How a groundbreaking western film premiere in Kansas City revolutionized American cinema

Backstory © 1969 Warner Brothers, Inc. Web
© 1969 Warner Brothers, Inc.

“In the early 1960s, the studios were falling apart. As they collapsed, these young filmmakers came in with sort of bold ideas. So because of social unrest, the Vietnam War and then the fact that the production code went away, there was nobody telling the studios what you can and can’t do anymore. They just wanted to make money, so they were willing to take chances.

“In a way, the beauty of The Wild Bunch is you’ve got these men who are killers and misogynists and outlaws and miscreants, and yet [director Sam] Peckinpah treats them with this real affection. This was the reputation that the film would have. When the premiere was in Kansas City, there were stories that people got physically ill, that they were throwing up outside and that they left the theater. They wanted to see how an audience is going to react to this movie, which had big movie stars in it at the time. They thought they were going to see a traditional Hollywood movie and they got something that no one had ever seen before. With a preview movie, they find an audience, they give out free tickets and they give you a very tiny little descriptor to kind of let you know what you’re seeing, but no one had ever done anything like this before. There’s no way to prepare anybody for this. This was revolutionary in American cinema. Of course, that weekend there was a teachers convention in town and they had given all these free tickets to teachers.

“One of the guys who was there told me that at the end, there were a bunch of people down front and they started sarcastically chanting, ‘More blood! More blood! More blood!’ Peckinpah paid attention to the reaction and went back to edit the film and shorten the climax. He said to [film editor] Lou Lombardo up in the projection booth, ‘We better get out of here now or they’re going to kill us,’ because there was such a reaction to the movie and people either hated it or loved it. I don’t think there’s any way that there’s any action director working that isn’t working in the shadow of Peckinpah. He really did revolutionize storytelling and the number of shots in a minute, you know, how fast the film is edited. Everybody is sort of standing on Sam’s shoulders. It really is in some ways the greatest action movie and one of the greatest westerns for me.”

Mitch Brian, screenwriter and associate film professor at UMKC, as told to Kansas City

Categories: Film, History