Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" ranks among the greatest American Western films. Featuring William Holden, Robert Ryan and the always affable Ernest Borgnine, "The Wild Bunch" depicts a violent and turbulent Old West at a time when Mexico was in the midst of a revolution and the American West was evolving into a civilized society where the gunslinger and outlaw was becoming more and more uncommon and their numbers were dwindling as law enforcement became better equipped and more capable of brining civility to the frontier towns. Peckinpah is also known for the Steve McQueen starred "The Getaway" and a number of other films, but "The Wild Bunch" remains his most notable film and delivers a brutal reality to the Old West than John Ford or other notable directors typically delivered.
"The Wild Bunch" takes place around 1913. In the little town of Starbuck, Texas, a gang of outlaws band together to rob a railroad of its payroll money. Led by Pike (William Holden), the "Wild Bunch" includes his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates), Angel (Jaime Sanchez), Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) and a few others. They are trailed by Pike's former partner and best friend, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Thornton was left behind by Pike and is now a bounty hunter looking to lead his band of men and collect a large bounty for the capture or murder of Pike and his Wild Bunch. As it turns out, the railroad job was a setup and Pike and his men collect a bag of steel washers. Crazy Lee was left behind by Pike and the crew is thinned out some during the bloody gunfight in the middle of Starbuck. They have escaped with their lives, but Pike and the Wild Bunch decide to carry on and continue to evade Deke.
Pike leads his men towards Mexico and meets up with Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), an older man who formerly rode with the gang. Sykes brings knowledge to Pike that Deke was given parole in exchange for bringing Pike and the boys down. The decide to head to Angel's village and stay low until some of the heat passes and then move on. During their stay, it is realized that the village was attacked by a bloodthirsty murderer, General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). Angel finds out that his girlfriend had left with Mapache and his soldiers and the Wild Bunch decide to pursue Mapache and trade their extra horses and make a few dollars. When they arrive, Angel sees his former girlfriend being frisky on Mapache's lap and shoots the girl dead. After dealing with Mapache for Angel's life, Pike and the Wild Bunch agree to steal a United States Army gun shipment. For sixteen cases of rifles, Pike and his men will collect ten thousand dollars from Mapache.
The gun heist proves to be fairly easy and safe as Pike and his me hijack the train during a water stop and remove the connection to the car carrying armed U.S. soldiers. As the train carrying the guns pulls away from the disconnected car, it is revealed that Deke is also aboard the troop car with his men and horses and Deke soon sets out to catch up to the train and hopefully capture Pike and his men. The Army soldiers are young and untrained and ineffective in aiding Deke pursue the Wild Bunch. Eventually, the rifles are offloaded onto a horse-driven wagon and Deke nearly catches up to the Wild Bunch when the wagon becomes caught on the bridge. Pike, Dutch and the remaining members of the Wild Bunch get away from the pursuing cavalry riders and Deke's men. One of Deke's men had killed an army soldier, but Deke's men were dumped into the river when Pike had the bridge destroyed by dynamite.
Angel's fellow villagers ambush the Wild Bunch during their sleep and take one of the sixteen cases of rifles, but leaves Pike and others with the remaining fifteen cases and a machine gun. Mapache and his men had been attacked by Pancho Villa and Mapache believes the outcome would have been in his favor had he been in possession of the rifles and he sends his men out looking for Pike and the gun shipment. Eventually, Pike arrives at Mapache's camp and works out the details for the trading of the weapons and announces that the machine gun will be a present. Dutch and Angel deliver the details for the remaining cases of weapons and Mapache keeps Angel as a prisoner after telling Dutch that Angel was the thief behind the missing sixteenth case. Angel is quickly tortured and dragged behind Mapache's car after Dutch leaves him behind.
When the Wild Bunch is ambushed by Deke, Sykes is shot in the leg and left for dead. Deke, Dutch and the surviving members decide it is best to head towards Mapache's camp, where the crooked General is celebrating the possession of the new rifles and the machine gun. When they arrive, the men are treated to whores and alcohol. Pike becomes disturbed when Mapache refuses to return Angel to him. After a few hours, Pike gathers up the men and decides to demand Angel's freedom. Mapache refuses and slits Angel's throat. Pike kills Mapache and some of his top men and the Wild Bunch is quickly thrust into a gunfight for which they will never survive. Meanwhile, Deke and his entourage approach the town, but they arrive to only find the corpses of Pike, Duke, Angel and the others.
"The Wild Bunch" is a bloody film. The film was originally released in 1969 in its original 145 minute form. The film was slightly trimmed by two minutes for its American release, but eventually trimmed by another ten minutes to make the film more commercially viable. It wasn't until 1995 that "The Wild Bunch" was brought back to its original length and featured all of the violence that had brought some controversy towards the film. The amount of violence present in "The Wild Bunch" is fairly high and even earned the movie and "NC-17" rating when Warner Bros. resubmitted the picture for rating in 1999. Some critics have looked at the 1969 film for being representative to the horrific and violent images from the Vietnam War. Others have simply criticized the movie for being too violent.
Regardless of how the film was critically received when it was first released, "The Wild Bunch" is considered a classic and held in high regard by many. The movie is considered one of the finest Western films created and a benchmark for the genre. It wasn't until Clint Eastwood's 1992 film "Unforgiven" that a Western filmed delved into the violent history of the American Wild West and painted a dark and dangerous palette featuring hardened outlaws who were genuine killers. The Wild West was a dangerous place and not a land where everybody wore pretty clothes and talked friendly to one another. It was dangerous and it was not uncommon for arguments to end in gunfire and death. When the great expansion occurred during the Gold Rushes, the law was taken into the hands of anybody that carried a gun. Lawlessness ruled and bands of outlaws such as the "Wild Bunch" were prevalent. This is a film that looks at the darker side of the Wild West and spends time with despicable characters that lack any redeeming qualities.
Peckinpah's film is a beautifully shot film that gives a gritty, yet spacious view of the Old West. His usage of slow motion was unique for western films, but created an energy to the gunfights that showed the ‘beauty in motion' of the perfectly choreographed gunfights. The final moments when the Wild Bunch makes their famous last stand is perhaps the greatest gunfight in the history of cinema. His vistas of the Wild West show the beauty of the dangerous lands and add an epic feel to this lengthy Western. With veterans Robert Ryan and William Holden playing the former friends who are now foes, the solid ensemble cast is led by two very talented and capable actors. Holden is perfect as Pike. Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez and the remaining members of the Wild Bunch are also entertaining in their roles, but they are often overshadowed by well loved Ernest Borgnine. How can anybody not love Ernest Borgnine? This is one of the character actor's better roles and Borgnine routinely steals the show when he is onscreen. With its gritty storytelling, solid directing, acting and unique style, "The Wild Bunch" is a different approach to the classic Western. It is an amazing film that has stood the test of time and with Westerns being avoided like the plague in Hollywood, "The Wild Bunch" is still one of the finest Westerns created.
The very wide 2.4:1 aspect ratio of "The Wild Bunch" is nicely rendered and brought to glorious high definition with the Blu-ray release of the film. Mastered using the VC-1 codec, "The Wild Bunch" easily looks better than previous DVD releases and holds up against films a few decades newer. At almost forty years old, I was very impressed with the level of detail and colors of this 1969 Sam Peckinpah film. I can't say that "The Wild Bunch" surpasses "The Searchers" in becoming the best looking Western on high definition, but it is not too far behind. It can definitely be said that Warner Bros. is very capable of delivering even its oldest catalog titles in stunning 1080p definition and "The Wild Bunch" is yet further proof of this.
The first thing that pops out while watching "The Wild Bunch" on Blu-ray is the gorgeous color palette. The colors are so perfectly saturated, that it is hard to believe this film was made roughly forty years ago. Everything from the lush greens of the American West to the blue skies and occasional bright red fake blood looks very solid in coloring. There is no color bleeding and no failure in contrast. This film simply looks astounding in its coloring. The level of detail is also no slouch. When Peckinpah has the cameras trained on the beautiful scenery of the outdoors, individual rocks and blades of grass can be seen. Facial characteristics, the textures of clothing and the hair on the horses also stand out.
Past color and detail, the remaining elements of the transfer are also technically sound, but not perfect. Black levels are also strong, but do tail off some during a few of the darker moments. The source materials used appear to have been as pristine as possible. I saw perhaps one scratch during the entire film and that was during an opening title card. About the only thing keeping "The Wild Bunch" from a perfect score is the edge enhancement that is present through many scenes during the film. The halos were not distracting, but they were certainly there. Aside from the minor edge enhancement problems, this is a near perfect looking disc and should make any Blu-ray owner proud.
With a running time of 145 minutes and over two hours of bonus materials, it should come as no surprise that Warner Bros. did not include a Dolby TrueHD or Uncompressed PCM soundtrack to fully utilize all that Blu-ray has to offer. This is slightly depressing as "The Wild Bunch" is a visually impressive film, but perhaps only a hair above average when it comes to sound quality. The film contains what sounds like a nearly identical carryover of the previous DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While it isn't a bad soundtrack considering the age of the film, it is neither impressive or an improvement. In addition to the English track, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround tracks are included. English, French and Spanish subtitles also grace the disc.
The primary problem with the 5.1 multi-channel surround mix of "The Wild Bunch" is that it feels overly processed and not very natural. The front heavy mix delivers some very potent sound, but the mix feels uneven throughout its running time. Dialogue is the primary villain and during a few moments in the film, the dialogue feels thin and tinny. The music by Jerry Fielding sounds better on Blu-ray than it did DVD and I noticed some tremendous bass in the .1 LFE channel during some of the musical numbers. Unfortunately, the music would occasionally drown out the vocals of the actors. Rear surrounds are used during a few of the more dynamic gunfights and do have a few minor ambient sounds, but they are silent for about ninety percent of the film. The remix also creates a ‘forced' sound to anything contained in the rear channels. It is hard to explain, but it just sounds unnatural. Thankfully, during the big finale, the soundtrack sounds quite good and does push "The Wild Bunch" into being slightly better than average.
The "Wild Bunch" on Blu-ray contains all of the features from the most recent two-disc DVD set. This includes three documentaries, a commentary track and a few other tidbits to make this a very worthwhile addition to anybody's library. The Commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Farner Simmons and David Weddle is interesting. The men featured in the commentary track are regarded as Peckinpah biographers and documentarians. They certainly are familiar with the director's work and of this film. They talk in earnest for the entire film and this makes for an engaging and informative listen. This is one of those educational commentaries that is routinely difficult to sit through, but this one isn't too bad if you are a fan of the film. A Sam Peckinpah Trailer Gallery contains trailers for "The Wild Bunch," "Ride the High Country," "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," "The Getaway" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Some Outtakes (8:47) are composed of rough footage from the film's action sequences and showcase some of the difficulties in making this film. The horse riding sequence down the sand dune looked particularly painful.
Three documentaries are included under the "Behind the Story" heading. The first, Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (82:40) is from the Starz Encore channel and looks at the film's director. Those familiar with the director, from Roger Ebert to his stars remember the director and his unusual persona. Peckinpah was a unique individual and this focuses more on the man and his westerns. It is definitely worth a look. The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (33:23) is a vintage making of feature from around the time the film was created. The black and white footage intertwined with color shots from the film give this a very vintage feeling and this old documentary was a far better behind-the-scenes documentary than many more recent efforts. There was a wealth of information about how scenes were shot, Peckinpah's decisions on making the film and other nice nuggets of information. The third and final documentary, An Excerpt from a Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and the Wild Bunch (23:48) has a very long name. Featuring Peckinpah historian Nick Redman, this is another nicely done documentary that delivers a quality trifecta for the Blu-ray release. Although I found the first two documentaries a little nicer, this was still a decent half hour and looked into the making of the film. This 2004 documentary revisits many of the locations and discusses them at length.
Ever since I first watched "The Wild Bunch" during its first release on DVD with its heralded "Director's Cut," I have enjoyed "The Wild Bunch" and placed it among my favorites in the Western genre. I sit "The Wild Bunch" with "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," "Unforgiven," "Django" and "The Searchers." This is a landmark film that is a violent and bloody affair from the director called "Bloody Sam." It tells a captivating story and looks at the harsh life of outlaws during the final days of the Wild West. The Blu-ray release delivers a near-perfect picture that looks simply amazing for its age. The sound is not nearly as impressive, but does enough to get by, although it sounds overly processed because of its transformation to Dolby Digital. The supplements are lengthy and add to the spirit of the film with almost three hours of bonus materials. This is a fine release on Blu-ray and it is nice to see that an important film like "The Wild Bunch" is seeing love this early on in the high definition revolution from Warner Bros.