Sam Peckinpah's classic western has prompted numerous directors to rip off his style. Read Judge Mike Pinsky's ruling on the original.
Our reviews of The Wild Bunch (Blu-Ray) (published November 29th, 2007), The Wild Bunch (HD DVD) (published November 5th, 2007), and The Wild Bunch: The Original Director's Cut (published January 23rd, 2006) are also available.
"I'm exhausted when I see it. I'm literally exhausted for hours. And all it is, really, is a simple adventure story."—Sam Peckinpah
"We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast," announces Pike Bishop (William Holden), early in The Wild Bunch. Indeed, by 1969, the western had burned itself out as a genre. The glory days of John Ford were over. Even mavericks like Sam Peckinpah, who had trained under the great Don Siegel and cut his teeth on classic television westerns like "Gunsmoke," were fading fast. But Peckinpah knew he had one last great battle left to fight. And in its wake, The Wild Bunch changed the face of action movies forever.
Facts of the Case
In a dusty western border town in the year 1913, a cavalry troupe rides up to a bank. Scruffy, armed men watch them from a rooftop, waiting for the moment of ambush. Children in the street laugh, as they drop a scorpion onto an anthill. A Temperance Union meeting goes on nearby. But all is not as it seems: the troopers walk into the bank and pull out guns. Their robbery is swift and efficient. But as they exit the bank, using the temperance march as cover, the rooftop posse—a group of railroad bounty hunters—opens fire. There is swift and bloody carnage, but most of the robbers escape, leaving one of their own behind to be picked off by the posse. While the bounty hunters gleefully loot the corpses cluttering the streets, the sadistic children pile straw on top of the scorpion, still struggling against a thousand merciless ants, and light a fire…
Rent almost any Hollywood action movie made in the last few years. See that arbitrary use of slow motion, which stylizes the violence into numbness? See that frenetic editing, which stylizes the violence into nonsense? Where did those directors steal their bag of tricks? And can anyone use those techniques and make them work?
The answer to both questions: Sam Peckinpah.
A volatile and talented director, Peckinpah works every note of The Wild Bunch with brooding intensity. Watch the gang silently take over a train, methodically uncoupling the engine and making off with a shipment of weapons while their adversaries nap in the rear car. Watch their stern march through town on their way to their final stand: no speeches, no melodrama—just grim resignation at the thought that they must now die for a cause, because the new century has no other use for them. Many of these powerful sequences were improvised on set by Peckinpah, who pushed and prodded his cast into some of the best performances of their careers. And the best performance of his own career (even if he did still have ten more films left to go).
Wait, did I just say that the Wild Bunch must die? No surprises here. This story is a tragedy in the classic sense: characters doomed by their own pride and loyalty caught in a world that does not care about honor. The Wild Bunch are bank robbers, criminals, but they learn that the new 20th century demands a social and political awareness that the mythic "Old West" did not. After they discover that their bank robbery has only paid off in worthless metal (part of the railroad bounty hunters' ambush plan), they flee to Mexico, where they find the country embroiled in a civil war. Corrupt federal troops, lead by the gluttonous General Mapache (Emilio Fernández), consume the town of Agua Verde, while the poor people of the countryside scrounge for weapons to fight back (and their own leader, Pancho Villa, is no less brutal than the government). Drawn into the middle of this political maelstrom, the gang makes a deal with Mapache and his German advisor (who wants to destabilize the American military in order to keep the U.S. out of the coming European war) to steal a trainload of army rifles. But the gang, at the prodding of the idealistic Angel (Jaime Sanchez), also intends to hand one crate of those rifles over to the rebels.
Meanwhile, the bounty hunters are led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), Pike's former partner, who is trying to save his own neck by capitulating to the authorities (the railroad, which really conquered the West), selling his own soul for a place in the new order. But he seems disgusted by his own betrayal, as he snaps at his petty deputies, "We're after men, and I wish to God I was with them." This is exactly what makes The Wild Bunch work: the characters are rich and complex. We care about them, with all their strengths and flaws, as they struggle to understand a changing world where horses and six-shooters are giving way to cars and machine guns. And honor is giving way to the accountant and the bureaucrat.
We care about the characters—and we care when they die. Peckinpah's use of violence, for which he has become justly notorious, is really quite judicious in The Wild Bunch. Slow motion, rapidly crosscut with regular speed footage, gives a sense of the breakneck pace of battle—but Peckinpah's real skill lies in his editing of these battles. Never once do you lose track of what is happening. You see each and every death, and each one has impact. Credit here goes to Lucien Ballard (cinematography) and Lou Lombardo (editing), but this is really Peckinpah's guiding hand at work. We must care about the characters for the violence to have impact, so Peckinpah fleshes out the principals with careful bits of backstory (particularly the long history between Pike and Thornton) and directs the supporting cast to underplay in order to make them seem more thoughtful and less like western-movie clichés (the villain's grinning sidekick, the crabby old-timer, and so on). William Holden and Robert Ryan give marvelous performances as the world-weary opponents, locked in a battle of wits (note how each cleverly predicts the other's strategies throughout the film), forced by circumstance to be enemies when all they really want is to ride off into that mythic sunset together.
And the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. It is easy to forget sometimes how good an actor Ernest Borgnine (here playing Dutch with a mix of boisterous humor and steel-eyed determination) can be, but his performance is one of the best of his career. And Edmund O'Brien gives conviction to cantankerous Sykes—how many actors can successfully pull off a character 25 years older than they are?
Warner Brothers has remastered the film for its DVD release. Color-corrected and remixed with Dolby 5.1, this print is a joy to see. Although not anamorphically enhanced, the color is still rich and deep, showing off the warm browns and reds with excellent clarity. Many westerns, because they are shot outdoors, can easily look washed-out or monochromatic, but Peckinpah effectively uses a number of different terrains (woods, deserts, rivers, ravaged villages) to keep our eyes focused between gun battles and during the long, crucial stretches of character building. Warner Brothers has done a fine job making this print look as fresh as it did on its first release. Even better, the new 5.1 mix allows the thunderous gunshots to have the frightening punch Peckinpah intends.
As part of the DVD release, Warners has restored ten minutes of footage to the film, mostly Pike's flashbacks and bits of the Mapache subplot. With some films, such exposition might be better off removed in order to kick up the film's pace, but in the case of The Wild Bunch, such character-development stuff is absolutely essential in order to give the characters (particularly Pike) texture. Also included on the disc is a 35-minute documentary, "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage." Produced in 1996, the film shows off black and white production footage and photographs in order to chronicle the making of Peckinpah's masterpiece. Voice-overs from the surviving cast and crew (and actors filling in for the dead ones—Ed Harris stands in for the steely voice of Peckinpah, who died in 1984) discuss their impressions of the production and Peckinpah's methods. Peckinpah saw himself as a bit of an outlaw and certainly empathized with Pike and his gang. Much is also made of his skill at on-set improvisation and his notorious temper. The documentary is a welcome addition (however, I am not sure it deserved its 1996 Oscar nomination), although I wish it had gone a bit more into Peckinpah's career outside this film, or maybe the critical controversy that met The Wild Bunch on its release, or maybe more about some of the rest of the crew (editor, cinematographer, composer).
The production notes provided on the DVD do not have much to say about these things either. A couple of screen-pages about how the portrayal of violence was groundbreaking (why? Much of the audience for this film, 30 years later, has seen so many weak imitations of Peckinpah that a little context is in order), a list of what scenes were restored for this edition (which is a nice touch), and a passing mention of the main themes of the film (that whole personal honor thing) and Peckinpah's use of slow-motion and cross-cutting. Filmographies and brief biographies of the principal actors and Peckinpah, as well as a full-frame trailer (a bit washed-out, but otherwise in pretty good shape), are also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, if you just pop the DVD in your player, you may never find these extras. Warners' packaging of this film is quite awkward. The feature itself is split into two parts: the first hour and 35 minutes on one side of the disc, the last 50 on the other—and it cuts in mid-scene! They should have split it a few minutes sooner, after the second act's climactic bridge assault. Hey guys, this is DVD: you don't have to rely on reel changes. Worse still, on both sides, the disc defaults to the film automatically. No menu. In order to get to the menu and find the extras (or heaven forbid the scene index), you have to fiddle with your remote (they say on the case that MENU works, but on my remote DIGEST was the only button that brought up the menu—you'll have to figure it out for yourself). Now while I do understand that this disc came out a few years ago (1997), and two-disc sets were not yet in fashion, Warner's cheap packaging (in an easily damaged snapper case no less) is still pretty annoying. But, if you can get beyond this relic of marketing strategies-gone-by, the film itself is a masterpiece.
Silly packaging decisions aside, The Wild Bunch is a welcome addition to the collection of any fan of westerns or action films. Any director who wants to learn how to show off a fight sequence properly is instructed to purchase this disc immediately. The price is reasonable ($20 retail, cheaper online) for a film that is historically significant and yet still packs a punch.
This court decrees that whoever at Warner Brothers decided it would be a good idea to package this disc in such an annoying fashion is to be hogtied and dragged behind a new-fangled automobile. Everyone else associated with this film is acquitted and receives a fair share of the loot.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Cast Biographies and Filmographies
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