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Shooting the Train

In the morning, the actors were the first ones on set. They had to be there early for the ministrations of Al Greenway, who was in charge of make-up. As an AD Howard Kazanjian had to be sure that they were there in place to get their make up on and if necessary their mustaches glued in place. Wardrobe would follow. However, the director Peckinpah was always late, usually last on the set. Borgnine always complained about Sam’s tardiness. But that was nothing compared to when Ernie noticed Sam handing out live ammo to the Mexican extras. To Sam it was an aesthetic concern, they were the only thing that looked good in their bandoleers. Noticeably not all of the cartridges were returned, however, with fifteen or twenty going missing, and afterwards gunfire could be heard at odd times. At the following day’s distribution, Ernie left the set in protest and returned to his room.  He stayed there until he was notified that all the ammunition had been returned.

Difficulties of a different sort for an AD awaited Howard in Sonora.  They were there to capture the sequence in which the Wild Bunch plunders a train for the weapons shipment being transported on it, all by agreement to be handed over to General Mapache.

First, there was the stunt that went bad. The engineer was to be thrown from the cab, as the Wild Bunch seized control. All was set for him to be flung off the moving train onto some crash pads, but the stunt person did something he shouldn’t have. Instead of just sailing free over the side, he grabbed one of the handrails, thinking to ease his fall. With the train moving forward and with the point of contact acting as a fulcrum, he was spun in an arc, and all he succeeded in doing was cracking his head against the coal car. It fell to Howard to handle the aftermath. ADs had the duty to negotiate with the stunt people the recompense for special stunts which was always done after the trick, and not before. But it can be a particularly ticklish affair when the stunt didn’t come off.

In one of the next setups, Peckinpah was in his director’s chair beside the track at a little distance from the locomotive with Pike (Bill Holden) aboard. Howard was tasked as a runner between the two. Howard is not sure what set off all the tension at this point between the director and his star, but tension there was. Perhaps it was just the fact that it was hot out, and even hotter in the cab of the locomotive. After a spell of doing nothing but sweat, Holden yelled to Howard, “What’s happening?” This sent Howard bouncing back and forth between them relaying messages of rising ire on both sides. Sam would often stall while he was considering his next move. Holden finally retorted to one of Sam’s evasions, “What am I supposed to  be doing?” By this time both were clearly hearing one another, since both were yelling at the top of their lungs, but kept up the fiction that they didn’t. At the last, Sam yelled to Howard, “You tell Holden, I’ll tell him when I decide.”

Who knows if this didn’t lead to the next accident.

Further down the rail line and the next setup, Sam reigned from above on a crane with the camera. Sam had insisted that Holden drive the train himself and bring it in at full speed, and stop it quickly next to the buckboard into which they were to load the stolen weapons. Several takes in succession ate up the morning and Sam didn’t like any of them. It was another hot day. And Holden was getting tired of it, so for the next take he just pushed it to the stops.

Just ahead out of view of the camera and beyond where the train was supposed to a stop, was a small bridge upon which a flatcar was parked with all their equipment – generators etc. The train was barreling and the brakes were thrown – the wheels locked –  sparks were flying and it looked like an accident were imminent. Howard was beside the crane and saw it all.

Warren Oates who was riding on the flatcar attached in front of the engine, saw the gap closing between his flatcar and the stationary one. He turned and ran for the comparative safety of the engine behind him. The two flatcars collided and the heavily laden one bounced about a foot in the air.  Crew members who had been keeping out of sight under the bridge bolted from that haven, running up the arroyo and away from the bridge and their fears of an explosion, or worse yet the flat cars falling off the bridge down to where they were hiding.

Thankfully no one was hurt. The camera did not catch the crash, which was just as well for the script did not call for such a stunt. The engine’s cowcatcher was severely bent. With any movement it would now plow the ground ahead of it.

It fell to Howard Kazanjian, the second assistant director to fill out the report about the accident and send it off to the studio.


Join us next Wednesday as we bring to a close this series on Howard Kazanjian’s time working on the Wild Bunch with “Shall We Gather in the River.” Stay tuned and Watch This Space.

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About rwoz2

Poet, historian, writer for stage and screen. Responder to Jesus (Romans 5:8)

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