. Dutch slowly gets to his feet. He knows what's going to happen next. He's been willing it. He wants it.

The four men walk purposefully over to where their horses are hitched. They pull rifles out of saddle rolls, check pistols, thumb rounds into chambers.

It was at this point - as far as the script was concerned - that the action abruptly cut to the Bunch's arrival at the courtyard where Mapache and his dissolute revolutionaries are drinking and entertaining women. This, as far as the crew were aware, would be the next the thing they shot.

Peckinpah had other ideas.

Biographer David Weddle describes it best:

Assistant director Cliff Coleman ... began issuing marching orders for the next set-up ... but Peckinpah stopped him. "No, no, Cliff, wait ... I want to do a walk thing first."

"What do you mean, 'a walk thing'?"

Peckinpah growled something unintelligible, then began lining up Holden, Borgnine, Oates and Johnson to make a long walk through the outlying buildings with shotguns cradled in their arms ... Sam set up a group of drunken Mexican soldiers, playing guitars and singing, for the group to walk past. Coleman began layering in other extras ... "And all of a sudden, Jesus Christ," says Coleman, "the music's going and the camera's rolling and these fucking guys started to walk and everybody's going 'Wow, it's the real thing!' Nobody knew what Sam was going to do or what he wanted to do. Before you knew it, it built and it built and it built and it built until it became that scene."

A walk thing. An inspired piece of improvisation. Iconography in motion.

No comments: