The Wild West produced men like Judge Victor Valdivia: mean, selfish jerks.
Our reviews of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid: Special Edition (published January 27th, 2006), Ride The High Country (published January 23rd, 2006), and Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection (published October 17th, 2008) are also available.
"Times have changed.
It's hard to think of a more misnamed collection. Part of TCM's Greatest Classic Films series, this edition compiles four Westerns that fit TCM's criteria of older films with classic Hollywood connections, including two from legendary director Sam Peckinpah. Nonetheless, even if this is a package with some interesting films, it's chosen and assembled so carelessly that it's hard to recommend it.
Facts of the Case
Here are the four films collected on TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Westerns:
Ride the High Country
The Stalking Moon
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
In 2006, Warner Bros. issued a four-film box set, Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection, that compiled two of the films in this set—High Country and Pat Garrett—and added two others: the superlative The Wild Bunch and the underrated The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett came in deluxe two-disc editions packed with extras and the whole package is an absolute must for any film buffs looking for Westerns.
Why is this relevant? Because the two weakest (relatively speaking, that is) films in that collection are by a wide margin the two best films in this one. The two non-Peckinpah films—Chisum and The Stalking Noon—are so inferior they end up making this set a poor purchase. You'd do better to buy the Peckinpah set instead, because it's hard to imagine anyone calling the weaker films here "classics" by any standard.
Consider The Stalking Moon. It's not entirely a terrible film; the performances are decent and the film is reasonably well-directed, at least visually. The problem is that it's hard to figure out exactly what the point of it is. It could ostensibly be called a thriller, but the laborious pacing deflates any possible tension and the most heinous acts of violence not only happen off-screen but are dismissed in a few lines, making them easy to forget. It doesn't really work as a character study either, since there's not really much in the way of dialogue and you won't know any more about the characters at the end of the film as you did at the beginning. Mostly, you'll get plenty of beautiful vistas and scenes where Peck and Saint exchange silent glances. Only Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), as Peck's sidekick, gets a few lively moments, but they're not enough to make the film successful as a whole.
Chisum is far worse. Plodding and hackneyed, it represents everything that people who hate Westerns hate about Westerns. The characters are cardboard good and bad guys, the dialogue is hokey and cliché-ridden, the action scenes are drearily predictable, and the storytelling lumbers along from scene to scene with a feeling of painful obligation rather than excitement. John Wayne fans who are hoping to rediscover one of his lesser films will be sorely disappointed to realize that for much of Chisum, he doesn't really do much. About halfway through, the film turns its focus onto the supporting characters of Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett, Route 66) and Billy the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel, Terminal Island), who actually do most of the shooting and fighting. That might have been an interesting idea, except that neither character is performed or written as anything other than one-note ciphers. By the time the film trudges to its thoroughly unimaginative conclusion, you'll marvel at how it manages to make one of the most violent and remarkable stories in American history so tedious.
By contrast, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is many things, but tedious isn't one of them. If anything, it's such a peculiar and personal film that it's easily the most compelling one in this set, even if it's hard to say if it's entirely satisfying. What makes Pat Garret so hard to pin down is that Rudy Wurlitzer's script is rich in detail and characterization but thoroughly lacking in narrative, so Pat Garrett can come off as a collection of arresting vignettes that don't entirely add up to a whole. For his part, Peckinpah was battling alcoholism and feuding with studio executives for most of the production, so his direction isn't as self-assured as it was on The Wild Bunch; the gunfights, usually the highlight of any Peckinpah film, are actually pretty forgettable here. Pat Garrett's real power is in watching the two protagonists grapple with the question at the heart of the film: How long can you live as an outlaw? Do you eventually grow old and rejoin society or do you go out in a blaze of glory, still bucking the system until the end? This was the question that defined Peckinpah's life and that he, sadly, was never able to reconcile, so it's no accident that this story resonated so strongly with him. Generally stellar performances, especially from Coburn and Kristofferson, who don't seem to perform their parts but actually inhabit them, are what make this film worth seeing, but it's the depth of the story and Peckinpah's direction that will make you return to it repeatedly, even if it's just to try to understand exactly what to make of it. It's a film that truly rewards repeated viewings. Extra points go to Bob Dylan's musical score, which is some of the most beautiful and evocative music he's ever written (his acting performance, on the other hand—well, the less said about that, the better).
As for Ride the High Country, it's a good film, albeit one that has been tarnished slightly by some rather hyperbolic critical acclaim. By the standards of Peckinpah's later films, let alone films of today, it's rather quaint, even a little corny. High Country addresses identical themes to Pat Garrett—the dilemma of the aging outlaw—but does so with much less irony and cynicism. It actually falls into more conventional western patterns by allowing for the possibility of redemption, which is a concept completely absent in Pat Garrett. It's also jarring to see Peckinpah straining to show a grittier and more realistic view of the Old West, particularly in the depiction of a group of loutish gold miners, but being hamstrung by pre-MPAA language and content restrictions. Still, the film does have some very good performances, especially McCrea's, and even though it does sometimes flirt with excessive sentimentality, it does have enough hard-nosed scenes that keep it from being too treacly. It's best to understand how unusual it was for its time, particularly in its ambiguity and realism. By modern standards it doesn't go far enough in subverting clichés. Still, compared to a film like Chisum, which lazily rehashes those same clichés, it's actually rather inventive.
As with all of their TCM collections, Warner Bros. has slapped four films onto two discs by putting one film on each side of a disc. Flipper discs are never a good idea under any circumstances, but considering that this is meant as a collection of classics, it's especially shortsighted to put them into a format that will invariably lead to scratches and scuffs. Also, the set only includes the first disc of Pat Garrett, omitting the second one that had a longer cut of the film and some featurettes. As for the technical transfers, they are all identical. The anamorphic transfers all look superb, capturing the beautiful landscapes vividly. The mono mixes, on the other hand, are less successful. They're a little soft and lacking in punch. This is especially noticeable on Pat Garrett, since most of the characters in that film tend to whisper and mumble and you'll be straining to understand them.
The set also ports over most of the extras from the films' individual issues, except for The Stalking Moon, which had no extras at all. Both High Country and Pat Garrett come with commentaries from Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. These are disappointingly dull and lacking in much insight. You'll get much analysis and some stories, but you never really get a feel for what Peckinpah was trying to do with these films. High Country also comes with a featurette titled "A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country" (22:55). This consists of an interview with Peckinpah's sister Fern Lea, who gives a thorough retelling of Peckinpah's family history. It can be a bit of a slog, but it is interesting to learn that Peckinpah's persona of working-class rebel was, in many ways, as consciously manufactured as any actor's performance. Both films also come with trailer galleries that have the original theatrical trailers for all of the films in the Legendary Westerns Collection. Chisum includes a commentary from the film's director, Andrew V. McLaglen (Shenandoah) that's fairly dry but does have some interesting stories here and there. It also comes with a featurette, "John Wayne and Chisum" (8:55), that was shot back when the film was being made. It's a nice curio. The disc is rounded out with the film's trailer (3:09) and some text extras.
If one were to make a list of classic Western films that Warner Bros. owns or has the rights to, it's hard to imagine that some of the films in this set would be on it. Only Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid qualifies as a classic, and Ride the High Country is worthy of respect, but the other two films are below average. With such wildly inconsistent choices and less-than-satisfactory packaging, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to buy this set.
Guilty of not living up to its title.
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