4 stars out of 4. Immortal film and an American classic. Peckinpah’s crown jewel and the greatest American Western ever made or attempted.
“If they move…kill ’em!”
These famous words bring us into the film that introduced many into the cult of Peckinpah. (Myself included.) With The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah successfully eradicated Hollywood completely from the Western. Without any bit of doubt this can proudly stand as the single greatest achievement in the American Western. And with this bit of blasphemy to John Ford disciples I begin.
The Wild Bunch was and is unlike anything else that had come before (or since for that matter). It is a Western so completely devoid of the classical cliched plot elements we despise but continue to be force fed. For the first time, an American film looked at the West unflinchingly. It was a dark time, mirroring the turbulence of 1969. And this is not the West we typically think of, this is a West we never see. The West that even the history books tend to gloss over. The is the death of the open West, the death of the open country circa 1913.
The Bunch is a group of outlaws coming to the end of the West. World War I is on the horizon, the automobile is beginning to reach the open landscape, there is less and less to do and little or nothing left to explore. “We gotta start thinking beyond our guns.” Pike (William Holden) leads the motley crew on a robbery of a railroad office that opens the film. It is an ambush and we descend into a violent hell where the Bunch narrowly escape the hired killers sen by the railroad company to eradicate them. This is a group of thieves, bounty hunters and lowlifes that is reluctantly led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who used to be a member of the bunch until caught. Now he’s out of prison and forced to go after his former comrades. This begins a game of cat and mouse between the posses as the Bunch heads into Mexico seemingly to escape their pursuers. However, the real reason why they head south of the border is more telling. Mexico remains the last refuge of the open frontier. The American West at that point had been swallowed whole by industrialization. There simply was nowhere left to go and even the Bunch cannot admit it to themselves.
Everything we ever thought or knew about classical Hollywood filmmaking and the stability of standard Western fare is thrown out the window. It isn’t just dropped, it is ripped out by the roots and obliterated. The characters spring to life in small moments that come off as so incredibly realistic that it seems impossible to have written them into a screenplay. It feels as if this is not fiction, and that we’ve somehow been transported to this desolate horrible place. In this world everyone can earn a bullet in the head, a woman breastfeeds wearing a bandolier, a degenerate killer masquerades as a general, and when the going gets rough your friends are left to die.
John Wayne never rode through here.
And to be perfectly honest, this is what Sam could bring out of his cast and crew. Only he would and could get actors to actually ride their horses into a river simply for a transitional shot. This is not a series of sets, it is a world to inhabit. A universe of hard bitten men with deeply imbedded moral codes languishing in the last vestiges of freedom they can conjure up in their increasingly desolate minds.
The cast completely inhabit their roles, with many of the actors giving some of their finest performances. We always knew Bill Holden was a great actor, but it wasn’t until the Bunch that we could see that depth that was hinted at for so long.There is so much in Pike’s hard beaten face that just a glimpse of his eyes relate a lifetime of unimaginable pain. And then there’ s Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton. Finally one of the most underrated actors of the noir period gets a role worthy of his depth. Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, and Edmond O’ Brien as old man Sykes. Just these names alone bring images of the Bunch to mind. Once seeing the film one can’t help but completely associate the actors with their roles. And this goes for every part really. The characters seem to be written into the actor’s faces. Especially Emilio Fernandez as General Mapache, who simply reeks of pure villainy without saying even a word.
The editing is famous for its manipulation of speed, pacing and time in the action sequences. Revolutionary yes, but the editing of the film as a whole is effortless. It flows as if the events are actually occurring in front of your eyes and not a film narrative designed to give you the requisite number of highs and lows to make you feel better about buying a ticket. It is deliberately paced to test your endurance. It wants to get inside your head, play with your expectations, wants, fears, desires, bloodlust and then leave you questioning everything.
For a film so associated with violence, the characters seem to laugh a lot. As in life, there are just sometimes where things become so grim that nervous spontaneous laughter can be the only release from a private hell. Laughter becomes a necessary and welcome ally to the Bunch in order to temporarily escape themselves.
The leaps Sam took in directing prowess between films are markedly clear. The Wild Bunch builds on everything Sam founded in Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. It is a culmination of ideas and themes that transcends mere storytelling and genuinely affects us in a way that no else ever dared in a “Western”.
Originally the film was shorn of a little over of ten minutes for the US theatrical release. This was done to make the film be able to have a few extra showtimes each day for maximum studio profits. Oddly, instead of the studio meddling with the original cut by removing the controversial violence, they removed the backstory and quiet moments. This made the film seem even more intensive to original audiences and less humane. And something more than just some exposition was lost. A bit of the film’s identity was lost in this unforgivable edit. In the early 1990’s, Warner Brothers restored the footage and embarked on a full restoration of the film for an Anniversary roadshow style theatrical reissue. With the quiet moments reinstated and the film restored, the MPAA gave the film a rating of NC-17. This could be one of the big examples of the board’s complete ineffectiveness and complete futility.
But this reiterates just how none of the film’s power has been lost. It can still shock and awe in today’s world of desensitized schlock and meaningless fodder. And this unquestionable American masterpiece will still bring you to your knees.
Who here hasn’t cried in the end of the film? You should weep indescribably. I do. Still. Maybe for something we lost in the changing times, maybe for a story, maybe for neither but it is certainly for humanity I think.
“We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”
DVD: The original DVD issue was rather poor. An early disc in the format, Warner’s original issue broke the film across two sides of a flipper disc. Many digital glitches reared their ugly heads and overall the delayed laserdisc might be better in some shots. Still the color was seemingly well balanced (like the Laser which was timed like the 1995 restored prints) with little manipulation and the audio was repurposed into 5.1. included is the “Album in Montage” documentary.
DVD SE: Long waited for, WB finally reissued the film as a 2 disc SE with added bonus features, commentary and new 16:9 anamorphic transfer. The transfer is ahead of the original DVD, but has a greenish cast which looks odd. Same 5.1 mix here with no original mono option. The added documentaries are good but really add nothing new to those familiar with the film and its maker. the additional scenes are nothing more than some silent outtakes and bits found in a bin somewhere. The commentary is okay, and like all the tracks made by these Peckinpah scholars they seem to get a bit too “look at what he meant here” and “this shows greatness” there’s not really much of a point to this track, so sample at your leisure.
Blu-ray: also an early disc on a new format. The bunch looks spectacular to see in HD glory detail-wise. For some reason this transfer has a purplish cast overall which does not look right to the eyes. It looks better in motion and you’re not likely to notice on a first viewing. The same extras are ported over along with the same outdated DD 5.1 mix. And they didn’t even bump that up to a lossless codec. Or give us the original mono. Again. The single layer disc can be easily had for under $10 today, but it’s a shame to see one of the true American classics so casually disregarded.
DVDBeaver comparison between the three: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews8/wild-bunch.htm