Friday, January 21, 2011

Camera Obscura: The Horrible Mistake of Remaking 'The Wild Bunch'

Bad ideas float up and out of Hollywood so often, you'd think it was a required habit.

Recently a Warner Brothers exec, Jessica Goodman left the studio, and some projects she had shelved were dug up and are now being hoisted about town as 'good ideas'. That includes a proposal to shoot a remake of Sam Peckinpah's masterpiece, "The Wild Bunch".

This is ridiculous and dangerous. Dangerous because any producer worth two cents knows full well that Peckinpah will claw himself out of the grave and haunt the living hell out of anyone who tries to tinker with "The Wild Bunch." If Sam were alive, he'd take far more grievous action. A producer or writer or director who does not fear Peckinpah, even today, is doomed. Remakes are common, true, but you just don't remake a masterpiece unless you desire to be made a fool.

Word this week that Clint Eastwood is exploring a remake of "A Star Is Born" starring singer Beyonce causes no ill will - the movie has been made 3 times already and a new one can not be any worse that the Barbara Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version from the 1970s.

But "The Wild Bunch" is solely and utterly the creation of Peckinpah. It's not based on some novel which is open to differing versions. Peckinpah punched an un-healable hole in cinema history with his movie, and no one - ever - is going to be able to match or top that creation. Not. Ever.

It's a flawless movie. As one writer recently noted, the movie is torn from a fever dream in Peckinpah's skull, no other person could have made it. And the movie isn't a 'franchise' to be cultivated.

It breathes and moves like a bone-weary fighter struggling to stand for one more fight, much as Peckinpah himself. That's his guts and his worries and his strengths up on that screen.

Peckinpah and actor William Holden on set

And yes, the movie is one of my all time favorites to watch, since it never fails to offer something rewarding with each viewing. True, for many years, the movie was shown only in a shorter version than Peckinpah made, as the studio wanted a movie that would allow theaters to reload ticket buyers faster. But even that shorter version forever changed the way films were made, especially action films.

The 144 minute version fleshes out the past of the character Bishop Pike (William Holden), exploring how mistakes he made in the past with his friends have haunted him and motivate him to never fail a friend again, no matter the personal cost. Also, the opening scenes of the movie as bounty hunters gun down anyone in their effort to kill off Pike and his gang are longer - Peckinpah's goal was to make everyone watching feel that keen horror and shock of actually being in a gun battle and the terrifying toll such violence takes.

There's so much to be said of the movie - the complex layering of relationships, the unflinching examination of violence, the brilliant editing which creates tension and terror, the attention to the details of place and time, the performances of the actors, the music, and on and on.

Film critic Roger Ebert penned a great essay on the restored version in 2002 on the genius of the movie, which you can read here. He also writes about the day the first time the movie was screened for some seriously stunned critics back in 1969:

After a reporter from the Reader's Digest got up to ask "Why was this film ever made?" I stood up and called it a masterpiece; I felt, then and now, that "The Wild Bunch" is one of the great defining moments of modern movies."

Masterpiece. That's it.

One imagines the producer or studio which aims for a remake of "The Wild Bunch" also has plans to remake "Citizen Kane", or "The Godfather", or "Dr. Strangelove". All fools' errands.

And true, a remake of Peckinpah's controversial "Straw Dogs" is headed to theaters this year. Since the movie was based on a novel, I say have at it. But the movie was not welcomed in 1971 and I doubt it will find much of an audience in 2011 - still, have at it, I say, as new interpretations on film of a book are quite common and can often be well done - see the new version of "True Grit" for proof of that.

Yet, Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" is the work of an artist at his best, a personal story of honor and of deciding when to take a stand, no matter the outcome. And the outcome was not good for Pike or his gang, just as Peckinpah's constant battles with studio heads, alcoholism and his own demons ended badly for Peckinpah.

That's a story than can never be remade.


  1. Remakes are generally awful ideas, as they indicate laziness and a lack of fresh ideas. Remaking classics are the worst because they are labeled "classic" for a reason.

    Perhaps the worst remake was that horrid mangling of "The Women" starring Meg Ryan and a bunch of other hot Hollywood stars. Oh it was terrible.

  2. the original "The Women" movie and the play it was based on are quite good. i saw maybe 20 minutes of the remake - painful to endure or recall!