Unsung Auteurs: Walon Green

October 5, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter Walon Green, who penned The Wild Bunch and Sorcerer.

With the writers’ strike hopefully at close-to-resolution point in the US, we’ll still be showing solidarity by focusing on screenwriters in the Unsung Auteurs column. When your two most notable film scripts were turned into films by two of the most titanic auteur filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s very easy to get lost in the shuffle when the plaudits are handed out. But yes, Walon Green did indeed pen the scripts for Sam Peckinpah’s incendiary 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch and William Friedkin’s 1977 cult favourite Sorcerer, the reputation of which continues to quietly grow and grow and grow. But because these two staggering works in wedged in amongst reams of television and screenplays for far lesser films, Walon Green is rarely held up as a cinematic artisan, but these two screenplays are more than ample bedrock for a fascinating career.

Born in 1936 in Baltimore, Walon Green did uncredited writing work on the 1965 Marlon Brando-Yul Brynner wartime drama Morituri, before truly lighting it up with his 1969 screenplay for The Wild Bunch, which was co-credited to director Sam Peckinpah who really found the bloody poetry in this story of a crew of outlaws – and basically very, very bad men – who escape an ambush and then become engrossed in a south-of-the-border political revolution, which will ultimately give their violent, apathetic, self-centred lives a late sense of meaning. Though The Wild Bunch really sings in its performances (William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are at their absolute best) and in Peckinpah’s creation of images both sacred and profane, Walon Green’s screenplay is a brilliant study in thematic heft and authentic grit. It was justifiably nominated for an Oscar.

A scene from The Wild Bunch.

Since that incredible breakout screenplay, Walon Green has bounced all over the map in terms of themes and genres. He co-directed 1972’s Best Documentary Oscar-winning The Hellstrom Chronicle, which ingeniously mixed doco making with horror-sci-fi-alarmism in its technically groundbreaking investigation into the horrors of the world of insects, and their possible ambitions to take over the world. Green followed this up in 1979 with the similarly themed The Secret Life Of Plants.

After writing work on a few telemovies, Green was tapped by wunderkind William Friedkin (then sizzling off The Exorcist and The French Connection) to rework Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic Wages Of Fear for a contemporary audience. The gripping result was 1977’s Sorcerer, in which a group of desperate men are charged with transporting a batch of highly unstable nitro-glycerine through a South American jungle. Green’s work with structure and character here is truly impressive, and William Freidkin delivers a stylistic tour de force, but Sorcerer was a major financial disaster, leading to an unfairly tarnished reputation and decades in the critical wilderness. It has now very happily been re-evaluated, and stands as one of the best, if least celebrated, films of the 1970s.

A scene from Sorcerer.

Though Walon Green is now pretty much a fixture on episodic television (writing, producing and show-running on shows such as Law & Order, Dragnet, ER, NYPD Blue, The Man In The High Castle and many, many more), he has a small list of very interesting big screen credits too, including a co-write with comic book legend Frank Miller on the truly insane 1990 sequel Robocop 2, and the solid (but terribly titled) 1986 post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick Solarbabies. Green reunited with William Friedkin in 1978 for the crime heist caper comedy The Brinks Job. He also cogently adapted Daniel Defoe for director Caleb Deschanel for 1988’s Crusoe; co-wrote Tony Richardson’s excellent (but now largely forgotten) 1982 drama The Border, in which Jack Nicholson delivers a wonderful slow-burn as a compromised border patrol officer; and penned the original screenplay for the poetic and richly characterised 1998 modern western The Hi-Lo Country, directed by Stephen Frears.

A master at capturing men under pressure, and men at war with themselves, Walon Green is a strong and daring voice not heard nearly enough in American cinema.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Eleanor Bergstein, William W. NortonHelen ChildressBill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.