STUDIO: Warner Brothers
MSRP: $26.98
RUNNING TIME: 145 Minutes
• Commentary by Nick Redman, David Weddle, Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons
• The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage

• Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade

• A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and the Wild Bunch (excerpt)

• Outtakes (Labeled ‘deleted scenes’ on the cover — don’t get your hopes up.)
• Trailers

(This is part of the brilliant new Sam Peckinpah box set. Get to the other reviews and the artwork evaluation here, or just go buy the set from Amazon! I’ve also got to admit that I couldn’t bear to add screencaps. Feel free to make your own.)

The Wild Bunch has the best director’s credit in any movie, ever. A band of soldiers enters a railroad depot and takes the people inside hostage. Cut to a stark close-up of the group’s leader, William Holden, who growls, ‘If they move, kill ‘em!’ Then a low rumble of percussion and flash to a high-contrast black and white still of the image that feels like slap. And like a transcribed warning from Holden: ‘Directed by Sam Peckinpah’.

This is it. The Wild Bunch is the reason most people know Sam Peckinpah, for damn good reason. Major Dundee, his last movie, had been a failure shredded by the studio. He’d been eking a bare living out of a couple hours of TV. When the chance came to go to Mexico with a band of killers he jumped on it. The result is one of the greatest American movies — a passionate, violent, romantic and sad ode to all the fading images and personality of the West.

The Flick

"The Wild Bunch is what happens when killers go to Mexico." That’s how Peckinpah described this story, which feels epic but is really just a small tale of men at the end of their rope.

Pike Bishop (William Holden) leads the Bunch, which we first see as a full-fledged gang. After robbing the train depot they’re whittled down to a core few: Pike and right hand man Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), the Gorch Brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), the aging Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the conscience of the band.

Pursued by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), an old friend conscripted by the law, Pike and the Bunch flee to Mexico. There they find Mapache (Don Emilio Fernandez), a general caught up fighting Pancho Villa. The Bunch agrees to steal a cache of rifles for Mapache, but figures they can divert a crate of arms to Angel’s village, which the general has ravaged. That assumption leads the Bunch to a crossroads, where Pike has to make what may be the first selfless decision of his life.

In overview the flick looks like a pure adventure film. A messy shootout opens the story and sets a grim tone; women, children and innocent men are shot down alongside outlaws and bounty hunters. Immediately, you know this isn’t going to be any typical sort of western. A train robbery occupies the middle act, in which Peckinpah gets to blow up a bridge. A second gunfight, far more ferocious than the first, closes both the film and the Bunch’s fate.

As he did in almost every film, Peckinpah makes this movie far more than just another Saturday matinee. Pike isn’t who he wants to be; he pretends to be an upright sorta guy, but he’s really just a selfish, opportunistic killer. He knows that the frontier is shrinking, and that the life he’s led doesn’t have anywhere to go. The Bunch knows it, too, and the tension in the group ebbs and flows with their fortune.

Their story is told with glances and gestures; there isn’t a spare line of dialogue in the movie. This isn’t a movie full of speeches. It’s a film about loss and redemption expressed though a subtle but elaborate non-verbal dialogue. Relationships within the Bunch seem strangely minimal at first, but they’re really an example of the sublime interaction within a stellar ensemble.

Though he’s on the right side of the law, Deke Thornton is our bridge into the group. A set of flashbacks (once cut from the film) shows that Deke is the one who got caught, and he resents and envies Pike in equal measure. In one of Peckinpah’s signature inversions of convention, his cadre of ‘lawful’ bounty hunters is a more lawless and degenerate bunch than Pike’s comrades.

It makes perfect sense that Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch would appear back to back in this set. Pike and Deke Thornton have the same weathered relationship that Judd and Gil did in Ride, only this movie picks up well after their final break. But Robert Ryan lets us see Deke aching to ride with the Bunch again, and not just because he’s saddled with a bunch of losers. He’s living the end that Pike knows is coming, and the Bunch is his last chance to take a step back to the way things were.

The film’s action scenes are an explosive means to bring the tensions between all these men to a head, to force them to face changing times. Hidden within is an offer to meet their end with more dignity than they deserve. The final showdown isn’t a landmark merely because it’s one of the longest and bloodiest gunfights in cinema. It leaves a mark because of the way it reveals and brings to life the Bunch’s decision to abandon a future that doesn’t want them.

Throughout, Peckinpah’s supporting cast one chance after another to shine, to the extent that calling Jaime Sanchez, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones a ‘supporting cast’ just isn’t fair. Martin and Jones are indispensable as the murderous gutter trash who hunt the Bunch alongside Deke Thornton. They describe the bitter amorality of the West in the opening shootout, then bring that mindset to a logical conclusion when they become vultures scavenging the remains of the last stand.

The other four make up the balance of the Bunch and are as prominent and affecting as Holden and Ryan, to the point where the movie couldn’t happen without them. This is Warren Oates’ second great Peckinpah role, and he gets the movie’s biggest laugh by announcing his engagement to a homely Mexican whore. As Sykes, the eldest and most level-headed of the Bunch, Edmond O’Brien stands out as probably the best crazy old man in film. (I’ll never believe that Jack Nicholson didn’t base his Joker performance on O’Brien’s first scene.)

The Wild Bunch is also a study in technical excellence. Peckinpah had worked with cinematographer Lucien Ballard on his last two features, and their collaboration is impeccable. They shot miles of film, but with sensibilities meshed so tightly that every single shot works, and many are simply beautiful. Even the blocking is remarkable — the way actors are arranged in each scene represents what now looks like a lost art.

Watching the gunfights they created with editor Lou Lombardo is like watching the action movie being born. Dozens of directors have copied Peckinpah’s cutting style, which clashed almost subliminal snippets of movement with slow-motion, cross-cutting gunfire and death in a way that had never been seen before and has rarely been equaled. Lombardo claims the film had 3,642 cuts — more than any other color film.

Jerry Fielding’s music supports the film without fanfare; it’s the sort of minimal, attentive score that you figure Peckinpah had wanted for his films all along. It intrudes only barely on the most violent moments, letting them exist not as thrilling escapism, but as events to be digested. The two had met on Noon Wine, Peckinpah’s greatest television success between Dundee and the Bunch. That show also united the director and Lou Lombardo, justifying those years spent in limbo.

Even the work of costumer Gordon Dawson is notable. He was a Major Dundee vet who had become a writer and had to be lured back to the fold with an outrageous salary. He was worth it, because the costumes have a dusty realism, and his quick thinking while shooting the final gunfight allowed Peckinpah to get what he was looking for.

Like I said, this is it. The Wild Bunch the once in a lifetime project that elevates every participant way above their game. There’s nothing like it.

10 out of 10

The Look

This new transfer is noticeably better than the last one, making it the best home video presentation of the movie yet. It’s not perfect, though I figure some of the missing detail in longer shots is just a function of the lenses Lucien Ballard used to shoot the picture. The medium shots and close-ups certainly look great.

Click here for a comparison of the new transfer and old for one of Holden’s close-ups.

Click here for one of a longer shot. (Both are large, full-size files.)

You can see that the color is much better, almost all the noise and grain is gone and detail is a lot more fine. The contrast isn’t as tweaked — look at the shadows on the riders — since it’s not been dialed down to get more detail out of the image. There is still a lingering artifact or two, but overall this is a gigantic improvement.

9 out of 10

The Noise

On original release, the film won an award for sound design; Peckinpah actually had the entire effects track re-done after the first preview. It’s a rich, superbly detailed track, and the disc captures it nicely. Fielding’s score, one of my favorites, sounds wonderful.

9 out of 10

The Goodies

First, a quick note about the art. The golden tones are nice and elegiac, but I prefer the blue from the US one sheet, which is colder, more harsh. One touch: the art was flipped on the last release, and has been restored to what was on the one sheet.

The commentary quartet returns: Redman, Weddle, Seydor and Gammins. They’re so into this movie that the commentary is faster and slightly more entertaining, though it’s definitely an analytical commentary at heart. What I really appreciated is that that these guys don’t necessarily agree with each other, and listening to them civilly discuss their individual interpretations is an excellent way to learn a lot about the film and new ways to look at it.

Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade is a solid overview produced by the Starz network, covering all of Peckinpah’s western work from early television to his explosively nihilistic anti-genre Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It features loads of fawning interviews with the likes of Benicio del Toro, Harry Dean Stanton, Roger Ebert and Elvis Mitchell. Affection doesn’t stop anyone from talking about his descent into alcoholism and severe cocaine abuse, nor his failures as a family man.

Peckinpah neophytes will get a lot out of this show, because it quickly articulates his major themes and explains their origin in his own life. Just do it after watching all the films, if you want to remain spoiler-free. Kris Kristofferson narrates the show, which makes it worth listening to even if you know the stories already.

One of the better documentaries about any film is The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, which relies exclusively on film clips and on-set footage taken in Mexico. The text is largely taken from Garner Simmons’ A Portrait In Montage. Whenever possible the actual participants read or speak their recollections; actors stand in for the dead. Ed Harris plays Peckinpah, and the recreation works really well.

It’s not a comprehensive film by any means, but it is a great snapshot, living up to the title nicely. A great injustice has been done to the film, however. It actually looks a lot worse than on the original disc. Warner Brothers seems to have taken this transfer from a choppy tape master — the interlacing is off the chart and the grain and noise make the film look like it’s about locusts. Since the location footage is sourced from 16mm stock to begin with, what you’ll see here looks terrible.

Click here for a comparison between the title screen of the two transfers. (Large, full-size file.)

I’m curious to see A Simple Adventure Story; in this excerpt Peckinpah’s biographers visit the Mexican locations used for the film. It’s interesting, but probably only really for the people really into the film. One cool thing, though, is the use of the tail ends of takes and alternate angles.

The outtakes present more of those bits; half alternate angles, half blooper reel. You’ll never watch the river crossing into Mexico the same way after seeing the first take in the reel, where the horses throw their riders into the current. After seeing a flash of what seems to be Deke Thornton in prison in the excerpt from A Simple Adventure Story, I’d hoped to see more, but there’s no revelation here.

10 out of 10

Overall: 10 out of 10