Judge Ryan Keefer gets reacquainted with Sam Peckinpah all over again in a nice bright shiny special edition by Warner Brothers.
"We're not gonna get rid of anybody. We're gonna stick together, just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal, you're finished. We're finished. All of us."
Whenever film historians tabulate their votes for the best western of all time, The Wild Bunch usually makes that list in some manner or fashion. Directed by Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs), the film's quick cutting and graphic violence caused an uproar seen in few films, and never in westerns. When Warner Brothers first released the film on DVD, It was on a flipper disc, with few extras. So now the obvious question is whether or not you should double dip this classic?
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, 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), who 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.
The Wild Bunch has rightfully been credited with creating the foundation for the modern action movie, and for having breathed new life into the western film at the time. It's an excellent film that has stood the test of time for several decades, but it almost didn't come to realization.
In short, according to Peckinpah biographer David Weddle (author of If They Move, Kill 'Em!), the writing appeared to be on the wall for Peckinpah. He clashed frequently with the studio heads over 1965's Major Dundee and was removed from the production of The Cincinnati Kid after "creative differences." It was clearly his time to step up to the plate and deliver on the promise he showed after the excellent Ride the High Country. With the help of friend and producer Phil Feldman, Peckinpah rewrote the script, which was originally about a robbery in Africa and would star Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), and adapted it to turn of the century Mexico. After months of fine tuning the script, Marvin decided to back out and star in Paint Your Wagon. And after sending the script out to several big names, they finally managed to secure the cast for the film. Before starting the film however, Peckinpah ran into trouble. Apparently back in the day, studios had to submit screenplays in order to gain an MPAA rating. Think about that whenever you hear about a ratings controversy for a modern film. The MPAA, before any recommended cuts, was going to give it an X.
To his credit, Peckinpah was focused and determined during the course of production. He poured over newsreel footage related to the Mexican revolution to ensure accuracy during filming. There were seldom, if any, incidents of Peckinpah's drinking either on or off set, though he wasn't hesitant in dismissing crew members, which was indicative of his behavior on past or future films. Once completed, Peckinpah and Warner still had to contend with the X rating they were staring at. The response to the film, on both sides, was pretty visceral. Some groups loved it and thought it was the best film they'd ever seen; others despised it. The film grossed millions, and was comparable, perhaps even more so, to other westerns of that era like True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It even earned a couple of Oscar nominations. Its place in history has remained constant through several decades.
Peckinpah's "Bloody Sam" moniker was well-earned for its time, as The Wild Bunch has a lot of blood and gruesome shots that many found offensive. But in looking back at it now, the blood not as prevalent as today's fans would expect. The other thing that's surprising is the amount of cutting that's involved when you watch this. The film's edits set a record for the time, but the edits also put the viewer in the middle of the chaos. Because, dear reader, when one's in the middle of a gunfight in a sleepy town, one would expect a lot of people running around and scurrying for safety. So, the cutting helps to effectively disorient and confuse while everything is going on. The other, more obvious symbol lies in the opening credits, when a scorpion is being attacked by a horde or ants while a group of children watches. The scorpion is represented by Pike, while the ants could be represented by either Deke and his gang, or more accurately, the Mexican Army that Pike's gang has to eventually confront. The children? Well, we're the children, all watching as events transpire.
The performances are all excellent. Holden is outstanding as an aging bandit who realizes that there's nothing as valuable as the people you ride with, and Borgnine is very good as Pike's voice of consciousness. Oates and O'Brien provide the comic relief and Fernandez as the cold-blooded General Mapache helped set the stage for future film villains. The nice surprise of the film is Ryan. Throughout the film, Deke is a man who was disappointed by the way he and Pike lost their friendship, and while he is given the money and men to capture Pike and the Bunch, he doesn't like what he's been forced to do. His reaction and words at the end of the film are among its best in a 140-minute with some great dialogue.
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. Many of 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, while others are modern day fans, such as 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 Peckinpah's 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, his daughter Lupita, and his son Matthew. Weddle and Garner Simmons (author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage) 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, Simmons, 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.
And all of this without discussing the new anamorphic transfer of the film, which is outstanding, a clear improvement over the last version, and just to have the feature on a non-flipper disc is reward enough. The 5.1 audio sounds the same as the last version, but that's not a crime, as it's a solid one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's been a long held opinion of some missing footage even after this Director's Cut, and that isn't cleared up after this release, despite the worthy supplemental material. But this was the edition that any patient fan was rewarded with.
A classic movie gets an outstanding treatment by a studio that's done nothing but outstanding treatments lately. Quite frankly, run, don't walk, to your local store and gladly pay the money on this double dip. You won't regret it.
The court finds for the filmmakers and casts and finds that they are free to go. This judge is not moving, for fear of getting one right between the eyes.
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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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