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The Wild Bunch: One of the best (and the DVD’s not bad either): By Roy (Madbandit) Phillips




          


            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 
            really. 


            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?