Dear Will Smith,
I read recently that you are involved in remaking Sam Peckinpah’s classic western, “The Wild Bunch.”
So I’m writing this open letter, pleading with you to reconsider this unnecessary exercise.
To my thinking, Peckinpah’s film is perhaps the greatest western ever made; a wider sampling of critics put it in the AFI’s Top 10 of all westerns. And I don’t say that just because I wrote a book about Peckinpah and have watched the film literally dozens of times.
It’s one thing to remake “Uptown Saturday Night,” a comedy trifle, or to offer endless iterations of “Men in Black” or even “Bad Boys” (though I pray you don’t make another one of either). Or even (do you need reminding?) to try to revamp a campy old TV show. Yes, I’m going there – “Wild Wild West.”
But “The Wild Bunch” – well, I won’t go so far as to say that it’s sacrosanct. But there’s really no way to improve upon it and no need to revisit it. Comparisons are odious, as Christopher Marlowe noted.
Peckinpah’s film didn’t just revive a career that had been derailed by his fiery artistic temperament (exacerbated by his drinking) and his stubborn refusal to compromise his vision on previous projects (“Major Dundee” being the one that sent him into exile for several years). It also broke ground, both as a revisionist Western and as a film that depicted violence in a way it had not been shown in previous films.
“Bang – you’re dead” is what kids say when they play – and that was Hollywood’s approach to movie violence for its first six decades. Someone shot a gun, someone else fell over dead, no muss, no fuss, no pain.
Peckinpah changed that with “The Wild Bunch,” a movie that was shocking for its slow-motion gouts and splatters of blood and its evocation of the flesh-rending violence that a bullet does to human flesh. It was, of course, misunderstood at the time as being gratuitous – shock value for its own sake. It was also misinterpreted by other filmmakers, who have mimicked the gesture for the sake of sensation.
Screen violence, thanks to special effects and computer-generated images, has become even more graphic, but with less visceral impact because so much of it is the visual equivalent of fireworks, minus any meaning. Peckinpah’s point was that violence is painful and shocking; too many of those who followed him mostly followed the notion that using lots of blood was, well, cool.
But “The Wild Bunch” was about something deeper than a band of outlaws out for one last score, pursued by bounty hunters. Set in the years just prior to World War I, it was a story of men who had outlived their time – outlaws from the Old West forced to confront the encroachment of the modern world, in the form of both the automobile and the increasingly deadly evolution of the Gatling gun. It was also about the code that men live by – again, a dying notion as we entered an American Century built on a vision of Darwinian capitalism.
The report I read speculated that this remake would be set in contemporary times. While I can certainly see how some of the same themes might be examined – the analog guy in a losing battle against the digital incursion – I can’t imagine it would resonate in the way that the original film did. And, frankly, that story has been done.
Even if that’s the story you want to do, why use “The Wild Bunch” as your template or your springboard? Why not find a writer – you’ve got a good one in Brian Helgeland, if reports can be believed – and use those themes to create something new? There’s certainly a shortage of originality in Hollywood; why contribute to it, instead of doing something about it?
Leave “The Wild Bunch” alone. Comparisons are odious – particularly when you’re the one producing the stench.