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Stepping Back in Time Onto Sam's Dusty Set

A neglected black-and-white film of Peckinpah shooting 'The Wild Bunch' forms the heart of a documentary nominated for an Oscar.

March 09, 1997|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is a regular contributor to Calendar

It began with dusty film cans, lying forgotten on the back shelf of a Warner Bros. vault, where they had languished for nearly 30 years. Once likely to be destroyed, their contents have become the spine of an Oscar-nominated documentary.

The film offers a rare, behind-the-scenes study of a legendary filmmaker, working at the height of his powers. The creation of "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," a nominee for best documentary short subject, is testament to both its determined producers, and the enduring power of the 1969 Sam Peckinpah western that refuses to die.

"I do not believe that 'Unforgiven' would have won an Oscar if Peckinpah had not paved the way for the serious western," says "Montage" writer, director, editor and co-producer Paul Seydor. "Sam was working from his instincts, from his guts."

The author of the "Peckinpah: The Western Films," Seydor is also a top Hollywood editor, with credits including "White Men Can't Jump" and "Tin Cup." Those career paths made him the logical choice to shape a project launched by a mystery, and blessed with happy accidents.

In 1995, Peckinpah's original film enjoyed a successful reissue, with critics calling it an American classic. (Reviews had been more passionately mixed in 1969, when audiences first saw William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Ben Johnson in this story of aging bank robbers who find redemption in a suicidal rescue attempt.)

A deluxe laserdisc edition was planned under the guidance of Nick Redman, a Peckinpah expert and award-winning compact disc producer. It was during the early stages of Redman's work that Warner archivist Bill Rush unearthed those 70 minutes of silent black-and-white footage, shot during three days of "The Wild Bunch's" filming in Mexico.

Despite efforts to trace the footage, the cameraman and intended use of the shoot remain unknown.

"What's so amazing about the footage is, it doesn't feel like it's being done for publicity purposes," says Redman, whose obsession with "The Wild Bunch" began at 14 in his native England.

"It makes you feel that you are an observer in the ritual of being on the set, and seeing film history being created. The actors are not paying attention to it, which gives it a very unusual quality."

What the footage lacked was structure. Warner Bros., baffled by the newly discovered film, gave it to Redman for laserdisc inclusion--with the warning that if it couldn't be put into some shape, the entire disc project might be canceled.

Redman called his friend Seydor, whose involvement seems to include a bit of destiny. Shortly before Peckinpah died in 1984 (after a self-destructive decade), the director suggested to Seydor the two collaborate. Says Seydor now: "This is as close as I'll ever get to editing Peckinpah's work."

Seydor and Redman were aided by a stroke of luck.

The scant three days filmed by the mystery cameraman covered three of "The Wild Bunch's" most memorable sequences: a bridge detonation, the prelude to the final shootout and the heroes' march to death.

"The first thing I did," Seydor says, "was put those three sequences together as if I were cutting normal scenes. The cameraman also shot nice images of people wrapping for the day. I knew I could use that to suggest the wrapping of the entire film.

"There were all these driving shots. I thought, OK, that's the beginning. I was trying to stay within what we had, which was a non-budget!"

Seydor's mix of black-and-white footage and Peckinpah's final color film impressed Warner video executives Mike Finnegan and Brian Jamieson, who authorized interviews with "Wild Bunch" cast and crew, the hiring of Ed Harris to read quotes from Peckinpah, and ultimately, a theatrical release for the project.

What began as "something to stick at the end of a laserdisc," Redman says, became "a film about the nature of artistic achievement, its highs and lows."

"The Wild Bunch's" ultimate critical and commercial success (it recouped its $6-million cost) was hard won. Peckinpah went into the film haunted by the failure of his 1965 epic "Major Dundee."

"He knew he had to come back with something big--the stakes were high," Seydor says. "And here comes this script that lets him make the epic about violence that he'd been bursting to do. It happens to be about Americans involved in a foreign revolution that comes right at the zenith of our involvement with Vietnam. He gets this cast of Hollywood regulars who are practically salivating to do work that they can regain their self-respect about.

"[F. Scott] Fitzgerald called it the golden moment, the incandescent moment you're part of, and you spend the rest of your life either pining for it, trying to measure up to it or living off it.

"That was very much Sam's story. He really did have that once, and nothing like it ever came his way again."

*

The other Oscar nominated short documentary films are "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," by Jessica Yu; "Cosmic Voyage," by Jeffrey Marvin and Bayley Silleck; "An Essay on Matisse," by Perry Wolff, and "Special Effects," by Susanne Simpson and Ben Burtt.

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