Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" arrived in 1969 amid a firestorm of controversy. Its stark and brutally violent images seared the screen in the late sixties and forever changed the cinematic landscape. Loved by many and hated by some, the film was the beginning and the end of an era of westerns that until that point had not addressed the true savagery of what the Wild West was about in such an austere and unflinching way.
The film depicts the end of the gunfighter and the rise of technology, and yet the film itself is in many ways the tombstone of western as it was depicted on television and on film in decades past. Not to say there weren't some great westerns before it, in fact spaghetti westerns (not to mention "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Easy Rider") helped make a path for this bloody and ultra violent masterpiece, which is still to this day as gritty and savage as cinema gets.
Peckinpah was a force to be reckoned with, love him or hate him, and because of his notorious excesses he was in some ways despised by many in the Old Hollywood tradition that was quickly fading away into memory. As depicted in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show", the era of John Ford and David Lean was coming to a close and a new breed of filmmakers and producers were taking over. And as drug-addled as the era was (and Peckinpah, for that matter), it would produce some of the most strikingly original and memorable films of the twentieth century, and "The Wild Bunch" led the way for many of them.
Its use of slow motion technique and use of very realistic gunshot wounds, nudity, and language had not been attempted before on such a graphic scale, but Peckinpah was a renegade, and notoriously difficult to work for and with; it was his way or no way. Of course many artists are tortured and plagued by mental anguish and addictions, and Peckinpah is certainly no exception. In fact his damaged and even paranoid state of mind is the only place a film like "The Wild Bunch" could have ever sprung from, and the really amazing thing is that underneath the action movie is a multi-layered and symbolic work that waits to be discovered. This movie means many different things to many different people, and is best left unexplained so that you can discover it for yourself, or if you like you can simply watch it as an action film and leave social commentary on the Vietnam conflict, not to mention the myriad of other philosophical insights the film can lead to, completely alone. Either way the underlying theme of desperation, torment, sadness and futility seep through the film like uninvited guests, and it definitely takes you off guard. In fact it has taken me years to fully appreciate this particular film.
In Peckinpah's own words, he answers the critics who were unhappy with the violent nature of the film, "The point of the film, is to take this façade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved in it so that they are starting to go in the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it's not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut…it's ugly brutalizing and bloody awful. It's not fun and games and cowboys and Indians. It's a terrible ugly thing. And yet there's a certain response you get from it, an excitement because we're all violent people."
The film takes place in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, and much of it takes place on the Texas/Mexican border and in Mexico. The famously tragic opening sequence depicts a situation that goes completely and utterly wrong as the Bunch attempt a payroll robbery during a parade by a local church advocating temperance. Led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), this is a group of anti heroes who are out to steal their share of the American Dream. Dutch (Earnest Borgnine), Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) end up in a vicious gunbattle after being pursued by local authorities. The gunfight erupts in the middle of the parade and many women and children and innocent bystanders are slaughtered, and for nothing after it is revealed that the bags they thought had coins were filled with nothing but washers.
Our team heads across the border, pursued by an old member of the gang who is out to save himself from imprisonment, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Along the way Bishop comes up with a wild plan to rob a U.S. Army train filled with firearms and sell them to a Mexican General (Emilio Fernandez) to help out his cause. But being tracked by someone who is not just an old friend but a teacher in the ways of gun slinging presents many obstacles, and many of them have some tragic results. In fact this is still one of the most violent movies I've ever seen, and the explosive scenes of extreme mayhem are made all that more disturbing because of the amazing connection we build with theses believable and even likeable characters. This is a film I have watched many times over the years and one I plan on watching many more, especially now that I own it in this stunning new version on HD-DVD.
Fans of this excellent and action packed classic are sure to be pleased to know that the transfer is very good indeed. Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect and encoded using VC-1 technology, the detail on this release is vastly improved over the already excellent looking 2006 two-disc version, and that clearly says a lot. The detail is striking, and this film has so much to notice in the background, not to mention the bloody gun battles and the magnificent train robbery sequence. I didn't even really notice that many instances of film grain, although I expected many. You won't believe that you are watching a film that is almost forty years old, I guarantee you that. It is just as sharp and clear as you could want and even the darker scenes look wonderful. The detail of the clothing on this period piece is very noticeable and this film sometimes looks almost three dimensional, and you can often notice even the smallest little pebbles on the ground. I was really blown away by this one, it is demo worthy.
The sound is very good, just as good as I remember, especially during the battle sequences, when some surround action picks up along with some bass response. Being an older film, the audio hasn't really improved as much as the picture, but the dialogue always comes through very clear, I am a little surprised they neglected a mono track this time around, for purists at least. You will be happy with this serviceable Dolby Digital Plus track, and I certainly have no complaints.
All of the bonus features are in standard definition and all of the features from the previous 2-Disc edition have made it over. Including the massive 83 minute documentary called "Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade" which quite simply has everything you could possibly want of a documentary on the subject and benefits from the fascinating people it covers. Featuring interviews with many film critics and actors that worked with Sam over the years, this documentary is brutally honest and doesn't even attempt to paint a pretty picture of this tormented and excessive genius. It explores his darker side, including his well known substance abuse problems, with just as much candid and honest research as his film history itself. And hosted by his old friend, the great Kris Kristofferson, this documentary deserves it's excellent reputation as one of the best out there. It's presented in full screen, and make sure to not miss it, it is just as brilliant as the film itself.
We also have my favorite type of commentary, one that is filled with fascinating insight into the making of the film and into the mind of the film's director also, although some may think it is a bit dry at times. All on board are biographers and documentarians, so they really know the subject. Nick Redmon, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle offer much to this already stellar release.
Also up we have two other high quality documentaries that are just as wonderful, including 'The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage' runs about 33 minutes, and a twenty four minute excerpt of a longer version of 'Excerpts From A Simple Adventure: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch'. Both are great and the 'Montage' was nominated for an Oscar in 1996.
In addition there is a selection of additional scenes and a Peckinpah trailer gallery that is a lot of fun.
So, this release is something I highly recommend to all, but I also know this film isn't for everyone. Its notoriety is understandable, but in many ways I think everyone should watch it at least once. Myself, I simply love the film and have been watching it since I first discovered it about twenty years ago, and I was simply stunned by how good it looks this time around, I was highly impressed by Warner Brothers outstanding work on this excellent Western.