The Wild Bunch reviews / Part 5:
Leonard Maltin talks about the film THE WILD BUNCH during an interview for AFI’s 10 Top 10 (2008)
Leonard Maltin talks about the film THE WILD BUNCH during an interview for AFI’s 10 Top 10 (2008)
From the opening image of children happily watching fire ants kill a scorpion, Sam Peckinpah presents a relentlessly pessimistic view of frontier life in 1913 as it gives way to modernity; any sense of honor is strictly relative, and “civilization” means venal businessmen and mercenaries. The western’s myth of “righteous” violence is literally blasted to pieces in the two battle sequences evocative of the 1968-69 carnage in Vietnam. In elaborately edited montages using different camera speeds and distances, Peckinpah and cinematographer Lucien Ballard show what it looks like when bullets hit flesh, drawing out moments of death amidst bloody chaos in a balletic yet repellent spectacle. The Wild Bunch eventually became a moderate hit, and it got Oscar nominations for Jerry Fielding’s score and Walon Green’s and Peckinpah’s script. Unsatisfied with Peckinpah’s 145-minute cut, Warner Bros. pulled the film after its debut and shaved 10 minutes of exposition but left the violence intact. The footage was fully restored in 1995. With its stunning technical finesse and uncompromising view of the West’s bloody demise, The Wild Bunch remains one of the most powerful “last” westerns ever made.
Nice and short …
The Wild Bunch review Glenn Erickson – one of my favorite film reviewers. The Length of of Erickson’s review goes against my blog rule of keeping my posts short , but he’s so good at what he does I couldn’t figure out how to shorten it …
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Would you give someone guns to kill your mother, or your brother?
The Wild Bunch is the big one, and if one hasn’t seen it yet, by all means stop reading this! Thirty-six years later, Peckinpah’s best film is still the last truly original Western. Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves are great pictures, but they don’t break new ground. Critics, film historians and western buffs have written up this masterpiece from every conceivable angle – its violence, its sexual politics and its position midway between the western, the gangster film and the historical epic. One fine article analyzed the half-dozen musical rhythms coursing through the final sequence. Another proposed that Peckinpah’s vision of the Death of the West was also a marker for the beginning decline of America, a country awash in corruption and violence.
When Warners first released movies to VHS home video The Wild Bunch was one of the first titles out, albeit in the original (adjusted) theatrical length of about 135 minutes. Until a longer repertory print appeared around 1979, the only Americans to see Peckinpah’s full cut (145 minutes) were those who attended the first week of its limited-run in big cities. In foreign markets — the UK and Spain — the film played in 70mm and stereophonic sound, but not in the states. Sam Peckinpah’s personal print of the film played at a special Jerry Harvey Beverly Canon screening in 1974 and at Filmex in 1976, rare occasions indeed. Peckinpah’s print included a very classy intermission.
A pan-scanned but full length laserdisc appeared in the late 1980s, and Warners undertook a major 70mm stereophonic restoration in 1992 that was stopped dead when the MPAA tried to re-rate the film as NC-17. Protests and negotiations followed for two years until a big re-premiere in 1995 at the Cinerama Dome.
Warners’ Two-Disc Special Edition of The Wild Bunch is indeed a Director’s Cut. The quality is excellent and the extras only a little disappointing; more on that below.
A band of brutal outlaws led by the bitter Pike Bishop (William Holden) is decimated when a railroad company ambush led by Pike’s old pal Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) turns into a bloodbath. Barely escaping, the six survivors head to Mexico with Thornton’s cutthroat bounty hunters in hot pursuit. They get on the good side of a Huerta warlord named Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) by taking his commission to steal U.S. Army guns in a daring raid on an armed train convoy. They manage to outrun Thornton, the bounty hunters and the pursuing U.S. Cavalry, but completing their deal with the ruthless and bloodthirsty Federales is not going to be a piece of cake – Mapache needs those guns to hold off Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries, and would just as soon kill Pike’s gringos “as break wind.”
The Wild Bunch gathers up the western genre in one big eclectic mass and reinterprets it from a subversive perspective. The past is dead and the remnants of old banditry have become outcasts in a world transformed by technology and big money; the loyalties and words of honor so revered in Ride the High Country and Major Dundee have become a liability. Pike Bishop talks solidarity but cannot hold his bunch together; the reality consistently falls short of the dream. His big railroad robbery kills half his men and nets the Bunch only “a dollar’s worth of steel holes.” He more or less abandons the loose-cannon Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) in Starbuck and then finds out that the boy was related to the Bunch’s oldest member. Pike talks big words about sticking together but cannot summon a practical protest when one of his own is being tortured to death. About all the Bunch can brag about it that they “don’t hang nobody,” when the truth is that they probably never had the opportunity. Thornton marvels that Pike “never got caught,” even though that accomplishment is tempered by the knowledge that he left his best friend to suffer a long prison term.
The Wild Bunch rests at the center of a dynamic group of films about armed Americans taking violent ‘expeditions’ across the border. Filmed in Mexico with the cream of the Mexican industry’s action experts, it has several big directors (Emilio Fernandez, Chano Urueta, Alfonso Arau, Fernando Wagner) as actors. Peckinpah’s script, direction and cutting (a marvelous, adventurous job by Louis Lombardo) are superb; the attention to detail and the layered texture of each scene is the equal or better than anything in Leone or Visconti. Some of Peckinpah’s editing and film speed ideas are borrowed from Akira Kurosawa, who can still be listed as Peckinpah’s superior — in the long run Peckinpah’s complicated plotting still leaves a few ragged ends.
Peckinpah salts the film with unusually powerful ‘meaningful’ dialogue, much of it highly quotable. The only really dated patch is during a ‘sensitive’ campfire scene where Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch earnestly asks Pike if they can learn from their mistakes. Peckinpah wisely avoids shoving The Wild Bunch into the category of ‘revolution-chic’ pictures, then the rage in Europe. At the conclusion Deke Thornton and Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien) are clearly running off to join Pancho Villa against the Federales. It would have been easy to give Thornton or Sykes some crazy pro- Ho Chi Minh dialogue line like, “If only our mercenary efforts had been for a worthwhile cause like la revolución!
This powerful comeback film was a resurrection for Sam Peckinpah, who had been blackballed from studio work after Major Dundee and an ill-fated false start on The Cincinnati Kid. If producer Phil Feldman was responsible for Peckinpah’s artistic freedom and excellent performance here he should have been given credit, for in The Wild Bunch all the virtues claimed for the director finally pay off. The key to Feldman and Peckinpah’s assemblage of top actors and top-flight production values is the dialogue line, “This time we do it right.”
Almost every role is a perfect casting fit. William Holden was wallowing in feeble action films (The Devil’s Brigade) and limp cameos (Casino Royale) and puts in his best all-round performance since David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Ernest Borgnine is far better than usual, with Peckinpah’s influence keeping him from going over the top, as he was wont to do on films for Robert Aldrich. Robert Ryan hadn’t gotten a role this good since the 1950s; his characterization does the most with the least screen time. Peckinpah also skimmed the cream of his stock company, adding a few choice nuggets like Albert Dekker (he died before the film was released) and an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien.
The Wild Bunch surprised us with its portraits of hard men under pressure, going beyond Aldrich’s good start in Flight of the Phoenix. Virtue is practically irrelevant, with men formed into various groups for survival. All activity is in pursuit of money (the Bunch’s unapologetic thievery), power (the brutal Mexican civil war) or both (Railroad agent Pat Harrigan is both greedy and a perverse authority figure). Yet the script celebrates the bonds among these civilized savages. The near-subhuman Gorches recognize no law except their relationship as brothers. Both Thornton and Dutch openly admire Pike Bishop and Angel respects him as a father figure. Even the reprehensible Mapache inspires worship, from a pint-sized telegraph messenger.
Peckinpah’s realignment of the John Ford universe is at its strongest in The Wild Bunch. References to Ford pictures run deeper than the appropriation of songs like Shall We Gather at the River? The Bunch hark back to Ford’s villainous Clantons in My Darling Clementine: Walter Brennan’s “When you pull a gun, SHOOT a man!” is definitely the kind of talk that inspires Pike Bishop’s hard-bitten outbursts. Some Ford references are much more subtle, like the shawl that Henry Fonda takes from Cathy Downs’ Clementine Carter on the way to a church dance. In Starbuck Pike extends his arm to help an elderly lady across the street, and Dutch carries her packages. During the escape, Pike’s horse tramples a younger woman into the dust; pausing at the edge of town, he frees her shawl from his spur, throws it down, and continues.
Peckinpah was also fan enough of John Huston to liberally borrow from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, especially the brief respite in the Mexican village, with its grateful campesinos assembling to give the Bunch a fond farewell. Peckinpah embraces sentimentality in these scenes, with the irony that our bloody desperados are flattered and moved to be the recipients of such unquestioning love. Pike and his boys bask in the accolades withheld from Steve Judd’s upstanding lawman at the beginning of Ride the High Country.
The ending of The Wild Bunch is the most obvious Sierra Madre lift, with Thornton and Sykes laughing, much as had Tim Holt and Walter Houston. The moment isn’t quite as rich as in the John Huston classic, but it will do. 2
Peckinpah’s house blend of slow-motion violence shocked us deeply in 1969, as we had been fully conditioned to screen violence that carried no consequences. Typical shotgun humor can be seen in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, where poor shot James Caan is given a ‘funny’ scattergun that makes a big BOOM and never misses. Peckinpah’s stylized bullet hits make fountains of blood spurt out across the screen, as if human beings were soggy bags of hemoglobin; and when rendered in slow motion, careering bodies spin and tumble in airborne ballet deaths. It’s simultaneously ugly and beautiful, obscene and aestheticized.
The Peckinpah slo-mo bloodbath has gone in and out of style, driven into the ground by Peckinpah himself and badly imitated by violent filmmakers convinced that bloody violence and slow motion are marketable production values in themselves. Cheaper films resorted to ‘poor man’s Peckinpah’ by simply double or triple-printing frames of film, a trick which usually looks terrible. Since the 1990s, market-controlled moviemaking has upped the ante in high-impact, fast-cut violence that far outpaces The Wild Bunch in blur-cuts, to the point that perceivable continuity is often lost to anyone not flying on amphetamines – Michael Bay, some Ridley Scott movies, etc. People arguing about today’s confusing action cutting should re-assess The Wild Bunch’s two big shootout scenes, which sometimes use very short cuts (4 frames, even) yet allow us to watch and understand the violent action. Editor Lombardo and Peckinpah play with the idea of action too fast for the cameras – in a pair of shots in the final gundown the camera pans left and right looking for Tector Gorch’es human targets, both of whom are blasted out of the frame before we can get a good look at them.
But the hypocrisy of Hollywood violence circa 2005 is worse than ever. Filmmakers will do anything to avoid visible blood, which the constipated MPAA will instantaneously use to bounce a PG-13 film into an R, or an R into an NC-17. Hence the blood that looks too dark in Lord of the Rings (“It’s mud, God’s truth!”) or entire scenes rendered in B&W to eliminate splashes of crimson. In the PG-13 War of the Worlds bodies are conveniently blasted into Martha Stewart-friendly powder. Against the desert browns in The Wild Bunch, red blood looks even redder.
Warners publicity obviously hadn’t a clue when they previewed the film in the midwest to a theater packed with retired folks. The outraged walkouts were interpreted badly by the studio, which sabotaged the picture by cutting it by ten minutes in its first week. Little did they know that it would become the most popular revival title in circulation, with the same battered prints playing to packed midnight shows for years to come. Savant must have seen it twenty times, double billed on everything from There Was a Crooked Man to McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
DVD Technical Information
As soon as the Special Edition of The Wild Bunch was announced, the web was awash in fan anticipation of hoped-for goodies, to the point that Savant has received many Emails asking if longer cuts, missing scenes and censor snippets are going to be restored. Although the two-disc set has many attractions, there are no new scenes restored, in or out of the feature itself.
Disc one has a beautifully remastered transfer, an enhanced encoding of the film with an image-cleaning job done with great care. If digital tools were used, they weren’t abused, as there is none of the ‘grain overlay’ we have come to expect on library titles. A few near-horizontal lines become a little crisp but Savant sees no loss of detail, quite the opposite. We can read the print on the wanted posters. The ruddy flatness of the scene with the puro indios has been toned down. We can finally see the wind-blown raindrops in one shot of the Bunch making their way to Mexico. Just about the only difference that may run counter to the look of the original film (I’m thinking of Peckinpah’s long-ago original Technicolor print) is that the red blood is toned down a bit. The bandit with his face shot away used to wear a mask of dripping crimson, which no longer carries the exact same glow. The Wild Bunch fans are so picky that a web outcry for one reason or another is almost a given, but Savant is very, very pleased. By comparison, the older flipper DVD from 1997 now looks as if it were projected on a burlap bag.
The Wild Bunch was originally mixed in stereo for 70mm (abroad) and carefully re-mixed in the early 1990s for the big re-premiere. Jerry Fielding’s sublime, Oscar-nominated score sounds better than ever. This is indeed the authentic original release version before it was chopped by Warners. I noticed only three differences from Peckinpah’s personal print: 1) No added intermission break; 2) The looped English lines for General Mapache in the Pancho Villa sequence (in the Peckinpah print they were in Spanish without subtitles); and 3) The Peckinpah print also had a slightly longer cut of the moment where Deke Thornton and the bounty hunters find the bandit that Pike Bishop shot in a mercy killing (“Finish it, Mr. Bishop”). After Deke says that it is getting dark, he dispatched a couple of his ‘railroad detectives’ to take the body back to Starbuck to collect the reward. Some really perceptive Peckinpah fans (Gregory Nicoll, for one) deduced this event by noticing that Thornton’s posse unaccountably shrank by one or two members!
Disc two has the extras. Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade is a 2004 Starz/Encore Cable docu at feature length, directed by Tom Thurman and written by Tom Marksbury, the writer of John Ford Goes to War. It includes input from just about everybody who ever worked with the director, including a fair share of pontificating critics and actors from newer generations. The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage is Paul Seydor and Nick Redman’s 1996 Oscar-nominated short subject that was the sole extra on the first DVD release. Its main appeal is the chance to peruse a giddy overdose of B&W behind-the-scenes footage (found at Warners by producer Michael Arick) of the shooting of key sequences like the buildup to the final battle. Voiceovers with actors like Ed Harris interpreting Sam Peckinpah lay on the gutsy man-talk a little thick. An item billed as a docu excerpt from A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch by Nick Redman is a new featurette showing Redman and his fellow authors visiting the film’s locations outside Durango, partly accompanied by Peckinpah’s daughter Lupita. Luckily for us, they’re very good with hand-held video cameras.
The supplemental bullets underscore an extra called “Never-Before-Seen Additional Scenes”, which naturally leads one to expect a Holy Grail of unseen Peckinpah treasures. What we get instead is a montaged assortment of odds ‘n ends dailies of varying interest. Any chance to view uncut camera footage from the movie is going to be welcomed, and the selection concentrates on action scenes in alternate angles or in trims of angles we recognize from the film. They appear to be high-quality transfers from negative, which is a plus as well. Pieces of this recovered footage are also glimpsed in the newly edited featurettes. Only a couple of bits caught Savant’s eye. One a view of a dead bounty hunter oozing blood over the top of the Starbuck bank building looks like the kind of thing that might be deleted to remove extraneous gore. Another shot shows Deke Thornton in convict clothing, working on a rockpile straight out of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. 3
What we don’t get are the missing scenes implied on the package text. Besides the apocryphal stories of even more outrageous gore (the demise of the clerks and the female customer in the telegraph office, for one), there’s also the tantalizing moment retained in the trailer of Sykes’ distress at learning that Mapache has seized Angel. Although these legendary remnants are probably just legends, I wouldn’t be surprised if legal issues restrained the disc producers from including a lot of special material – note that that the recovered dailies avoid clear views of name actors. The only mementos Savant has of the film are some original transparencies and a 3/4″ tape (somewhere) of the Network Television re-cut of the final gundown scene, artistically censored into a dreamlike and incomprehensible blur of violence-free violence.
I’m betting there’s been a few thesis’ written on Sam Peckinpah and The WIld Bunch. How deeply do people get into this? Let’s find out:
March 17, 1995
William Holden as Pike
Ernest Borgnine as Dutch
Robert Ryan as Thornton
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Rated R For Extensive and Graphic Violence
In an early scene of “The Wild Bunch,” the bunch rides into town past a crowd of children who are gathered with excitement around their game. They have trapped a scorpion and are watching it being tortured by ants. The eyes of Pike (William Holden), leader of the bunch, briefly meet the eyes of one of the children. Later in the film, a member of the bunch named Angel is captured by Mexican rebels and dragged around the town square behind one of the first automobiles anyone there has seen. Children run after the car, laughing. Near the end of the film, Pike is shot by a little boy who gets his hands on a gun.
The message here is not subtle, but then Sam Peckinpah was not a subtle director, preferring sweeping gestures to small points.
It is that the mantle of violence is passing from the old professionals like Pike and his bunch, who operate according to a code, into the hands of a new generation that learns to kill more impersonally, as a game, or with machines.
The movie takes place in 1913, on the eve of World War I.
“We gotta start thinking beyond our guns,” one of the bunch observes.
“Those days are closing fast.” And another, looking at the newfangled auto, says, “They’re gonna use them in the war, they say.” It is not a war that would have meaning within his intensely individual frame of reference; he knows loyalty to his bunch, and senses it is the end of his era.
This new version of “The Wild Bunch,” carefully restored to its original running time of 144 minutes, includes several scenes not widely seen since the movie had its world premiere in 1969. Most of them fill in details from the earlier life of Pike, including his guilt over betraying Thornton (Robert Ryan), who was once a member of the bunch but is now leading the posse of bounty hunters on their trail. Without these scenes, the movie seems more empty and existential, as if Pike and his men seek death after reaching the end of the trail. With them, Pike’s actions are more motivated: He feels unsure of himself and the role he plays.
I saw the original version at the world premiere in 1969, as part of a week-long boondoggle during which Warner Bros. screened five of its new films in the Bahamas for 450 critics and reporters.
It was party time, not the right venue for what became one of the most controversial films of its time – praised and condemned with equal vehemence, like “Pulp Fiction.” At a press conference the following morning, Holden and Peckinpah hid behind dark glasses and deep scowls. After a reporter from Reader’s Digest got up to attack them for making the film, I stood up in defense; I felt, then and now, that “The Wild Bunch” is one of the great defining moments of modern movies.
But no one saw the 144-minute version for many years. It was cut. Not because of violence (only quiet scenes were removed), but because it was too long to be shown three times in an evening. It was successful, but it was read as a celebration of compulsive, mindless violence; see the uncut version, and you get a better idea of what Peckinpah was driving at.
The movie is, first of all, about old and worn men. Holden and his fellow actors (Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Edmund O’Brien, Ben Johnson and the wonderful Robert Ryan) look lined and bone-tired.
They have been making a living by crime for many years, and although Ryan is now hired by the law, it is only under threat that he will return to jail if he doesn’t capture the bunch. The men provided to him by a railroad mogul are shifty and unreliable; they don’t understand the code of the bunch.
And what is that code? It’s not very pleasant. It says that you stand by your friends and against the world, that you wrest a criminal living from the banks, the railroads and the other places where the money is, and that while you don’t shoot at civilians unnecessarily, it is best if they don’t get in the way.
The two great violent set-pieces in the movie involve a lot of civilians. One comes through a botched bank robbery at the beginning of the film, and the other comes at the end, where Pike looks at Angel’s body being dragged through the square, and says “God, I hate to see that,” and then later walks into a bordello and says, “Let’s go,” and everybody knows what he means, and they walk out and begin the suicidal showdown with the heavily armed rebels.
Lots of bystanders are killed in both sequences (one of the bunch picks a scrap from a woman’s dress off of his boot), but there is also cheap sentimentality, as when Pike gives gold to a prostitute with a child, before walking out to die.
In between the action sequences (which also include the famous scene where a bridge is bombed out from beneath mounted soldiers), there is a lot of time for the male bonding that Peckinpah celebrated in most of his films. His men shoot, screw, drink, and ride horses.
The quiet moments, with the firelight and the sad songs on the guitar and the sweet tender prostitutes, are like daydreams, with no standing in the bunch’s real world. This is not the kind of film that would likely be made today, but it represents its set of sad, empty values with real poetry.
The undercurrent of the action in “The Wild Bunch” is the sheer meaninglessness of it all. The first bank robbery nets only a bag of iron washers – “a dollar’s worth of steel holes.” The train robbery is well-planned, but the bunch cannot hold onto their takings. And at the end, after the bloodshed, when the Robert Ryan character sits for hours outside the gate of the compound, just thinking, there is the payoff: A new gang is getting together, to see what jobs might be left to do. With a wry smile he gets up to join them. There is nothing else to do, not for a man with his background.
The movie was photographed by Lucien Ballard, in dusty reds and golds and browns and shadows. The editing, by Lou Lombardo, uses slow motion to draw the violent scenes out into meditations on themselves.
Every actor was perfectly cast to play exactly what he could play; even the small roles need no explanation. Peckinpah possibly identified with the wild bunch. Like them, he was an obsolete, violent, hard-drinking misfit with his own code, and did not fit easily into the new world of automobiles, and Hollywood studios.
Seeing this restored version is like understanding the film at last. It is all there: Why Pike limps, what passed between Pike and Thornton in the old days, why Pike seems tortured by his thoughts and memories. Now, when we watch Ryan, as Thornton, sitting outside the gate and thinking, we know what he is remembering. It makes all the difference in the world.
MFW: See what I mean? Some of this goes way past most of us … including me. But it’s still interesting.
MFW: This is probably way more than enough to put in your pipe for now …
Coming up: The Wild Bunch Reviews / Part 3 … An incredible review by Glenn Erickson / DVD Savant possibly the most insightful Film Reviewer in the trade …
Obviously outstanding Reviews – both by audience and Critics.
There is much that has been said and written about The Wild Bunch – certainly one of the most controversial movies ever made: reviled or celebrated, almost in equal kind from it’s inception. Also definitely one of the most dissected and analyzed movies ever made. And people are still doing so: What were Peckinpah’s motives? What was he trying to say? Was a good part of the movie a personal self analysis/Statement? What impact has the move had? and on and on …
There seems to be no aspect of anything that Peckinpah did in the last part of his career that escaped scrutiny and controversy.
But the studio editing 10 minutes from the original 1969 movie so that they could get three showings in the theatres – instead of 2 – is unforgivable. Yet they did it. Little wonder Peckinpah so detested the ‘money men’.
“The 1995 re-release of The Wild Bunch is 145 minutes long, identical to the 1969 European release, the version labeled “The Original Director’s Cut”, available in home video.
In 1993, Warner Bros. resubmitted the film to the MPAA ratings board prior to an expected re-release. To the studio’s surprise, the originally R-rated film was given an NC-17, delaying the release until the decision was appealed. The controversy was linked to 10 extra minutes added to the film, although none of this footage contained graphic violence. Warner Bros. trimmed some footage to decrease the running time to ensure additional daily screenings. When the restored film finally made it to the screen in March 1995, one reviewer noted:
By restoring 10 minutes to the film, the complex story now fits together in a seamless way, filling in those gaps found in the previous theatrical release, and proving that Peckinpah was firing on all cylinders for this, his grandest achievement…. And the one overwhelming feature that the director’s cut makes unforgettable are the many faces of the children, whether playing, singing, or cowering, much of the reaction to what happens on-screen is through the eyes, both innocent and imitative, of all the children.
Today, almost all of the versions of the film include the missing scenes. Warner Bros. released a newly restored version in a two-disc special edition on January 10, 2006. It includes an audio commentary by Peckinpah scholars, two documentaries concerning the making of the film, and never-before-seen outtakes.
There have been several versions of the film:
We need only know that since Sam Peckinpah (and Walon Green) did the writing/screenplay for The Wild Bunch that there is nothing in the Director’s Cut that Pekinpah didn’t want in there and everything that is in there is what he wanted to say …