There's a sad, elegiac quality about The Wild Bunch, appropriate for the death of an era.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The first time Warner Bros. transferred "The Wild Bunch" to disc, it was in a non-anamorphic edition that included very few extras. The second time was on a two-disc special edition, offering an improved image and a stagecoach full of bonuses. Now, the studio has issued it in high-definition picture and sound with all the special-edition extras and more. An acknowledged Western classic deserves the best, and it gets it.

Some critics have said that director Sam Peckinpah glorified violence in his films and romanticized killing. There is no denying that fact, but in 1969's "The Wild Bunch" there is much more. It is a quintessential modern, even postmodern, Western, a story of over-the-hill outlaws living by a worn-out code, a notion of honor in a dishonest world, a world where the viewer can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. Peckinpah's movie is a turbulent yet poetic vision of the death of the Old West and the coming of a new, more sterile, less-caring age. And along with its vision, the film is important for its integration of slow-motion with regular-speed footage, helping to create a unique narrative style that influenced a generation of future filmmakers.

As before, WB give us the Director's Cut, which restores about ten minutes of deleted footage, mostly adding background material on the main characters' motivation, thus making the bloodletting seem less wanton. With its gutsy realism, believable personalities, and complex moral values, one has to consider the movie among cinema's all-time great Westerns.

The filmmakers set loosely knit plot in southern Texas and Mexico in 1913, during the Mexican Revolution. William Holden plays Pike Bishop, an aging outlaw based vaguely on Butch Cassidy, who is leading his Wild Bunch--Ernest Borgnine, Edmund O'Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, and others--on one last desperate heist before they retire. They attempt to rob a U.S. arms shipment for a corrupt Mexican general in exchange for ten thousand dollars. Hot on Bishop's trail is his old pal Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan, who is now working for the railroad and heading up his own motley band of ruffians. Holden's Bishop and Ryan's Thornton are interchangeable. In the two characters we see good men gone bad, and in spite of their differences, we see their mutual respect for one another, each man evoking our sympathy. They even look alike, reinforcing the blur between good and evil. In the course of the story, Holden and his men encounter lawmen, pretty girls, bandits, Pancho Villa, revolutionaries, the U.S. Army, and the Mexican Federales.

The film is memorable for any number of things, not the least its colorful supporting cast, played by some of Hollywood's finest character actors. I've already mentioned Borgnine, Ryan, O'Brien, Oates, and Johnson, but there are also Dub Taylor, Albert Dekker, Bo Hopkins, and Strother Martin. Interestingly, since the Wild Bunch was obviously the real name of Butch Cassidy's gang, Fox released "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance" the same years as "The Wild Bunch." The two films are almost mirror images in terms of plot, yet the tone of one is humorous and the other dead earnest. And what brings this to mind most tellingly is that Strother Martin is in both of them!

But the film is as memorable for its symbolic imagery, its music, and its settings as it is for its characters and action: Things like the opening shot of two scorpions being overwhelmed and devoured by a legion of ants; the beauty of Nature set against the vulgarism of Man; the continual use of children as onlookers and emblems of innocence betrayed; Jerry Fielding's lyrical, passionate musical score; the authenticity of the location shooting, especially around Parras, Mexico, the actual scene of several important battles of the Mexican Revolution; and, of course, those wonderful, slow-motion gun fights.

There's a sad, elegiac quality about "The Wild Bunch," appropriate for the death of an era. The old West was no more, replaced by what the film sees as a much more unfeeling modern world, which is why, perhaps, Peckinpah makes the closing carnage seem almost like the finale of a ballet. Gone are the days when Bishop would know that danger awaits him around every corner, and he could say with a cavalier tone, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Warner Bros. made their 1080-resolution, VC-1 transfer from the 1994 restoration of the complete Director's Cut, digitally remastered in a widescreen that measures its original 2.40:1 Panavision aspect ratio. The Technicolor is rich and solid, although it is never bright or flashy, just realistic in a dusty, gritty way. Facial hues are a tad dark, especially when photographed in natural light, but it is only a small issue, as is some minor haloing. Close-ups are well detailed, as are most long shots, and the Mexican locations never looked better.

The sonics are still more than a little frustrating. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio, with its added clarity and dynamics, only serves to point up the deficiencies in the soundtrack. The stereo spread is extremely wide, with a good, if subtle, musical ambience in the surrounds; and the frequency range is well extended, with plenty of deep bass at the right moments. But there remains an odd, pinched nasality that is more evident than ever in the midrange, particularly affecting voices. I guess you just live with it because that's the way it is.

The HD DVD contains the 145-minute film, plus a goodly assortment of extras. The bonuses begin with an audio commentary by Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle; and a Peckinpah trailer gallery. You can't fault the commentary; these guys know Peckinpah inside out and provide a continuous flow of backstage information about every facet of the moviemaking.

Next comes a trio of documentaries on Peckinpah and his films, all in standard-def. The first item is a 1996 doc, "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," thirty-three minutes on location with the cast and crew, film excerpts, and recreations. It's a frank and revealing look behind the scenes, maybe the best I've ever seen, made by Paul Seydor and Nick Redman. After that is an eighty-two-minute documentary, "Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade." It covers the director's life and work through movie clips and comments from fellow filmmakers, critics, authors, relatives, and friends. And after that is a twenty-three-minute excerpt from the documentary "A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico, and The Wild Bunch" by Nick Redman. In addition, you'll find about eight minutes of outtakes and a Sam Peckinpah trailer gallery with trailers for "The Wild Bunch," "Ride the High Country," "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," "The Getaway," and "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid."

Things conclude with forty-six scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As always with their HD DVDs, WB also provide pop-up menus, bookmarks, a guide to elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
The cinema has produced any number of great Westerns over the years--"Stagecoach," "Red River," "High Noon," "Shane," "The Searchers," "The Magnificent Seven," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven," "Tombstone"--to name but a few. Certainly, "The Wild Bunch" can take its place among them. It is a landmark Western and a good, thoughtful, rousing adventure besides. Now that it looks better than ever in its new HD format, it's hard to pass up.


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