Warner Bros. // 1969 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // November 5th, 2007
The land had changed. They hadn't.
Sam Peckinpah's controversial Western classic saddles up and opens fire onto glorious high-def. Viva la HD Borgnine!
Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his crew of hard-ass desperados are winding down their outlaw careers, which have seen numerous banks robbed and countless corpses ventilated. As they evade their pursuers from the railroad company, the Bunch crosses paths with a Mexican general neck-deep in the middle of a civil war. He makes a deal with Pike to steal a weapons cache in exchange for an astounding amount of gold.
Seeing it as their last big score, they agree. But they will have to make a decision that will test the one code they have committed themselves to in their blood-filled existence -- and the consequences will live forever in Western lore.
Here's one of the big joys of diving into a new format: getting the opportunity to scope out movies that I should have seen a long, long time ago. Specifically, I've been hankering for kicking it with the Western genre, and with the recent HD release of Rio Bravo and now this, it's been a glorious way to get down with some six-shooting in high-style.
No doubt there has been a wagon-load of words already coughed up about Peckinpah's masterpiece, and I hazard to say that it would require multiple viewings to tease out the full substance of his post-modern Western, so here's just a few insights. Oh, by the way, see this remarkable film.
Here's what struck me about The Wild Bunch: the transition. Peckinpah has set his saga against the backdrop of a civilization primed to enter a new phase, with the twilight of the Old West leading into the dawn of the modern age. Automobiles are appearing in the wind-swept sands of Texas, an airplane has supposedly been invented and the rumors of a World War are about. And modern weaponry -- a machine gun, no less -- threatens to be the great equalizer among men.
Trapped in between this existential hand-off is the Wild Bunch, grizzled men that made their bones in the heart of the Old West and who are now being inexorably pulled into an age they are unfamiliar with. What they grasp tenaciously is their own code of honor, which mandates allegiance to one another, no matter how rotten the guy next to you may be -- and it has been made quite clear throughout the film these men are brutal killers. But that kind of loyalty is quickly becoming an artifact, a holdover from another time when killing a man was an intimate experience and lacked the anonymous slaughtering power of weapons like the machine gun. And even though Pike himself often struggled to live up to his own code, he and the rest of the Bunch will ultimately throw their lot in with the old way. And the clash between the old and the new is bloody.
Speaking of blood, The Wild Bunch is a stunningly violent film, especially when compared to many of the bloodless Westerns that preceded it. When bullets impact, blood flies in high, splashy arcs and women and children alike meet their ends in such a way. The violence is intense and gritty, almost hellish and despite the controversy it generated for the film, is critical in telling the story as an over-stylized, "ballet-like" (Peckinpah's words) amorality play.
The high-definition version of The Wild Bunch is a sight to behold, sporting a vivid, 2.40:1 widescreen treatment (1080p). The Wild Bunch is a film rich with color and the HD transfer brings these colors to life. Just look at the blood fly, strikingly red (almost too striking really, to the point of unrealistic) and the Mexico and Texas vistas are stunning. The picture is clean throughout and hiccups only once in a while, specifically at the very end, but the dips in quality are negligible. The new 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus mix is strong and shines especially during the film's three major action set-pieces: the shootout in the beginning, the train robbery in the middle and the climactic battle.
A classy set of extras accompany. Peckinpah biographers and documentaries Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddles deliver a highly-informative commentary track; additional scenes (woven into the director's cut); three great documentaries: "Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade" focuses on the controversial director, "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage," a 1996 Oscar nominee, blends behind-the-scenes footage with quotes from Peckinpah and lastly an excerpt from "A Simple Adventure Story," a documentary by Nick Redman; a Peckinpah movie trailer gallery finishes it off.
The director's cut runs long, but every minute of the runtime packs something substantial. And on high-definition The Wild Bunch soars.
Review content copyright © 2007 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Sam Peckinpah Documentary
* "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage"
* Documentary Excerpt