[box cover]

The Wild Bunch: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine,
Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson

Written by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner
Directed by Sam Peckinpah


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Review by Dawn Taylor                    


"I suppose I'm something of an outlaw myself. I identify with them. I've always wondered what happened to the outlaws of the Old West when it changed, and I thought this story by Walon Green dramatized it very well."

— Sam Peckinpah


 

In the 1950s, a young Sam Peckinpah worked as a writer on Western-themed television series' like "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman," even creating a series of his own in 1960 called "The Westerner." He'd grown up on a ranch in Fresno, Calif., descended from rugged men who settled the then-untamed land and, often, worked in law enforcement (his father was a judge). He was fascinated by the history of the region, especially the period around the turn of the century when technology and society began changing and the West, as it had been, began to die.

After the success of his second film, Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah was hired to direct the big-budget epic Major Dundee starring Charlton Heston. It was a disaster. Along with exhibiting what would become his trademark characteristics of abusive behavior towards his actors and crew members, the studio had told him at the last minute to make Dundee smaller and cheaper. But Peckinpah went ahead and shot the film he'd originally set out to make — getting him barred from the studio after they chopped about 40 minutes from his original cut. It would be three years before he was able to get another job, on the low-budget western The Wild Bunch (1969). From the film's unforgettable opening with the Bunch riding past a group of children dropping scorpions onto an anthill — and then setting the resulting chaos on fire to watch the creatures burn to death — to its climactic, suicidal showdown, it's an uncompromising, testosterone-saturated examination of savage killers bonding, discovering their own humanity, and living by their own code of ethics. It's Sam Peckinpah, writ large — a film that no one without his background, demons, or anger could have made.

Peckinpah said that, initially, it was just supposed to be "a simple story about what happens when killers go to Mexico." Outlaw gangs were a dying breed in 1913 and one such gang, led by aging Pike Bishop (William Holden), robs a Texas railway office. Dressed as U.S. Cavalry officers, their plan to use a parade as cover for the crime seems simple and solid — unfortunately, they're ambushed by a team led by bounty hunter Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of Bishop's gang. The shootout turns into a bloody massacre, with the Bunch escaping into Mexico — and their bad luck continues when they discover that their bags of loot aren't money but metal washers, a set-up by Bishop's arch-enemy, railroad tycoon Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker).

Bishop then leads his gang — Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates, Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez) — to Angel's village, where they find that a sadistic Mexican general has kidnapped Angel's lover and killed his father. Angel responds with mindless violence and, to save his life, Bishop makes a deal with the general to rob an army munitions train and sell the rifles to the general. With Thornton's bounty hunters on their trail, the Bunch follow through on their daring robbery but, when the general double-crosses them, the gang finds themselves with only one real choice — loyalty to their friend, even if it means certain death.

*          *          *

The men of The Wild Bunch are brutal killers, and Peckinpah makes no effort to soften them for the audience's comfort. That said, each is a carefully drawn, fully realized character. Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out in his 2005 review of Brokeback Mountain that "the more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone." The individual members of the Bunch are, in their way, sympathetic because they're so specific. Bishop is an aging outlaw, an man with a reputation as a formidable killer who finds himself filled with loathing and self-doubt as he sees his abilities wane. Thornton admires and respects Bishop but must ignore loyalty and track him down, supported by a small band of decidedly stupid miscreants, to save his own skin as Hannigan sprung him from prison for the sole purpose of doing this job. Brothers Lyle and Tector are natural followers, but question the decidedly more intelligent (but increasingly mistake-prone) Bishop's leadership. Engstrom is a savage killer, but smart and accomplished — and a little bit crazy. Thornton's men, played by Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, bicker like an old married couple — according to Jones, he and Martin decided to make their characters "a little bit gay" to make them more interesting, and the scenes where they argue about their killshots in the street, surrounded by bloody bodies ("Liar! Black Liar! "You shouldn't talk like that to me." "I'm sorry. Come on, T.C, help me get his boots.") is a darkly hilarious character sketch.

Pauline Kael said that Peckinpah told her, regarding The Wild Bunch, "that he was going to make a picture so ferocious that it would rub people's noses in the ugliness of violence. They would never want to see anything violent again. But when the picture came out and there were insensitive people who cheered the bloodshed, he seemed delighted, he acted vindicated." It was a turning point in American cinema — there had never been a movie so brutally, honestly violent before, and the intention was not to sensationalize but, in a way, to educate. Peckinpah was deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam and wanted to illustrate the ugliness of real violence. His much-copied editing/slow-motion technique, with gushing blood and flying sinew, wasn't inspired by a desire to glorify the gory details of death but instead to show the audience just how personal and agonizing such a death would be. Anyone who's been in a near-death situation can describe the adrenaline-fed effect of time slowing down at the moment of peak fear — what Peckinpah did was translate that to the screen, and his intentions were misunderstood for his entire life.

With an initial budget of $3.5 million (although the final tab would be close to $6 million), making the impact he intended on The Wild Bunch took a great deal of creative effort as well. During the film's long, final shoot-out, he had a limited number of stuntmen and only 350 Mexican Army uniforms at his disposal to get the literally thousands of shots he wanted — so stuntmen would go before the cameras equipped with blood packs on their costumes, get "shot," then they'd be hosed down and have their costumes taped, painted, and rubbed with dirt. After drying out in front of portable heaters, the stuntmen would be sent out to get shot again.

Ultimately, The Wild Bunch is about the last gasp of the Old West, with the grumpy, tired Bunch representing the last lawless days of the frontier. It's a mythic period that Americans look at with a sense of awe — the embodiment of many of the most ingrained American ideals, like the freedom to exist and prosper beyond the confines of government and society, the triumph of man over the land, and the innocence of unviolated nature (as opposed to the filth and corruption of urban life). It's thematically significant that the instrument that arguably causes the most bloodshed in the epic climax is a machine gun, acquired by the pillaging, raping, automobile-driving occupying militia. The Wild Bunch is a masterpiece of a film, not just for its absorbing story of a group of tired, bad men who choose selfless sacrifice after a lifetime of selfishness, but also for its ability to evoke both the dying West and the moral contradictions facing America in the 1960s. The cinematography by Lucien Ballard complements Peckinpah's masterful editing, and the score by Jerry Fielding is a perfect blend of the old and the modern. It's most likely Peckinpah's best film, folding all of his personal themes and passions into one profane, profound ride through hell and back.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's two-disc Special Edition release of The Wild Bunch replaces an earlier, double-sided, non-anamorphic "flipper" which first appeared in the earliest days of the DVD format. The "director's cut" found here is the same version as on the previous DVD edition, restoring ten minutes of footage deleted from the film's theatrical release, adding more background and character motivation. The new anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) offers rich colors and a sharper picture than the previous edition, with better contrast. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (with subtitles in English, French or Spanish on the feature only) is fine as well, although not spectacular. However, considering the original audio limitations, it's a pretty darn good.

As befits a two-disc Special Edition for a film of this magnitude, there are welcome extras on board. Disc One includes a commentary track by Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle that's insanely detailed about the director's life, habits, and directorial style — the four commentators are unqualified experts, and the track is remarkably educational. The first disc also offers a trailer gallery of other Peckinpah titles.

Disc Two continues the School of Peckinpah with Seydor and Redmon's excellent (if weirdly titled) 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage" (33 min.), combining grainy behind-the-scenes footage with film excerpts and Ken Burns-like actor voiceovers (Ed Harris reads as Peckinpah). There's also a very good feature-length biographical documentary, Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade" (82 min.), narrated by Kris Kristofferson and originally produced for the Starz/Encore cable channel, putting director's life and work into perspective through film clips and interviews with family members and friends. Finally, there is an excerpt from Redman's "A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico, and The Wild Bunch" (23 min.) by Nick Redman about a 2004 trip to Mexico with Peckinpah's daughter to revisit the film's locations, and a montage of never-before-seen, outtakes from several key sequences (8 min.), including the spectacular bridge explosion.

— Dawn Taylor



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