It wasn’t normal for the Renton Cinema to play Warner Brothers films. They were normally exhibited at the Sterling theaters. But for some reason in June of 1969, we opened the Sam Peckinpah film “The Wild Bunch.”
It was a bit controversial at the time. I wonder now if that might have been the reason that we played it instead of Sterling.
The number of Westerns had been dropping noticeably from the studios’ release schedules, at least measured from the baseline of the fifties. But I checked this year – and there were surprisingly quite a few of various flavors – Support Your Local Sheriff, True Grit, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, Undefeated, and the year was sent off with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Paint Your Wagon. More germain to this instance, probably, was the opening of the John Wayne film – True Grit. It came out in the Sterling houses one week before the Wild Bunch. And that might have been another reason that Sterling passed, they might simply have had no room to open the WB title.
The Wild Bunch opened in our small house, Cinema II which only had 500 seats. It was an R-rated movie. And now being old enough to view it, I took it in on one of my days off. I don’t remember a movie to that date in my young life that was so disturbing. Sure, there had been moments in Lawrence of Arabia that played similar notes on my psyche, but they were not as explicit as the Wild Bunch. In LoA you saw the aftermath, not the blow by blow that was put up on the screen by Peckinpah. I have read that Peckinpah, when planning this film, wanted to make it as realistic as possible. He had it in his mind to translate his experiences hunting deer, to this violent story of men in conflict. His memory of the bullet impacting the body of the animal, led him to find ways to replicate that in the shoot outs that he would depict. Another WB movie had led the way in this matter. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first films to use the squib, that explosive pack of red liquid attached to the body of the actor. Peckinpah set out to out-Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie and Clyde. And he did.
I remember sitting there sometimes too squeamish to look up at the screen out of fear of what I would see. At times like those, one’s own identity entered into the equation of movie viewing. What if this were to happen to me? What would I do in a similar situation? Run for cover assuredly. I remember being suddenly aware that there was a mind behind all this, at work trying to impact the audience, causing their thoughts to flow in a direction of its choosing. Peckinpah says he intended it as an anti-war, or at the least an anti-violence statement. Was he successful? Not if that was actually his intent, for the violence was actually an attraction for many, and he himself was surprised and saddened by that fact.
The envelope had been pushed and there was no going back. Going forward the Western would not be cast in the sensibilities of the Saturday morning matinee western, a la Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Nor was any other film genre left untouched.