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 …
The Wild Bunch: The Reviews / Part 3:
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.