Image as Everything: Director Sam Peckinpah and actor William Holden caught unaware on the set of 'The Wild Bunch.'
Director Sam Peckinpah caught in 'Montage'
By David Templeton
FOR OVER a quarter of a century, crammed onto a back shelf in the cavernous film vaults of Warner Bros. Studios, a box of old 16-mm film cannisters waited, unopened since being abandoned and forgotten in 1968. Addressed to "Warner Bros.--Hollywood, Ca.," adorned with a weathered Mexican shipping label, the mysterious box was sealed up as tight as a drum.
In 1995, celluloid archivist Bill Rush accidentally stumbled upon the package while poking through a portion of the vault scheduled to be cleaned out, with the contents targeted for the dumpster. Upon opening the box, Rush discovered 72 minutes of raw footage--all black and white, all silent--of legendary director Sam Peckinpah and crew filming a movie in the desert outside Torreón, Mexico. The movie being made was The Wild Bunch--Peckinpah's masterpiece, a film that redefined the Hollywood western--and the discovered celluloid was behind-the-scenes, amateurishly shot, and fully anonymous.
"No one was credited with the footage," exclaims Peckinpah scholar Paul Seydor, into whose hands the footage eventually landed. "All attempts to identify the shooter have come up empty." A respected film editor (Tin Cup, White Men Can't Jump, The Program), Seydor is also renowned as the author of Peckinpah: The Western Films (University of Illinois Press, 1980), an inventive, insightful, surprisingly emotional study of the late director's life and work, recently rereleased with new material and the added subtitle A Reconsideration.
When asked to put the footage into some kind of order as part of a lavish Wild Bunch collector's edition, Seydor was at once exhilarated and stymied.
"Looking at all those random, disconnected pieces," he says, speaking by phone from his Los Angeles editing room, "my first thought was a combination of fascination and 'My God! What am I going to do with this?' Everybody wanted a half hour, but I thought I'd be lucky to get 10 minutes out of it."
He underestimated himself.
The result of his labors is The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, a 32-minute documentary that was nominated last year for an Academy Award in the best documentary short category, and which has inspired gold rushlike interest in the once-undervalued contents of film vaults throughout Hollywood. An Album in Montage screens Aug. 3 at the Sebastiani Theatre as part of the Wine Country Film Festival. Seydor will attend.
Intercutting the black-and-white footage with voice-over recollections of the cast and crew, remarks from Peckinpah's own writings--voiced by actor Ed Harris--and wide-screen, full-color clips from The Wild Bunch itself, Seydor has fashioned a film that captures the excitement of the creative process, a witness to Peckinpah's invention of unscripted scenes out of the thin air and of his own intensely focused mind.
Some sequences--such as the elaborate preparation and countdown toward the famous "bridge scene," in which a posse on horseback is dropped 25 feet into a raging river while a bridge is dynamited beneath it--are at least as exciting in Seydor's documentary as they are in the film itself. There are many such delights. The footage of Peckinpah improvising what he termed "a 'walk' thing"--in which actors William Holden, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Ernest Borgnine stride purposefully to their deaths--adds an extra heaping of power to a scene already considered one of the most memorable in film history.
Remarkable also is that the black-and-white footage, which just happens to have captured the Wild Bunch's two most famous scenes, was the result of only two or three days of filming.
"Whoever it was behind the camera," acknowledges Seydor, "picked the right three days to shoot. And it's all so loose and spontaneous, almost as if Peckinpah and the crew were unaware they were being filmed. I've theorized that the shooter was a member of the camera crew. The camera on which it was shot was a handheld Bolex, with a wind-up motor. They were essentially like the video cameras of today; people just shot them the way they take snapshots."
Seydor, who holds a Ph.D. in American civilization from the University of Iowa, is fond of evoking Emily Dickinson's well-known definition of poetry when describing the first time he saw The Wild Bunch .
"You know you're in the presence of poetry when you feel the top of your head coming off," he says, with a short, appreciative laugh. "That's generally been my experience of Peckinpah's films, but it describes my first viewing of The Wild Bunch particularly well. He's just so exciting to watch. What he could do with violence and collision!"
Asked what it is about Peckinpah's work that excites him, Seydor is momentarily silent. "Every time I'm asked that, I get tongue-tied," he finally replies. Then, as if to prove himself a liar, he erupts into a passionate display of non-tongued-tied oratory.
"Each time I see The Wild Bunch," he enthuses, "it's like listening to Beethoven, it's like watching Beethoven's symphonies brought to life. There's such a remarkable, wonderful, sensual imagination at work, a real physical, kinetic imagination, almost a tactile quality to the imagery. I find it very exciting."
And has his work with the mysterious box of footage enhanced his appreciation of the film?
"I've learned more about Peckinpah by seeing him in action, making things up as he went," Seydor replies, "but my fondness for The Wild Bunch is so complete, I don't think anything could make me appreciate it more than I already do."
The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage screens with Edward James: Builder of Dreams on Sunday, Aug. 3, at the Sebastiani Theatre. On the Plaza, Sonoma. Films begin at 3 p.m. Admission is $5. For details, call 935-3456.
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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.