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DVD Verdict Review - The Wild Bunch Reviews Reviewed by Judge Mike Pinsky




                     


                 THE WILD BUNCH
                 Warner Bros. // 1969 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
                 Reviewed by Judge Mike Pinsky // March 13th, 2001


        
                  The Charge 
                  "I'm exhausted when I see it. I'm literally exhausted for 
                  hours. And all it is, really, is a simple adventure story." -- 
                  Sam Peckinpah
                  Opening Statement 
                  "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...
                  The Evidence 
                  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 
                  intends.
                  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, 
                  cinematographer, composer).
                  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 
                  included.
                  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.
                  Closing Statement 
                  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.
                  The Verdict 
                  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.


           


                  Perp Profile
                  Studio: Warner Bros.
                  Video Formats:
                  • 2.35:1 Anamorphic
                  Audio Formats:
                  • Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
                  Subtitles:
                  • English
                  • French
                  • Spanish
                  Running Time: 145 Minutes
                  Release Year: 1969
                  MPAA Rating: Rated R


                  Distinguishing Marks
                  • Cast Biographies and Filmographies
                  • Production Notes
                  • Theatrical Trailer
                  • Documentary: "The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage"


               


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