In 1969 W.K. “Kip” Stratton was a precocious thirteen-year-old in his native Guthrie, Oklahoma, a regular reader of Time and Life, a Walter Cronkite fan who had already begun making the transition from passive movie watcher to budding connoisseur.
“My first exposure to art was seeing John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Beacon drive-in,” Stratton says. “I had some sense that this was different than most pictures my family would go to. I could tell it was art, as opposed to being entertainment.”
All well and good. But that was just a prelude to The Wild Bunch.
Soon after it opened, Stratton went to a local theater and saw the blood-soaked, balletic 1969 Western about five outlaws trying to steal a cache of guns on the Texas-Mexico border. The Wild Bunch sets these outlaws against a former friend who has sold out to stay out of prison; he now works for the railroad and feels rotten about it.
As Stratton, a longtime Austin resident, writes in his recent book, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood and the Making of a Legendary Film (Bloomsbury), “I stepped out of the theater into the night, my heart beating as if I’d just been running hundred-yard sprints. I still feel that way any time I watch The Wild Bunch.” He quotes a comment card from an audience member at a Wild Bunch preview: “This film is in my brain. I don’t think I’m ever gonna forget it.”
Stratton certainly didn’t. He’s spent his adult life writing about nonfiction subjects ranging from the boxer Floyd Patterson to the Texas-born journalist Grover Lewis. But The Wild Bunch never left his mind. “I first saw it early on, when I was just entering my teenage years,” Stratton says. “I was seeing it at a time when America was in a very, very violent phase of its history.”
The Wild Bunch is indeed violent, but Stratton knows it’s not only violent. It’s a sweeping saga of loyalty and desperate times at the end of the line. It was the high point of director Sam Peckinpah’s career, the moment when his penchant for brutality met his gift for visual poetry. He made other good movies afterward, including Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Straw Dogs, but never again did he approach The Wild Bunch.
As a teenager, Stratton’s taste for maverick movies found a bad-boy corollary in his recreational life. “I was pilfering cigarettes, and it was around that time I first experimented with weed,” he says. “A guy at my junior high showed up at school with a matchbox that had some very tightly rolled joints in it. Thirteen is where you had those first awkward experiences with girls. I mean, you start kind of thinking, ‘Man, it’d be nice to have a girlfriend,’ and all of that. But you’re really just thirteen, and you’re still trying to figure out how to put your shoes and socks on.”
He vividly remembers the year before the film came out. “1968 in America was a really difficult year to live through,” he says. “You saw these political assassinations, Dr. King and then later Robert Kennedy. You had the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and in those days the network news on TV would show the caskets being unloaded at the Air Force base as American service men and women were killed in Vietnam.”
That real-life violence plays a key part in The Wild Bunch, reflecting the carnage that defined the era. Blood flows from exit wounds, provided by an endless supply of squibs. The famous opening sequence features a group of cherubic kids setting red ants upon a scorpion. That’s followed by a grisly shootout in the midst of a temperance parade. (No one ever said Peckinpah lacked a sense of humor).
“As the years went on, I started seeing the bigger picture of what this artist was doing,” Stratton says. He came to see the film as “a realistic masterpiece about complex characters, men outside their time backed into a corner, the tyranny of technology, changing values, the horror of gun violence, and, ultimately, deliverance.”
He spent the VHS era watching The Wild Bunch, as well as other Peckinpah movies, over and over. He saw the restored version at Austin’s Paramount Theatre in 1999 and had his mind freshly re-blown.
By then, the notion of writing about the film was already percolating in his brain. Stratton’s book is a combination of rich factoids, juicy gossip, and even a little literary theory. We learn, for instance, that the actor playing the main Mexican character in a cast loaded with Mexican actors was, in fact, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, Jaime Sanchez, who much of the cast disdained because of his East Coast airs. We also learn that Peckinpah, like his leading man William Holden, cut back on his drinking during the masking of the film (but didn’t quit; that would have been a lot to ask).
Stratton writes that his wife asked him if Holden’s Pike and Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch, attached at the hip and always quarreling, were in love? Stratton thought about it. “Yes,” he told her, “but not in a romantic way.” The issue gives Stratton occasion to riff on the cultural critic Leslie Fiedler’s classic essay “Come Back to the raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” a study of literary homoeroticism. The book is full of such curveballs and quirks.
As for what’s up next, Stratton is just cagey enough to whet a reader’s appetite. “Right now I’m beginning work on another nonfiction book that will be set in the West,” he says. “It will tell a story that involves deputy U.S. marshals, gunfighters, bank robbers, and American Indians. It has never really been told before, and it involves some fairly significant names. That’s going to be the next book.”
First, he’ll talk to a few more crowds about the movie that changed his life back when he was thirteen. The movie that burnt itself into his brain until he had no choice but to write a book about it.