THE WILD BUNCH
Warner Bros. // 1969 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mike Pinsky // March 13th, 2001
"I'm exhausted when I see it. I'm literally exhausted for
hours. And all it is, really, is a simple adventure story." --
"We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are
closing fast," announces Pike Bishop (William Holden), early
in The Wild Bunch. Indeed, by 1969, the western had burned
itself out as a genre. The glory days of John Ford were over.
Even mavericks like Sam Peckinpah, who had trained under the
great Don Siegel and cut his teeth on classic television
westerns like "Gunsmoke," were fading fast. But Peckinpah knew
he had one last great battle left to fight. And in its wake,
The Wild Bunch changed the face of action movies forever.
Facts of the Case
In a dusty western border town in the year 1913, a cavalry
troupe rides up to a bank. Scruffy, armed men watch them from
a rooftop, waiting for the moment of ambush. Children in the
street laugh, as they drop a scorpion onto an anthill. A
Temperance Union meeting goes on nearby. But all is not as it
seems: the troopers walk into the bank and pull out guns.
Their robbery is swift and efficient. But as they exit the
bank, using the temperance march as cover, the rooftop posse
-- a group of railroad bounty hunters -- opens fire. There is
swift and bloody carnage, but most of the robbers escape,
leaving one of their own behind to be picked off by the posse.
While the bounty hunters gleefully loot the corpses cluttering
the streets, the sadistic children pile straw on top of the
scorpion, still struggling against a thousand merciless ants,
and light a fire...
Rent almost any Hollywood action movie made in the last few
years. See that arbitrary use of slow motion, which stylizes
the violence into numbness? See that frenetic editing, which
stylizes the violence into nonsense? Where did those directors
steal their bag of tricks? And can anyone use those techniques
and make them work?
The answer to both questions: Sam Peckinpah.
A volatile and talented director, Peckinpah works every note
of The Wild Bunch with brooding intensity. Watch the gang
silently take over a train, methodically uncoupling the engine
and making off with a shipment of weapons while their
adversaries nap in the rear car. Watch their stern march
through town on their way to their final stand: no speeches,
no melodrama -- just grim resignation at the thought that they
must now die for a cause, because the new century has no other
use for them. Many of these powerful sequences were improvised
on set by Peckinpah, who pushed and prodded his cast into some
of the best performances of their careers. And the best
performance of his own career (even if he did still have ten
more films left to go).
Wait, did I just say that the Wild Bunch must die? No
surprises here. This story is a tragedy in the classic sense:
characters doomed by their own pride and loyalty caught in a
world that does not care about honor. The Wild Bunch are bank
robbers, criminals, but they learn that the new 20th century
demands a social and political awareness that the mythic "Old
West" did not. After they discover that their bank robbery has
only paid off in worthless metal (part of the railroad bounty
hunters' ambush plan), they flee to Mexico, where they find
the country embroiled in a civil war. Corrupt federal troops,
lead by the gluttonous General Mapache (Emilio Fernández),
consume the town of Agua Verde, while the poor people of the
countryside scrounge for weapons to fight back (and their own
leader, Pancho Villa, is no less brutal than the government).
Drawn into the middle of this political maelstrom, the gang
makes a deal with Mapache and his German advisor (who wants to
destabilize the American military in order to keep the U.S.
out of the coming European war) to steal a trainload of army
rifles. But the gang, at the prodding of the idealistic Angel
(Jaime Sanchez), also intends to hand one crate of those
rifles over to the rebels.
Meanwhile, the bounty hunters are led by Deke Thornton (Robert
Ryan), Pike's former partner, who is trying to save his own
neck by capitulating to the authorities (the railroad, which
really conquered the West), selling his own soul for a place
in the new order. But he seems disgusted by his own betrayal,
as he snaps at his petty deputies, "We're after men, and I
wish to God I was with them." This is exactly what makes The
Wild Bunch work: the characters are rich and complex. We care
about them, with all their strengths and flaws, as they
struggle to understand a changing world where horses and
six-shooters are giving way to cars and machine guns. And
honor is giving way to the accountant and the bureaucrat.
We care about the characters -- and we care when they die.
Peckinpah's use of violence, for which he has become justly
notorious, is really quite judicious in The Wild Bunch. Slow
motion, rapidly crosscut with regular speed footage, gives a
sense of the breakneck pace of battle -- but Peckinpah's real
skill lies in his editing of these battles. Never once do you
lose track of what is happening. You see each and every death,
and each one has impact. Credit here goes to Lucien Ballard
(cinematography) and Lou Lombardo (editing), but this is
really Peckinpah's guiding hand at work. We must care about
the characters for the violence to have impact, so Peckinpah
fleshes out the principals with careful bits of backstory
(particularly the long history between Pike and Thornton) and
directs the supporting cast to underplay in order to make them
seem more thoughtful and less like western-movie clichés (the
villain's grinning sidekick, the crabby old-timer, and so on).
William Holden and Robert Ryan give marvelous performances as
the world-weary opponents, locked in a battle of wits (note
how each cleverly predicts the other's strategies throughout
the film), forced by circumstance to be enemies when all they
really want is to ride off into that mythic sunset together.
And the rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. It is easy to
forget sometimes how good an actor Ernest Borgnine (here
playing Dutch with a mix of boisterous humor and steel-eyed
determination) can be, but his performance is one of the best
of his career. And Edmund O'Brien gives conviction to
cantankerous Sykes -- how many actors can successfully pull
off a character 25 years older than they are?
Warner Brothers has remastered the film for its DVD release.
Color-corrected and remixed with Dolby 5.1, this print is a
joy to see. Although not anamorphically enhanced, the color is
still rich and deep, showing off the warm browns and reds with
excellent clarity. Many westerns, because they are shot
outdoors, can easily look washed-out or monochromatic, but
Peckinpah effectively uses a number of different terrains
(woods, deserts, rivers, ravaged villages) to keep our eyes
focused between gun battles and during the long, crucial
stretches of character building. Warner Brothers has done a
fine job making this print look as fresh as it did on its
first release. Even better, the new 5.1 mix allows the
thunderous gunshots to have the frightening punch Peckinpah
As part of the DVD release, Warners has restored ten minutes
of footage to the film, mostly Pike's flashbacks and bits of
the Mapache subplot. With some films, such exposition might be
better off removed in order to kick up the film's pace, but in
the case of The Wild Bunch, such character-development stuff
is absolutely essential in order to give the characters
(particularly Pike) texture. Also included on the disc is a
35-minute documentary, "The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage."
Produced in 1996, the film shows off black and white
production footage and photographs in order to chronicle the
making of Peckinpah's masterpiece. Voice-overs from the
surviving cast and crew (and actors filling in for the dead
ones -- Ed Harris stands in for the steely voice of Peckinpah,
who died in 1984) discuss their impressions of the production
and Peckinpah's methods. Peckinpah saw himself as a bit of an
outlaw and certainly empathized with Pike and his gang. Much
is also made of his skill at on-set improvisation and his
notorious temper. The documentary is a welcome addition
(however, I am not sure it deserved its 1996 Oscar
nomination), although I wish it had gone a bit more into
Peckinpah's career outside this film, or maybe the critical
controversy that met The Wild Bunch on its release, or maybe
more about some of the rest of the crew (editor,
The production notes provided on the DVD do not have much to
say about these things either. A couple of screen-pages about
how the portrayal of violence was groundbreaking (why? Much of
the audience for this film, 30 years later, has seen so many
weak imitations of Peckinpah that a little context is in
order), a list of what scenes were restored for this edition
(which is a nice touch), and a passing mention of the main
themes of the film (that whole personal honor thing) and
Peckinpah's use of slow-motion and cross-cutting.
Filmographies and brief biographies of the principal actors
and Peckinpah, as well as a full-frame trailer (a bit
washed-out, but otherwise in pretty good shape), are also
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, if you just pop the DVD in your player, you may
never find these extras. Warners' packaging of this film is
quite awkward. The feature itself is split into two parts: the
first hour and 35 minutes on one side of the disc, the last 50
on the other -- and it cuts in mid-scene! They should have
split it a few minutes sooner, after the second act's
climactic bridge assault. Hey guys, this is DVD: you don't
have to rely on reel changes. Worse still, on both sides, the
disc defaults to the film automatically. No menu. In order to
get to the menu and find the extras (or heaven forbid the
scene index), you have to fiddle with your remote (they say on
the case that MENU works, but on my remote DIGEST was the only
button that brought up the menu -- you'll have to figure it
out for yourself). Now while I do understand that this disc
came out a few years ago (1997), and two-disc sets were not
yet in fashion, Warner's cheap packaging (in an easily damaged
snapper case no less) is still pretty annoying. But, if you
can get beyond this relic of marketing strategies-gone-by, the
film itself is a masterpiece.
Silly packaging decisions aside, The Wild Bunch is a welcome
addition to the collection of any fan of westerns or action
films. Any director who wants to learn how to show off a fight
sequence properly is instructed to purchase this disc
immediately. The price is reasonable ($20 retail, cheaper
online) for a film that is historically significant and yet
still packs a punch.
This court decrees that whoever at Warner Brothers decided it
would be a good idea to package this disc in such an annoying
fashion is to be hogtied and dragged behind a new-fangled
automobile. Everyone else associated with this film is
acquitted and receives a fair share of the loot.
Studio: Warner Bros.
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Cast Biographies and Filmographies
• Production Notes
• Theatrical Trailer
• Documentary: "The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage"
Reviews | Columns | Staff Dossiers | Studio Info | DVD Verdict Manifesto
A collection of aging outlaws under the leadership of Pike Bishop (William Holden) is the most wanted group of men in the West in 1913. When they try to score what they think will be a simple bank robbery, they find themselves surrounded and outnumbered by mercenaries employed by the railroad companies that have suffered from the gang's robberies. One of the former members of the gang and a friend of Pike's, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), decides to help capture or kill the gang because otherwise he has to serve a prison sentence at Yuma. Escaping the ambush at the bank a few men short, but with bags from the bank, they quickly discover nothing but metal washers as their reward.
The men in the gang know their time as gunslingers is quickly approaching an ending point, but they need one last, lucrative score before they can retire from crime. They decide to leave for Mexico, where they hope they will be able to avoid the men chasing them. When they arrive in the country, they soon meet with Generalissimo Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a Mexican general with German ties who is fighting against Poncho Villa. Wanting to find men from the United States who do not care for their government, German advisor and Commander Frederick Mohr (Fernando Wagner) and Mapache's Lieutenant Zamorra (Jorge Russek) hire the gang to steal a shipment of guns and ammunition from an American Army munitions train. For the successful completion of the mission, they offer $10,000 in gold to the Wild Bunch.
Director Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest Westerns ever made, coming at the end of a decade loaded with classic Western films, especially spaghetti Westerns from director Sergio Leone starring Clint Eastwood. Leone made '60s Western classics such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1967). Additionally, a much more light-hearted, less controversial classic Western came to theaters in 1969, namely Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Both films, however, end with their characters dying in a climactic final gunfight.
The Wild Bunch both begins and ends with massacres, both involving members of the gang, but the final battle is especially brutal. As a condition of helping the group steal the guns and ammo from the United States Army munitions train, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), the Mexican member of the group, has asked for one of the sixteen crates to arm his people, forgoing his payment of gold in exchange for the favor. General Mapache does not believe the excuse that one crate simply disappeared on the trail; he knows Angel stole it. Mapache takes Angel captive, even torturing him, though the Wild Bunch, hopelessly outnumbered, cannot idly watch their friend suffer. In the final showdown, Pike, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson), and Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) kill most of the essential leaders in the camp, including Mapache, but they are facing several hundred Mexican soldiers. Their last stand is valiant, yet foolhardy.
The final showdown is one of the most bloody, violent, fantastic sequences ever filmed. It is simply brilliant, stunning, and a great ending to an undeniably masterful Western. The four men, aging gunfighters in a new era, show a courage and loyalty that the supposed "good guys" of the movie, the bounty hunters, entirely lack. The members of the Wild Bunch are not great, noble men, but audiences cannot help but feel sympathy for their plight in the movie nonetheless. The sheer complexity and number of shots in the movie's final shootout is breathtaking, doubtlessly inspiring future directors such as Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) and John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer, Face/Off).
A theme common in many Westerns, if not most of them, is the end of the Old West and the changing times in the country. The shrinking wilderness, continued settlement of the West, and technological progress of the twentieth century threaten the gunslinger way of life. Dutch says when seeing a car once, "Now what in the hell is that?" Shane (1953), The Searchers (1956), and Unforgiven (1992) all have similar themes. The Wild Bunch seems especially appropriate for the time of its release, however, when the Western film largely faded from popularity by the end of the '60s. Although, Peckinpah directed a number of less popular Westerns in the coming years, such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972).
The Wild Bunch capitalizes on another trend of the late 1960s, which is the popularity of the anti-hero. Perhaps during no other time in American film history has the anti-hero dominated the most popular and memorable films to such a heavy extent. The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Midnight Cowboy (1969) are basically the essential movies from the time period and all focus on anti-hero protagonists. A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Taxi Driver (1976) followed not too far afterwards, though the late '60s deserve the attention for such a trend, especially because the long-lived Production Code (1934-1968) was just coming to an end.
The violence in The Wild Bunch shocked audiences of the time, almost earning the film an X-rating from the newly formed MPAA before its release. To imagine the effect the film had on audiences, people more familiar with '90s film should think about the controversy of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) or Natural Born Killers (1994), to which he only wrote the story. The Wild Bunch is blatantly and intentionally violent throughout, showing violence not as a war-time activity or a habit of only outlaws, but rather as part of human nature itself.
Early scenes in the movie with the Wild Bunch riding into town to rob the bank show children delighting at the sight of scorpions trapped in the middle of a swarm of red fire ants. The scene is also excellent foreshadowing to the massacre that is soon to occur when bounty hunters ambush the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah also uses an interesting technique during the opening scenes of freezing frames numerous times to display the cast and the credits for the movie. When frozen, the frames appear as black and white sketches of the color film frames, then the movie continues normally. It is a memorable introduction accompanied by excellent music. The film's score, by Jerry Fielding, is great throughout the movie and earned the composer an Academy Award nomination.
The Wild Bunch won no Academy Awards, but had one additional nomination aside from the recognition of Fielding's score. The screenplay by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, also received a nomination and is full of great dialogue. When Dutch tells Pike, speaking of the United States army, which they intend to rob, "They'll be waitin' for us," Pike responds, "I wouldn't have it any other way." Angel objects to robbing the munitions train because he does not want to supply Mapache with guns to kill his people. He says to Pike, "Would you give guns to someone to kill your father or your mother or your brother?" Pike responds, "Ten thousand cuts an awful lot of family ties."
The group of outlaws has their own moral code, even though they have no problems stealing from others and killing them. Pike says to them, "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!" Nonetheless, in the past, Pike has repeatedly abandoned members of his group, so the final act of the film, which has him losing his life for Angel, is really his redemption and his atonement for a lack of loyalty in the past.
Before its 1969 release, Phil Feldman cut twenty minutes from the movie without Peckinpah's permission or supervision. The scenes cut, actually, are not violent whatsoever. Rather, they delve into the backstory of the characters in greater depth, as explained in the DVD Notes section of the review. With its 3,643 shot-to-shot edits by one count, at least, The Wild Bunch established a new record for the most edits of any Technicolor film. The film also uses a lot of slow motion shots in its violent shootouts. Peckinpah used Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) as an inspiration and a model for his movie, although his group of characters is not idealized like the samurai. Peckinpah forever established himself as an important and brilliant director with The Wild Bunch, which remains the pinnacle of his career.
The Wild Bunch is #80 on the AFI's Top 100 Greatest Movies List.
DVD Notes: The Wild Bunch is curiously split over two sides of its DVD, even though the film is only about 140 minutes in length. Side A contains 28 chapters while Side B has the remaining 13 chapters. The division of the film is distracting and poorly arranged. If Titanic (1997) can fit onto a single side of a DVD, so can The Wild Bunch, which is much shorter. The extra features mostly make up for the poor division of the film, though. The DVD has a cast section with more information on William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernandez, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones, and Director Sam Peckinpah.
A production notes section has three sub-sections, which include "Violence and Death," "The Restoration," and "About the Production." The "Violence and Death" section mentions how The Wild Bunch brought a "new veracity to America's view of its criminal past and a new way of seeing violence and death," along with such other films as Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Although some audiences did not appreciate the violence, critics saw the need for a realistic portrayal of Western outlaws.
"The Restoration" section explains the ten minutes of added footage in the Director's Cut of the film. For instance, the first part added back is 2:02 in length and is a flashback of Ryan being shot in the shoulder and captured as Holden escapes. The next scene, 1:32, takes place in the desert and has O'Brien telling Holden that the kid (Bo Hopkins) they left in town during the opening robbery was his grandson. A 1:04 minute scene shows scenes from the Mexican village with Borgnine dancing with a woman. A 1:26 scene shows how Holden was shot in the leg and his wife killed. A 3:10 shows an attack by rebel leader Pancho Villa's forces on Mapache's army. A very short, sixth re-added scene (just seventeen seconds) shows Mapache attending to his wounded men.
The "About the Production" section explains how director Peckinpah's work usually focused on the idea of honor in a dishonest world. Even in The Wild Bunch, each of the shady characters has his own unusual code of honor. Of particular interest to film buffs, the section mentions that The Wild Bunch is the first feature film ever to use varying speeds of slow-motion images intercut with regular-speed footage. Future editors and filmmakers drew from the style that The Wild Bunch employed. The production notes are well written and informative.
Side B of the DVD has an original theatrical trailer and even a documentary. The documentary is rather dated looking, but informative and shows many behind-the-scenes looks at the film's making. It is apparently a British documentary, judging by the odd pronunciation of the word "scheduled." Anyhow, the film was budgeted at just $3.5 million and scheduled for 70 days of shooting. The Wild Bunch was Peckinpah's first film in three years, but it changed cinema with its revolutionary editing and violent, realistic portrayal of Old West outlaws. The final shootout in the film had virtually no description in the script, but Peckinpah's improvisation created the masterful final sequence. He labored almost every waking hour of very long days to create the film.
Creating a story where a group of guys rob, steal, and murder, yet still return to save a man and give guns to the peasants was a great challenge. Who would really believe such a story? Why would such men die for a comrade, even though they seem, at times, dishonorable and selfish? They called the final battle "The Battle of Bloody Porch" and it took twelve days to film. The filmmakers saw the final battle as a sort of ballet, which is perhaps much like Hong Kong action director John Woo manages to make his gun fights beautiful in a chaotic and violent way.
Peckinpah expected great professionalism from his actors. When they arrived for rehearsals and many of them could not recite their lines, he told them he expected them to know their lines and if they did not, he would find other actors. He gave them twenty minutes to memorize the lines, which they did. The explosion that occurs on the bridge after the train robbery was the last scene Peckinpah filmed. The crew built parts of the bridge out of balsa wood so that it would blow up very easily.
The footage of the bridge explosion is impressive, as is most all of the documentary footage included, even though it is in black and white, unlike the beautiful color of the film. The crew exploded the bridge at 1:55 p.m. on Sunday, June 30. Peckinpah had shot for 81 days, 330,000 feet of film, with 1,288 camera setups. The movie had more than 3,600 shot-to-shot edits, which was more than any other color film up to the time and perhaps ever. Peckinpah said, "The end of a picture is always the end of a life." The documentary is remarkably high quality and lasts just more than 33 minutes.
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 1914, 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
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
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.
Date of publication: 03/17/1995
THE WILD BUNCH: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT
Pike William Holden
Dutch Ernest Borgnine
Thornton Robert Ryan
The restored version of a film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Running
time: 144 minutes. Rated R (for extensive and graphic violence).
THE WILD BUNCH
Laser disc Box Set of Sam Peckinpah’s
Masterpiece * Restored Director’s Cut * Definitive Widescreen
Picture Transfer * 3-Disc CAV Version * Color * 145 minutes *
Includes Oscar-Nominated Documentary * Includes Theatrical
Trailers for 7 Peckinpah films * Includes Exclusive 76-page
Peckinpah Tribute Booklet * Includes Exclusive Soundtrack CD
of Jerry Fielding's Classic Score
This complete package is not on DVD and is now Out-of-Print in
Directed by Sam Peckinpah * Screenplay by Walon Green and Sam
Peckinpah * Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest
Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben
Johnson, Emilio Fernandez, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert
Dekker * Warner Brothers, Released 1969, Restored 1995
"It’s a traumatic poem of violence, with imagery as ambivalent
as Goya’s. By a supreme burst of filmmaking energy Sam
Peckinpah is able to convert chaotic romanticism into
exaltation; the film is perched right on the edge of
incoherence, yet it’s comparable in scale and sheer poetic
force to Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. There are images of
great subtlety and emotional sophistication: a blown-up
bridge, with horses and riders falling to the water in an
instant extended (by slow motion) to eternity; a vulture sits
on a dead man’s chest and turns his squalid, naked head to
stare at the camera. The movie is set in the Texas and Mexico
of 1914, and, in Peckinpah’s words, ‘I was trying to tell a
simple story about bad men in changing times. The Wild Bunch
is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange
thing is that you feeml a great sense of loss when these
killers reach the end of the line.’ That’s accurate, as far as
it goes. But Peckinpah has very intricate, contradictory
feelings, and he got so wound up in the aesthetics of violence
that what had begun as a realistic treatment – a
deglamourization of warfare that would show how horribly
gruesome killing really is – became instead an almost abstract
fantasy about violence. The bloody deaths are voluptuous,
frightening, beautiful. Pouring new wine into the bottle of
the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle; his story is too
simple for this imagist epic. And it’s no accident that you
feel a sense of loss for each killer of the Bunch; Peckinpah
makes them seem heroically, mythically alive on the screen.
With William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben
Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Warren Oates, Bo Hopkins, L.Q.Jones,
Strother Martin, Jaime Sanchez, Emilio Fernandez, Albert
Dekker, and Dub Taylor. With cinematography by Lucien Ballard,
editing by Lou Lombardo, and music by Jerry Fielding. The
script is by Walon Green and Peckinpah, based on story
material by Green and Roy N. Sickner; the film was possibly
influenced by Clouzot’s 1953 The Wages of Fear.”
-- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
“His editing style – much imitated but never equaled – was the
most revolutionary since Sergei Eisenstein’s use of montage in
The Battleship Potemkin. ‘No one, even today, has mastered the
art of multicamera, multispeed editing like Peckinpah has,’
says Paul Schrader. ‘He would have five or six cameras going,
all at different speeds and in his mind he had figured out
which camera had to be at which speed – which one is running
at 32 frames [per second] and 24, and 96, and 48, and how
they’re going to cut together.’ The Wild Bunch changed forever
the way movies would be made and left its mark on an entire
generation of film directors: Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver
Stone, Michael Cimino, Walter Hill, Alex Cox, and John Milius,
to name only a few. ‘There is no doubt when seeing his films
that you are looking at one of the great masters of American
cinema,’ says Martin Scorsese.’”
-- David Weddle, If They Move…Kill ‘Em: The Life and Times of
“[In March 1995 Warner Brothers released fully restored 70mm
prints of Peckinpah’s original cut of The Wild Bunch to
American theaters.] Warners went through a nightmare retiming
the print for its 1995 restoration...Whatever the problems of
the release prints, Warner Home Video has accomplished a minor
miracle in the transfer to laserdisc. Using the 1969 prints as
a guide and the all-new digital technology available for
visual restoration, Warners’ video technicians, headed by Ned
Price, with Gregg Garvin doing the telecine, have come up with
a transfer that for overall color balance and timing is far
more faithful to the film as it looked in 1969 than in any of
the 1995 prints. The stereo soundtrack of the laserdisc is in
both surround and the new, all-discrete AC-3 format. Warners
refurbished the original stereophonic dub for the 1995
restoration, and that has been managed to perfection. Steven
C. Brown, an archivist and film editor, spent weeks
scrupulously gathering together and preparing the disparate
sound elements for the chief mixer, Robert Litt, and his
colleague, Elliot Tyson. It is thanks to their meticulousness
(especially Litt’s as a dialogue mixer) that the film has
never sounded better, with dialogue, background lines,
atmosphere, and effects emerging with unprecedented clarity.
This is one of the great dubs in the history of film, and at
last the magnitude of the achievement is fully evident.”
-- Paul Seydor on the laserdisc restoration of The Wild Bunch,
from Peckinpah – The Western Films: A Reconsideration
"Fans of Sam Peckinpah are going to want to go to the well one
more time, because Warner Home Video has released a wonderful
new gift-sized Special Edition of The Wild Bunch 'Director's
Cut' (WB 14035). The color transfer is excellent and the
stereo soundtrack, though an older and less elaborate mix, is
fine, accompanied by a Dolby Digital track that is even a
little livelier in places. On side six, however, Warner has
included Paul Seydor's Oscar-nominated 33 minute retrospective
documentary, The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, which
utilized uncovered black-and-white footage of Peckinpah at
work directing the film as a back drop for oral reminiscences
about the movie and about Peckinpah. The documentary was
included on Warner's DVD release (Jun 97), but this is its
first appearance on disc, and it gives you a genuine feel for
what working on the location shoot was like. Both the film and
the documentary are adequately closed captioned. Rounding out
the side are seven theatrical trailers of the Peckinpah films
under Warner or MGM/UA Home Video control. The disc comes in a
large box jacket that also contains a new 76 minute CD,
presenting a remixed and remastered recording of Jerry
Fielding's musical score, along with a large 'commemorative
tribute book' with terrific pictures and superbly written
essays about the film and about Peckinpah. The fifteen
articles in the 76 page book, by a variety of authors, are
more elaborate than any disc still frame text supplement could
hope to be, and include an elaborate look at the musical
score, the final word on the film's 'restoration', and
in-depth interviews with Peckinpah."
-- Douglas Pratt, The Laser Disc Newsletter on the Deluxe
Edition laserdisc of The Wild Bunch
Is this the greatest of all contemporary American films? I
can't think of a better one. Psycho? Nashville? Bonnie and
Clyde? 2001: A Space Odyssey? Maybe. MAYBE...
Here we have one of the crown jewels of the great
movie-lover’s era – the deluxe box set edition of The Wild
Bunch. I don’t remember any laserdisc release that was more
hotly anticipated back in the mid-1990's. Following a wildly
successful 1995 theatrical restoration of the troubled but
irrefutably brilliant director Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus
(which several film critics have suggested is the most
important American film since Citizen Kane), Warners put the
film out on CLV laserdisc, promising that a deluxe edition of
the film would soon follow.
And then we waited...and waited..and waited. The release date
of the box set kept getting pushed back -- for almost two
years, until this package finally came out in summer 1997, at
the very tail end of the great movie-lover's laserdisc era. It
was worth the wait. In addition to the 3 platters containing
the movie (featuring a landmark picture transfer and sound
mix, and presented in the unmatchably detailed CAV format,
which looks considerably better than DVD in still frames),
purchasers of the box set also got some wonderful extras:
theatrical trailers for 7 of Peckinpah’s films; Paul Seydor’s
impressionistic, Oscar-nominated documentary The Wild Bunch:
An Album in Montage; a stunning 76-page tribute booklet
stuffed with previously unseen stills, previously unpublished
essays by noted Peckinpah critics and scholars, reminiscences
from various cast and crew members, script excerpts, and
interviews with Peckinpah (1969), composer Jerry Fielding
(1978), and Warners head honcho Kenneth Hyman (who originally
green-lit the production); and maybe best of all, an otherwise
unavailable CD containing Jerry Fielding’s tremendous score,
here restored and remastered for the first time.
Warner Brothers had long had a reputation for not giving a
damn about their considerable cinematic legacy and for
ignoring their archives – this box set, a landmark laserdisc
release, put that reputation to rest in a hurry.
Unfortunately, 1997 marked the twilight of the great laserdisc
era, and this box set ended up going out of print within a
year. At this time the box set, which has become very
difficult to find intact, remains the sole source for most of
the bonus features -- most notably the booklet, several of the
trailers, and the CD.
"Peckinpah did it the only way he know how: from his soul
and from his guts, as the obsessed, anguished, angry,
passionate poet he was, descending into the maelstrom of his
own darkness, the only control he was able finally to exert
the artistic control of channeling all the rage and fury he
found into this ferocious, apocalyptic poem, which is at once
profoundly subversive and profoundly redemptive.”
-- Peckinpah scholar (and award-winning film editor) Paul
Seydor, excerpted from his essay on The Wild Bunch in the box
1914 was the year. The Temperance union was protesting against
alcohol and sexual promiscuity. Automobiles and airplanes were
popping up, and the desperado, that wild, swearing, wandering,
beer-sucking, whore-screwing, bank-robbing, six-gun shooting outlaw,
was going to be the bedfellow of the dinosaur. Proper civilization
and soulless corporations emerge and kicked barbarism and humanity
(most of it, really) out of the big picture.
But there were scrappy holdouts, the kind who would be cold before
they were tamed. They called them…The Wild Bunch.
After a bad fall with “Major Dundee” (a likable rough draft of
“Bunch” in my view), being fired from the Steve McQueen vehicle “The
Cincinnati Kid” (Norm Jewison took over as director) and
work-scrounging in TV, maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah came back
into theatrical film with a gun in one hand, a machete in the other,
a blowtorch behind his back and a sense of honor in his heart, in
the summer of 1969. Six men make up the gang: stern leader Pike
Bishop (William Holden), gentlemanly Dutch Engstrom (Ernest
Borgnine), raucous siblings Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch
(Ben Johnston), tempestuous but gallant Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and
old, dirty, desert rat Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien). A botched
robbery of a railroad company, earning “a dollar’s worth of steel
holes”, forces the men into Mexico, pursed by ex-pal Deke Thorton (a
world weary Robert Ryan), who freed from jail but manipulated by
money-minded railroad magnate Pat Harrigan (Albert Dekker of the
sci-fi cult film, “Dr. Cyclops”) into leading a band of ad hoc
bounty hunters, who used to be railroad hobos from the look of them
and are willing to kill for cash or junk. The wanted and unwanted
aren’t safe from them, and you’ll wonder who the good guys are
There’s more trouble: the vile, delusional, drunk-as-a-skunk Mexican
army general Mapache (Mexico-based filmmaker Emilio Fernandez) hires
the bunch to steal sixteen cases of guns and firepower from an
Army-guarded train to fight the Mexican Revolutionaries, led by the
iconic Pancho Villa.
In an interview for Playboy magazine, Western film star John Wayne
despised the film because it sinisterly twisted the genre. He wasn’t
alone. Critics and moviegoers deplored the film’s unflinching
violence, misogynism (women were either chaste white Christians or
voluptuous Mexican whores) and misanthropism, However, other than
the film’s financial jackpot, they couldn’t be any more wrong about
it. Sure, “Bunch” is book-ended by two beautiful, ballet-like gun
plays, encrusted in blood, sweat, steel and fire, but the middle
shows humanity, albeit flawed, in the killers. Pike holds loyalty to
his heart, but is a hypocrite because (Spoilers) he left Thorton to
get caught by the law in a bordello. Dutch (Borgnine, who’s out of
place yet fits because of his happy-go-lucky sitcom role of Lt.
Cmdr. Quinton McHale of “McHale’s Navy”), is a boy scout in terms of
women, but in the end, he does the unthinkable. The Gorch brothers
are “good old boys”, Tector being superior over Lyle due to age, but
both barely have the sense of a mule. Angel dreams of a free Mexico,
but gets over his head and Freddie, a profane parody of Western
character actor George “Gabby” Hayes, is a fun-loving, reminiscent
codger, but he forgets his age and stamina, and dooms either his
fellows or himself in heated situations.
This is why the film matters a lot: a group of men whose era has
passed them by, but they struggle to keep their individualism and
humanity intact, even if they have to kill to retain them. How
intriguingly, ironically and magnificently noble.
Oscar-nominated for best original screenplay (It lost to the more
friendly “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”), the story’s
unconventional for a Western, breaking out of the genre, thanks to
Sam, Walon Green (he co-wrote “Robocop 2” with Peckinpah
student/comic book visionary Frank Miller, and is currently an exec
producer on “Law and Order”) and Roy N. Sickner (a stuntman who
worked on the film). The Oscar-nominated music score (lost to Butch
and Sundance, too) by Jerry Fielding (blacklisted for hiring
African-American musicians) ran around the emotional spectrum; the
photography of Lucien Ballard echoes John Ford’s work and the quick
cuts and slow-action shots of editor Lou Lombardo (produced by the
first Cheech and Chong film, “Up In Smoke”) perfectly note a
connection between film and comic books (Sam was slated to direct
the first Superman film, but his rep went south at the time). The
actors and their characters, big and small, are glorious, from the
bunch to Mapache’s two underlings, Zamora (Jorge Russek) and Herrera
(Alfonso Arau, who later directed the Oscar-winning foreign film
“Like Water For Chocolate”) and to Thorton’s sleazy companions,
particularly Coffer (Strother Martin) and T.C. (Peckinpah stock
actor L.Q. Jones, who directed the cult classic, “A Boy and His
Dog”). As for Sam, he’s subtle as a chainsaw with allegorical
imagery (ants devouring scorpions in the beginning, suggested by
Fernandez from a childhood memory and kids playing a mock gunplay
after a real one) and silent facial stares (Pike looking at the
Gorches firmly before the group‘s last stand). He would have been a
king in the silent movie area.
The two-disc DVD set is a more than appreciated apology for the
pathetic “flip” disc which cut the masterpiece in half. It’s Sam’s
cut all right, in both DVD versions, after Warner Bros. Pictures
restored the film to its’ initial running time (145 minutes) for
its’ 25th anniversary re-release. However, I first saw the film on
broadcast TV, when I was fifteen, with the cut scenes intact. Though
topless nudity and mild profanity were exoricised from that print
(thanks FCC, you rum bums), I fell in love with both Sam and the
film, which is polished, visually and soundly, on Disc One. The
audio commentary by biographers/fans/experts, Nick Redman, Paul
Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle (I dub them “The Bloody
Four”) is all over the place, but it’s fun to listen to. A trailer
gallery, including “Bunch” and other Peckinpah plays, “The Getaway”
(Sam’s make-up tryst with McQueen, along with "Junior Bonner"), “The
Ballad Of Cable Hogue”, “Ride The High Country” and “Pat Garrett and
Billy The Kid” (the last two were part of Ted Turner’s cinematic
booty from MGM). These other films are on DVD. I’ll get them all!!!
Disc Two is a treat with three documentaries. “The Wild Bunch: An
Album In Montage” is an Oscar nominee, composed by Redman (who
narrated it) and Seydor. It’s loaded with rare, black-and-white,
behind the scenes footage of the film and audio quotes from the cast
and crew, some read by actors, like Ed Harris who does Sam, who left
the world in 1984. It’ll make a strong man cry.
The second is a sweet one from Starz’s Western Channel. “Sam
Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade” has interviews of
those who worked with Sam (Kris Kristofferson of “Garrett“, who
narrated this featurette, Jones, and Stella Stevens of “Hogue”,
among others), those related (kid sister Fern Lee, son Matthew, who
had bits parts in “Bunch” and “Hogue”, and daughter Lupita, whose
mother, Begonia Palacios, played a nurse in “Dundee”), those who
worked with his behind the scenes and those who admired his work
(some of “The Bloody Four”, film critics Elvis Mitchell and Roger
Ebert and actors Michael Madsen, Benicio Del Toro and Billy Bob
Thornton). Interesting that Madsen and Del Toro co-starred in the
avant-garde love letter addressed to Sam, “Frank Miller’s Sin City”,
based on Miller’s graphic crime novels and co-directed by the man
himself and fellow Peckinpah students, Robert Rodriquez (the El
Mariachi and Spy Kids films) and Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”,
the “Kill Bill” films). Also interesting is Thornton's resemblance to
Sam. A bio film in the creative stew, perhaps?
Though short, a clip from “A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah,
Mexico and The Wild Bunch”, a film by Redman, has him, his fellow
Peckinpah pals, Lupita and an old writer friend of Sam’s visit the
locales of where “Bunch” was filmed in Mexico. It’s like a National
Geographic special, but I wanted to see more.
When it was re-released, the Motion Picture Association of America
gave “Bunch” a NC-17. (Mitchell mistakenly refers it as its’ former
rating X in “West” ) Warner Bros rightfully appealed for a R and won
it, but the fact it could get a rating that’s usually given to
rarely made, sexually graphic film only proves “Bunch’s” impact on
the senses is still haunting to this day. Yet some of the pieces
have blood, gunplays and nothing else, Sam’s students made a mighty
homage of films to him. My favorite “teacher’s pets” are Miller,
Rodriquez, Tarantino, the Brothers Wachowski, Brian Helgeland, John
McTiernan, Shinichiro Watanabe and Stephen J. Cannell.
If anything, “Bunch” is a ballistic but romantic tale of honorable
men in a dishonorable world, fighting to save alive spiritually. The
aforementioned “Sin City” (I’ll review the SE DVD soon) comes very
close to this Western that jumps out from being a Western like a
jackrabbit on heroin, and, to quote Mr. Bishop, “I wouldn’t have it
any other way.” Watch it while eating ketchup-drenched fried
chicken, will ya?