They opened one week apart 50 years ago. One featured the matchless giant of the genre; the other came from one of its great directors. True Grit opened first, followed just seven days later by The Wild Bunch. These two films reflected different views of the Western, but also proved how versatile and durable the form could be in the right hands.
Charles Portis’s True Grit first saw light as a novel serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968; the following year, it was adapted into a screenplay by Marguerite Roberts. John Wayne had campaigned for the lead role of Rooster Cogburn after reading the book, and championed Roberts as a writer despite her having been “blacklisted” during the Red Scare. Wayne would later recall the script as the best he’d ever read.
Wayne, of course, typified the Western genre in the American consciousness. Of the approximately 170 films he appeared in, over 80 of them were Westerns. Wayne was conservative politically and curated his reputation to the point where he declined to appear in the Western comedy film Blazing Saddles because he felt that the raunchy material went against his family-friendly image. That image actually made a for a good fit with the material of Grit, where Wayne’s cantankerous U.S. marshal develops a vaguely paternal relationship with young Mattie (played by Kim Darby), who hires him to track down her father’s killer.
The original trailer for True Grit (Uploaded to YouTube by Paramount Movies)
Despite pushing against the boundaries of the traditional Western by highlighting the fact that Cogburn is an aging protagonist, much of the plot fits within the confines of what people were expecting of the genre and Wayne. The curmudgeonly Cogburn is a decent and heroic man, as is the third member of his and Mattie’s group, Texas Ranger Le Boeuf (country star and occasional Beach Boy substitute Glen Campbell). Justice is served, evil is punished, and Mattie even promises to have Cogburn interred at her family plot when he dies. The film traffics in themes of “found family” as much as it does in the well-worn revenge and justice tropes of the Old West.
Released just one week later on June 18, 1969, The Wild Bunch leans into a very different sensibility. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, who rewrote the film from an original screenplay by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, The Wild Bunch captures the same ethos of the aging cowboy, but flips it from lawman to outlaw. The film taps into the idea of “honor among thieves,” challenging the audience to identify with a cast of hardened criminals while suggesting that they do indeed adhere to their own version of a code.
The original trailer for The Wild Bunch (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)
The overall plot of The Wild Bunch, which involves a group of outlaws (led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine) chasing their last score, isn’t that unusual. Neither is the subplot of the group being pursued by a now-deputized former ally (played by Robert Ryan). What sets the story apart is the way in which the steady approach of the modern world is transforming the West. The characters are aging, and the country they knew is changing around them; they recognize their own mortality and the fact that they are, in a sense, outdated characters.
But the larger, and more shockingly revolutionary change, is the frank depiction of violence. Peckinpah leans into the brutality. His shoot-outs pull no punches. They are bloody, messy affairs that strip away the lie of the clean gunfights that filled earlier movies of the type. Civilians, including women and children, die in public crossfires. Bodies are riddled with bullets. And the blood doesn’t just flow; it bursts. This is the same frank depiction of violence that began in part with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and continued throughout Peckinpah’s own work, including Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron, signaling the beginning of what was called “the new Hollywood,” which placed a greater emphasis on realism and cinema as visceral experience.
The two films met with very different receptions. Wayne won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best actor for True Grit, while the title song (sung by Glen Campbell) was nominated for both distinctions, as well. The movie turned out to be a solid box-office performer, as well.
The Wild Bunch was instantly polarizing; the late critic Roger Ebert recalled that, at the initial screening, he stood to defend the film against an attack from the critic for Reader’s Digest, who had questioned why such a film had even been made. A number of prominent critics did praise The Wild Bunch, including Vincent Canby of The New York Times; Time also weighed in with positive notices, offering unabashed praise of Holden and Ryan and going on to state that “[the film’s] accomplishments are more than sufficient to confirm that Peckinpah, along with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, belongs with the best of the newer generation of American filmmakers.”
One person that wasn’t a fan of The Wild Bunch was, perhaps unsurprisingly, John Wayne. Wayne noted privately and in interviews that he felt that that film destroyed the myth of the Old West. The actor commented on Clint Eastwood’s similarly nihilistic High Plains Drifter in 1973; in a 1993 interview with Premiere magazine, Eastwood recalled that Wayne wrote him directly and said, “That isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.”
Over the years, True Grit continued to be held in high esteem, while The Wild Bunch grew in reputation among critics and film scholars. Peckinpah’s command of violent action and quick editing can be seen today in the work of directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. True Grit received an acclaimed remake in 2010, while The Wild Bunch has managed to avoid multiple efforts at a new version. It’s fair to say that Bunch helped usher in the age of the revisionist Western, seen in films like Unforgiven that take a more unflinching look at consequence of violence. It’s perhaps strange that two genre classics that were so different from one another were released in the same week, but it did seem to mark a tidal shift when the narratives of American film grew darker and the myth of the American West began to be resigned to just that: a myth.
You’ll need a very large, sturdy pan for this veggie-laden recipe, but it’ll be well worth the effort when you taste this flavorful pasta sauce. The recipe calls for 10 green bell peppers, but you can reduce the number of peppers for a milder dish.
Ernest Borgnine’s Italian Pevronatta
(Makes 6 to 8 servings)
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 10 green bell peppers, diced
- 1 package (12 ounces) mushrooms, sliced
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 ½ jars (32 ounce size) spaghetti sauce with mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 cup red wine
- Cooked pasta
- Salt & pepper
- In a large pan or Dutch oven, cook sausage and ground sirloin over high heat until well browned.
- When meat is cooked, add peppers, mushrooms, onion, and garlic.
- Cook until vegetables are tender.
- Stir in spaghetti sauce, parsley, salt, and pepper.
- Stir wine into spaghetti sauce and heat to boiling over high heat.
- Reduce heat to low; cover partially and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, or until thickened.
- Skim off and discard fat.
- Serve with pasta.
See also, Shirley MacLaine’s Gourmet Lamb Stew.
Over his 95 years, Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012) was known for the vast range of roles he played. On the silver screen he was villainous Fatso Judson in From Here To Eternity and gave an Oscar-winning performance as the butcher Marty Pilettia. He was television’s beloved Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale and the voice of a cartoon “mermaid man.”
In celebration of this versatile actor’s life, below is an abridged version of writer Dean Jennings’ 1955 article, which was published in the Post just eight months before Borgnine won the Oscar for his performance in Marty. To read or download the entire article, click here.
August 27, 1955—In a rented bungalow on a side street in North Hollywood there lives a 215-pound, bearish man who started life with the improbable name of Ermes Effron Borgnine.
Variously called “Ernie,” “Duke” or even “Bugs,” he is a shaggy-haired, paunchy man of thirty-eight with a relief-map face that is not apt to raise the blood pressure of young, lovelorn maidens. He drives an old car, and wears ready-made suits. His conception of pleasure and comfort is to sprawl on the floor every night with a can of cold beer, and gape at his television set. His wife picks out his neckties, and his closest friends are a plumber and an insurance salesman.
He has a tendency to doze off in soft chairs after a heavy meal. When his wife is out, he doggedly mops the floors, cooks up a batch of spaghetti or yaks over the back fence with the neighbors. He doesn’t know any movie stars, and when he sees one he is likely to feel self-conscious. Thus, except for his size, he is more or less the average man.
It is surprising and perhaps a little aggravating to some that plain and homely Ernest Borgnine is already being mentioned for an Academy Award as the result of a classic performance he gave as a kind but bumbling butcher in “Marty,” a picture which won the Cannes Film Festival award last spring.
No one in Hollywood can put a definitive finger on the elusive quality that makes Borgnine’s villains so remarkably real. When he impales a man on a pitchfork in “Violent Saturday” the fury shows in his eyes, and the customers gasp and recoil in their seats. In “Bad Day at Black Rock” he forces Spencer Tracy’s jeep over a cliff, and his face has the chilly blankness of every murderer since Cain.
Actually Borgnine is an intensely shy, sensitive, and often lonely man who is never satisfied with his work, and who is not convinced that he has great talent.” Ernie’s just a big St. Bernard who wants to be patted,” one acquaintance says. But among his nonprofessional friends the feeling persists that his screen violence is really a safety valve for a rebellious nature.
[However] Borgnine is not entirely subdued and permits himself an occasional outburst. Some time ago, while he was pacing the floor in his New York apartment and trying to memorize a role, a pianist began pounding the keys in an adjoining flat. The walls were thin, and with each fortissimo Borgnine stepped up his furious pacing. His patience finally ran out and with a mighty swing he drove his fist through the apartment wall. The startled pianist fled to the safety of the street. Borgnine later fibbed to his wife, Rhoda, that he had fallen off a ladder, and it was more than a year before he sheepishly told her the truth.
“Ernie has always learned the hard way,” says [his agent] Paul Wilkins, “but he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. When he first came to Hollywood, my secretary called him one morning and told him he had fifteen minutes to be at Columbia on a rush call. ‘Well,’ Ernie told her, ‘you advise Mr. Wilkins for me that I have no car, and if he wants me at the studio he’d better come and get me.’ I called him right back. ‘Look, boy,’ I said, ‘ I’m not a cab company. It’s tough enough for an agent to get jobs for actors without having to carry them there too. Let’s get that straight right now.’ Ernie was silent for a moment and finally said, ‘Oh, I guess you’re right.’ He was at Columbia in fifteen minutes and he got the part.”
Borgnine himself can laugh at these once-thorny episodes now and credits an old friend, a New Haven plumber named Joe Simone, with providing the Philosophical clincher. Not long ago he and Joe were driving along a country road in the latter’s car, which, as Borgnine puts it, was “rattling and shaking like a bucket of bolts.” “Joey, Joey!” Borgnine protested. “How can you stand all that terrible noise? Aren’t you afraid the heap will fall apart?”
“No,” said Joe. “I just turn up the radio louder.”
[His career began when his mother] said casually one day, “you always liked making a darn fool out of yourself. Why don’t you take up acting?”
Borgnine still considers her proposal a provocative non sequitur. He went along with her quaint reasoning, took his GI benefits and enrolled in the Randall School of Drama at Hartford. On his first day in class, he was asked to read aloud a passage containing the word “diamonds.”
“Mr. Borgnine,” the teacher scowled, “how did you pronounce that word?”
“Dimonds,” he grinned.
“The word, Mr. Borgnine, is d-i-a-m-o-n-d-s. Pronounced dye-a-monds.”
Borgnine’s blurting reaction to that was a common cuss word frequently heard aboard cruisers and destroyers.
The classroom rocked, but the teacher didn’t blink. ” Mr. Borgnine,” she said, “if you apply such strong feeling and pronunciation to all your reading, you will have no trouble as an actor.”
To download the full version click here.