Judge Ryan Keefer would normally say that red and Blu don't mix, but not when it comes to Peckinpah films.
Our reviews of The Wild Bunch (published March 13th, 2001), 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.
"If they move, kill 'em!!"
Like it or not, Sam Peckinpah helped redefine the Western, something that had been considered a floundering genre until he started with the period, beginning with Ride the High Country. And the good part about the next generation elevation is that the recently released Warner Special Editions are getting the Blu-ray and HD DVD treatments. So, is this Blu-ray release of Peckinpah's seminal work The Wild Bunch worthy of the upgrade?
Facts of the Case
A group of robbers led by Pike Bishop (William Holden, The Bridge on the River Kwai) manage to rob a bank in town, and are forced to shoot their way out of the town. The reason for this is an old friend of Pike's named Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan, Battle of the Bulge) set up the robbery with the help of a railroad businessman. Pike's gang is left with nothing, so they enlist the help of a Mexican general (Emilio Fernandez, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) to steal some weapons off a train.
Along the way, we find out more about Pike's gang, starting with his friend Dutch (Ernest Borgnine, From Here to Eternity), brothers Lyle (Warren Oates, Stripes) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson, The Getaway), the somewhat moral compass of the group in Angel (Jaime Sanchez, Bobby Deerfield), and the old man who knows Pike and Deke well in Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien, Fantastic Voyage). Together they decide to steal the weapons, but when the general tries to double cross them, things get interesting.
As one who's seen the previous Special Edition before and reviewed it for the Verdict, I'm doing my best to not completely cannibalize my earlier review, but when I watched this film again the other day, I felt myself being struck by a couple of things in the film. The first was that I liked Ryan's performance more than before, in large part because the railroad magnates have him by the short hairs, and he respects and admires what Pike and the bunch are doing. The second is the sense as the film goes on that the bunch are more aware of how they'll meet their end. The sequence with the bunch going to get Angel back from Mapache has dialogue at a minimum, but they know what they have to do, and know what the ending will probably be. Although near the end, they exchange looks that seem to indicate that there is hope in what they're doing. At first the fact that they're outnumbered makes them feel somewhat hopeless, but some of their foes have a hesitancy that they (the bunch) don't have. So yeah, maybe there's a hope after all. But overall I have been enjoying the smaller stuff more in subsequent viewings.
I liked the standard definition version of the disc when it came out, and to see this 2.40:1 widescreen version in high definition now, all VC-1 encoded and purty like, there appears to be a slightly noticeable improvement from said Special Edition. The image is certainly sharper, but what really impressed me was the depth that the film possesses in the background. During the opening scenes with the bank robbery, you can see all the way down the street for several blocks. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound source from the standard definition version was brought over here and while it was fine, considering we're in the world of high definition, fine translates to adequate, nothing more.
Aside from the trailer (and trailers for other Peckinpah films), the only other bonus from the previous disc was the documentary The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, which included footage of Peckinpah and the crew on set with a handheld black and white camera and stills. There are voiceovers with some of the surviving cast crew, and voice artists for those who aren't, notably Ed Harris (Pollack), who provides the voice of Peckinpah. Directed by Paul Seydor (author of Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration) and narrated by Nick Redman, it's an excellent look at the making of the film, with fond recollections by all. The next feature is entitled Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade. Originally airing on the Starz! pay channel, the feature includes interviews with Peckinpah assistants and actors, and critics such as Roger Ebert. At almost an hour and a half, it's an extraordinary look at Peckinpah's films. Among the people included on the documentary worked with Peckinpah, such as Stella Stevens (The Ballad of Cable Hogue) and Harry Dean Stanton (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid appear, and modern day fans include Benicio del Toro (Traffic), Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs). Narrated by Kris Kristofferson (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), the feature discusses his impact on films, the people he worked with, and how well the films were received. There are memories of Sam from his family, notably his sister Fern and his daughter Lupita and son Matthew. Weddle and Simmons help to look at each film within a larger context, and there's quite a bit of on set footage to complement them. The films are discussed objectively, both good and bad. References to Peckinpah's behavior with studios or his indulgence in alcohol are kept to a minimum; the focus is on how he became a part of Western filmmaking history. Overall it's an excellent look at the director.
But wait, there's more! There's a 20 minute documentary excerpt from Redman entitled A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch that includes appearances by Weddle, Seydor, Garner Simmons (author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage), director Nick Redman and Peckinpah's daughter Lupita. This piece is a little bit of a disappointment, as it's really nothing more than an extended look at Peckinpah's locations now, compared to 35 years ago. The additional scenes that are mentioned on the back of the case are actually about eight minutes of outtakes set to the film's score. Everything is so good that the one extra that you'd expect to be good wasn't. The commentary, moderated by Redman and including Weddle, Seydor and Simmons is a little bit underwhelming. The Peckinpah subject matter experts do provide the usual biographical and historical information, and they discuss Peckinpah's work as a whole, but the commentary feels more like an appreciation than a critical discussion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not really a complaint against the film, but a plea for Warner Brothers to hopefully release the other Peckinpah westerns onto high definition as well. There's some excellent cinematography to be viewed in the other films, particularly in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and as the format emerges, this particular judge hopes they arrive sooner rather than later.
The Wild Bunch helped signal the arrival of Sam Peckinpah as an effective director who could use violence in effective ways to deliver a message. The extras are already excellent, and the audio and video are fairly decent. If you've never seen the film before, this is a pretty good title to add to one's high definition library.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Biographers/Historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle
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