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Sam Peckinpah has remained a legendary name among western fans, and this Warners boxed set has been highly anticipated for over a year. Only one of the films here is a repeat release: The Wild Bunch came out in the very first batch of Warner Bros. DVDs back in 1997. It was a flipper that forced viewers to watch the movie in two halves, and it wasn't enhanced for 16:9. The other four titles are new to the format, with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid attracting the lion's share of attention by virtue of having two different versions of the movie, one of which represents a premiere of a new cut.
The disc extras have an authoritative pedigree, as they've been compiled by a set of Peckinpah biographers. Some of them worked with Peckinpah and others are industry producers and editors: Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. If there's a known fact about Peckinpah, chances are we first read about it in one of the fine books turned out by this "Peckinpah Posse." Viewers unfamiliar with 'bloody Sam' beyond his ultra-violent reputation will have a lot of information to absorb.
Savant admires all of the titles in this box, which include every period Western picture Sam made except for his first and disastrous The Deadly Companions, and Major Dundee. A hot television writer and director, Peckinpah's flair with authentic-sounding frontier dialogue won him many a Hollywood admirer, and the sleeper success of Ride the High Country led to critical accolades and the beginnings of a high-profile career. I prefer to evaluate the movies as fine Westerns rather than examine them through their maker - Peckinpah was a talented writer-director with a self-destructive bent who alienated his producers and blamed others for his own problems. The stories of bad behavior on sets and in public are mostly unprintable, and he quickly drove a flourishing career straight into the proverbial ground. Most of the second half of Peckinpah's too-short theatrical career is the work of a dissipated man who lost his grip on his profession - The Killer Elite, Convoy, The Osterman Weekend. Peckinpah was a great talent but he doesn't qualify as a Hollywood martyr.
Sam Peckinpah's "The Legendary Westerns Collection" celebrates the cream of his work - his westerns are moving, amusing and occasionally profound. And his masterpiece The Wild Bunch stands up as one of the best movies ever made, by anybody.
Ride the High Country
1962 / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 min. / Guns in the Afternoon / Available separately at 19.98
Starring Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr,
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Leroy Coleman, George W. Davis
Film Editor Frank Santillo
Original Music George Bassman
Written by N.B. Stone Jr.
Produced by Richard E. Lyons
Ride the High Country put Peckinpah on the map with critics and the foreign cinema literati. His first feature The Deadly Companions was an independent western that sprang from a television relationship with Brian Keith. It turned into a mess when its tyrannical star Maureen O'Hara and her producer brother didn't allow Peckinpah the leeway to alter an awkward script. Peckinpah tried to swing the picture his way by purposely shooting a different (and better) ending, whereupon the producer did a sloppy recut and added insult to injury by slamming ninety minutes of mind-numbing guitar noodling onto the sound track. So far the Panavision Carousel production for Pathé-America has only appeared in cheap pan-scanned video versions, making it impossible to fairly evaluate.
Producer Richard E. Lyons and Peckinpah had a good experience on Ride the High Country, following an original script that Peckinpah tweaked and improved with his excellent dialogue skills. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea meet a bible-thumping farmer and for several scenes thereafter put a Biblical lilt into their sly verbal exchanges. When the greying lawmen share old times, they talk like codgers enjoying a dirty joke we can't share: "All night, Logan!" "Wa-ay up, Logan!" The dialogue reveals character even on the rebound, as when Ron Starr, staring at farm girl Mariette Hartley, is startled because he thinks he hears the word "Ass."
Like all of Peckinpah's westerns Ride the High Country gathers up the ragged thematic ends of the genre's previous decade and weaves them into a perfect swansong for the weather-beaten likes of McCrea and Scott, each of whom was on the verge of retirement. This is a moral tug of war between integrity and crooked pragmatism.
Ride the High Country has a leisurely pace that finds space for almost everything we enjoy in modest westerns. It defines the West in a different way, as Gil and Steve live not in some prairie or desert of the imagination but in a changing California with horseless carriages, Chinese restaurants and obnoxious bankers. Once top-gun town-tamers, Gil and Steve are now on the skids. Steve's coat is frayed and Gil survives by fleecing hicks with an "Oregon Kid" carnival act. Gil sees the possibility of lifting a hundred thousand in gold as a ticket out of old-age poverty, while Steve is content to stay honest and take whatever comes with grace and humility. 1
Gil and Steve are contrasted with the next generation as represented by young couple Elsa and Heck. She's too sheltered to make critical character judgments and he's too cocksure of himself to stay out of trouble. Without ever resorting to a lecture, Ride the High Country lauds the influence that an ethical man of experience can have on the young. Steve Judd is a terrific role model. Elsa admires his gallantry and Heck is shocked to find out that a sixty-year old man can beat him in a fair fight. The film is a meditation on how to live, giving us examples of religious extremism (Joshua Knudsen), greedy license (the mining town) and hillbilly brutality (the Hammonds). Actually, Judd does bark one brief lecture at Heck that today elicits cheers of approval from Sierra Club types, and anybody who cares about the environment (the quote in blue above).
Savant first saw Ride the High Country in Jim Kitses' class at UCLA. Kitses characterized the film as a 'temptation,' with Steve Judd's integrity holding firm against the corruption of the world. He straightens out a young hoodlum, delivers a maiden from a terrible fate, holds off a band of killers and refuses to let an old 'friend' rob him of his principles. Casting straight-arrow Randolph Scott against type as a grinning con-man is nothing less than brilliant. Gil has consciously chosen a crooked path and his cynical remarks serve to deny the knowledge that he's doing wrong. He's corrupt, but the virtuous Steve Judd will redeem him. When I first rented Ride the High Country on 16mm from Films Incorporated I was told that it was frequently shown in California prisons. The film booker claimed that hardened criminals responded positively to the film's message.
Ride the High Country was filmed by ace cameraman Lucien Ballard, a lighting artist whose contribution to Peckinpah's two best films is so great that I'm surprised he's not given more credit for them. This low budget film mixes High Sierra locations, Griffith Park faked locations, the MGM back lot and phony stage 'exteriors' beautifully. The lighting emphasizes the stars' age and often provides the 'sand' to back up their words. Joel McCrea barks out the command "Move!" in close-up, with lighting similar to the choker CU in The Wild Bunch where William Holden says "If they move, kill 'em!" It's unfair to judge Peckinpah's visual abilities by his later movies where he was reportedly often incapacitated on the set, but Ballard's work creates romantic visuals to match the director's lyrical themes. There's a heart to Ballard's camerawork that doesn't appear in Major Dundee. Peckinpah reinvented the western from his own point of view but he definitely preferred older visual forms. One of Sergio Leone's biographers noted that Peckinpah had little understanding for the Italian's extreme close ups and long static takes. Peckinpah needed a strong cameraman tuned-in to his aesthetic wavelength, and Ballard was the man.
Ride the High Country was an incredibly lucky film. When bad weather ruined the mountain location shoot producer Lyons had Bronson Caverns re-dressed to look like a Sierra-top mining camp, and got away with it. When the rough cut was complete, MGM editorial maven Margaret Booth wanted to 'adjust' the whole picture 'up to MGM standards,' eliminating eccentric moments like the little digression among Joshua Knudsen's chickens before the final showdown. But the studio production chief was so unimpressed by a screening that he ordered the picture locked 'as is' for final negative cutting to proceed. So studio indifference made this one of the few Peckinpah films to be finished as cut! Actually, Peckinpah was barred from the lot for the final mix, and producer Lyons graciously helped the director stay involved by playing mixes over the telephone.
Ride the High Country is vastly improved on DVD from the 1992 laserdisc, which had a big splice-jump right in the middle of the impressively profound final shot. The color is a huge improvement, coaxing hues out of film elements that can no longer make satisfactory theatrical screening prints. Some of the original dialogue recording and effects cutting are a little rocky, but George Bassman's masterful score fits the film well. It was partially re-used for Richard Lyons' follow-up picture Mail Order Bride, a movie similar in structure to this one.
A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country is a featurette interview with Fern Lea Peter, Peckinpah's younger sister. She speaks of his family history on their ranch outside of Fresno and gives us a first-person account of Peckinpah's early life illustrated with many family photos. She identifies Sam's father as the source of the characterization of Steve Judd, offering the opinion that Peckinpah would never have behaved the way he did in later years if his father were around. And there really is a town called Coarsegold!
The Wild Bunch
1969 / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 145 min. / Two-Disc Special Edition; The Original Director's Cut / available individually at 26.98
Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez, Ben Johnson, Emilio Fernandez, Strother Martin, Albert Dekker, L.Q. Jones, Aurora Clavell
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Edward Carrere
Film Editor Lou Lombardo
Original Music Jerry Fielding
Written by Roy N. Sickner, Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Phil Feldman
The Wild Bunch is the big one, and if one hasn't seen it yet, by all means stop reading this! Thirty-six years later, Peckinpah's best film is still the last truly original Western. Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves are great pictures, but they don't break new ground. Critics, film historians and western buffs have written up this masterpiece from every conceivable angle - its violence, its sexual politics and its position midway between the western, the gangster film and the historical epic. One fine article analyzed the half-dozen musical rhythms coursing through the final sequence. Another proposed that Peckinpah's vision of the Death of the West was also a marker for the beginning decline of America, a country awash in corruption and violence.
When Warners first released movies to VHS home video The Wild Bunch was one of the first titles out, albeit in the original (adjusted) theatrical length of about 135 minutes. Until a longer repertory print appeared around 1979, the only Americans to see Peckinpah's full cut (145 minutes) were those who attended the first week of its limited-run in big cities. In foreign markets -- the UK and Spain -- the film played in 70mm and stereophonic sound, but not in the states. Sam Peckinpah's personal print of the film played at a special Jerry Harvey Beverly Canon screening in 1974 and at Filmex in 1976, rare occasions indeed. Peckinpah's print included a very classy intermission.
A pan-scanned but full length laserdisc appeared in the late 1980s, and Warners undertook a major 70mm stereophonic restoration in 1992 that was stopped dead when the MPAA tried to re-rate the film as NC-17. Protests and negotiations followed for two years until a big re-premiere in 1995 at the Cinerama Dome.
Warners' Two-Disc Special Edition of The Wild Bunch is indeed a Director's Cut. The quality is excellent and the extras only a little disappointing; more on that below.
The Wild Bunch gathers up the western genre in one big eclectic mass and reinterprets it from a subversive perspective. The past is dead and the remnants of old banditry have become outcasts in a world transformed by technology and big money; the loyalties and words of honor so revered in Ride the High Country and Major Dundee have become a liability. Pike Bishop talks solidarity but cannot hold his bunch together; the reality consistently falls short of the dream. His big railroad robbery kills half his men and nets the Bunch only "a dollar's worth of steel holes." He more or less abandons the loose-cannon Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) in Starbuck and then finds out that the boy was related to the Bunch's oldest member. Pike talks big words about sticking together but cannot summon a practical protest when one of his own is being tortured to death. About all the Bunch can brag about it that they "don't hang nobody," when the truth is that they probably never had the opportunity. Thornton marvels that Pike "never got caught," even though that accomplishment is tempered by the knowledge that he left his best friend to suffer a long prison term.
The Wild Bunch rests at the center of a dynamic group of films about armed Americans taking violent 'expeditions' across the border. Filmed in Mexico with the cream of the Mexican industry's action experts, it has several big directors (Emilio Fernandez, Chano Urueta, Alfonso Arau, Fernando Wagner) as actors. Peckinpah's script, direction and cutting (a marvelous, adventurous job by Louis Lombardo) are superb; the attention to detail and the layered texture of each scene is the equal or better than anything in Leone or Visconti. Some of Peckinpah's editing and film speed ideas are borrowed from Akira Kurosawa, who can still be listed as Peckinpah's superior -- in the long run Peckinpah's complicated plotting still leaves a few ragged ends.
Peckinpah salts the film with unusually powerful 'meaningful' dialogue, much of it highly quotable. The only really dated patch is during a 'sensitive' campfire scene where Ernest Borgnine's Dutch earnestly asks Pike if they can learn from their mistakes. Peckinpah wisely avoids shoving The Wild Bunch into the category of 'revolution-chic' pictures, then the rage in Europe. At the conclusion Deke Thornton and Freddie Sykes (Edmond O'Brien) are clearly running off to join Pancho Villa against the Federales. It would have been easy to give Thornton or Sykes some crazy pro- Ho Chi Minh dialogue line like, "If only our mercenary efforts had been for a worthwhile cause like la revolución!
This powerful comeback film was a resurrection for Sam Peckinpah, who had been blackballed from studio work after Major Dundee and an ill-fated false start on The Cincinnati Kid. If producer Phil Feldman was responsible for Peckinpah's artistic freedom and excellent performance here he should have been given credit, for in The Wild Bunch all the virtues claimed for the director finally pay off. The key to Feldman and Peckinpah's assemblage of top actors and top-flight production values is the dialogue line, "This time we do it right."
Almost every role is a perfect casting fit. William Holden was wallowing in feeble action films (The Devil's Brigade) and limp cameos (Casino Royale) and puts in his best all-round performance since David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Ernest Borgnine is far better than usual, with Peckinpah's influence keeping him from going over the top, as he was wont to do on films for Robert Aldrich. Robert Ryan hadn't gotten a role this good since the 1950s; his characterization does the most with the least screen time. Peckinpah also skimmed the cream of his stock company, adding a few choice nuggets like Albert Dekker (he died before the film was released) and an almost unrecognizable Edmond O'Brien.
The Wild Bunch surprised us with its portraits of hard men under pressure, going beyond Aldrich's good start in Flight of the Phoenix. Virtue is practically irrelevant, with men formed into various groups for survival. All activity is in pursuit of money (the Bunch's unapologetic thievery), power (the brutal Mexican civil war) or both (Railroad agent Pat Harrigan is both greedy and a perverse authority figure). Yet the script celebrates the bonds among these civilized savages. The near-subhuman Gorches recognize no law except their relationship as brothers. Both Thornton and Dutch openly admire Pike Bishop and Angel respects him as a father figure. Even the reprehensible Mapache inspires worship, from a pint-sized telegraph messenger.
Peckinpah's realignment of the John Ford universe is at its strongest in The Wild Bunch. References to Ford pictures run deeper than the appropriation of songs like Shall We Gather at the River? The Bunch hark back to Ford's villainous Clantons in My Darling Clementine: Walter Brennan's "When you pull a gun, SHOOT a man!" is definitely the kind of talk that inspires Pike Bishop's hard-bitten outbursts. Some Ford references are much more subtle, like the shawl that Henry Fonda takes from Cathy Downs' Clementine Carter on the way to a church dance. In Starbuck Pike extends his arm to help an elderly lady across the street, and Dutch carries her packages. During the escape, Pike's horse tramples a younger woman into the dust; pausing at the edge of town, he frees her shawl from his spur, throws it down, and continues.
Peckinpah was also fan enough of John Huston to liberally borrow from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, especially the brief respite in the Mexican village, with its grateful campesinos assembling to give the Bunch a fond farewell. Peckinpah embraces sentimentality in these scenes, with the irony that our bloody desperados are flattered and moved to be the recipients of such unquestioning love. Pike and his boys bask in the accolades withheld from Steve Judd's upstanding lawman at the beginning of Ride the High Country.
The ending of The Wild Bunch is the most obvious Sierra Madre lift, with Thornton and Sykes laughing, much as had Tim Holt and Walter Houston. The moment isn't quite as rich as in the John Huston classic, but it will do. 2
Peckinpah's house blend of slow-motion violence shocked us deeply in 1969, as we had been fully conditioned to screen violence that carried no consequences. Typical shotgun humor can be seen in Howard Hawks' El Dorado, where poor shot James Caan is given a 'funny' scattergun that makes a big BOOM and never misses. Peckinpah's stylized bullet hits make fountains of blood spurt out across the screen, as if human beings were soggy bags of hemoglobin; and when rendered in slow motion, careering bodies spin and tumble in airborne ballet deaths. It's simultaneously ugly and beautiful, obscene and aestheticized.
The Peckinpah slo-mo bloodbath has gone in and out of style, driven into the ground by Peckinpah himself and badly imitated by violent filmmakers convinced that bloody violence and slow motion are marketable production values in themselves. Cheaper films resorted to 'poor man's Peckinpah' by simply double or triple-printing frames of film, a trick which usually looks terrible. Since the 1990s, market-controlled moviemaking has upped the ante in high-impact, fast-cut violence that far outpaces The Wild Bunch in blur-cuts, to the point that perceivable continuity is often lost to anyone not flying on amphetamines - Michael Bay, some Ridley Scott movies, etc. People arguing about today's confusing action cutting should re-assess The Wild Bunch's two big shootout scenes, which sometimes use very short cuts (4 frames, even) yet allow us to watch and understand the violent action. Editor Lombardo and Peckinpah play with the idea of action too fast for the cameras - in a pair of shots in the final gundown the camera pans left and right looking for Tector Gorch'es human targets, both of whom are blasted out of the frame before we can get a good look at them.
But the hypocrisy of Hollywood violence circa 2005 is worse than ever. Filmmakers will do anything to avoid visible blood, which the constipated MPAA will instantaneously use to bounce a PG-13 film into an R, or an R into an NC-17. Hence the blood that looks too dark in Lord of the Rings ("It's mud, God's truth!") or entire scenes rendered in B&W to eliminate splashes of crimson. In the PG-13 War of the Worlds bodies are conveniently blasted into Martha Stewart-friendly powder. Against the desert browns in The Wild Bunch, red blood looks even redder.
Warners publicity obviously hadn't a clue when they previewed the film in the midwest to a theater packed with retired folks. The outraged walkouts were interpreted badly by the studio, which sabotaged the picture by cutting it by ten minutes in its first week. Little did they know that it would become the most popular revival title in circulation, with the same battered prints playing to packed midnight shows for years to come. Savant must have seen it twenty times, double billed on everything from There Was a Crooked Man to McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
As soon as the Special Edition of The Wild Bunch was announced, the web was awash in fan anticipation of hoped-for goodies, to the point that Savant has received many Emails asking if longer cuts, missing scenes and censor snippets are going to be restored. Although the two-disc set has many attractions, there are no new scenes restored, in or out of the feature itself.
Disc one has a beautifully remastered transfer, an enhanced encoding of the film with an image-cleaning job done with great care. If digital tools were used, they weren't abused, as there is none of the 'grain overlay' we have come to expect on library titles. A few near-horizontal lines become a little crisp but Savant sees no loss of detail, quite the opposite. We can read the print on the wanted posters. The ruddy flatness of the scene with the puro indios has been toned down. We can finally see the wind-blown raindrops in one shot of the Bunch making their way to Mexico. Just about the only difference that may run counter to the look of the original film (I'm thinking of Peckinpah's long-ago original Technicolor print) is that the red blood is toned down a bit. The bandit with his face shot away used to wear a mask of dripping crimson, which no longer carries the exact same glow. The Wild Bunch fans are so picky that a web outcry for one reason or another is almost a given, but Savant is very, very pleased. By comparison, the older flipper DVD from 1997 now looks as if it were projected on a burlap bag.
The Wild Bunch was originally mixed in stereo for 70mm (abroad) and carefully re-mixed in the early 1990s for the big re-premiere. Jerry Fielding's sublime, Oscar-nominated score sounds better than ever. This is indeed the authentic original release version before it was chopped by Warners. I noticed only three differences from Peckinpah's personal print: 1) No added intermission break; 2) The looped English lines for General Mapache in the Pancho Villa sequence (in the Peckinpah print they were in Spanish without subtitles); and 3) The Peckinpah print also had a slightly longer cut of the moment where Deke Thornton and the bounty hunters find the bandit that Pike Bishop shot in a mercy killing ("Finish it, Mr. Bishop"). After Deke says that it is getting dark, he dispatched a couple of his 'railroad detectives' to take the body back to Starbuck to collect the reward. Some really perceptive Peckinpah fans (Gregory Nicoll, for one) deduced this event by noticing that Thornton's posse unaccountably shrank by one or two members!
Disc two has the extras. Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade is a 2004 Starz/Encore Cable docu at feature length, directed by Tom Thurman and written by Tom Marksbury, the writer of John Ford Goes to War. It includes input from just about everybody who ever worked with the director, including a fair share of pontificating critics and actors from newer generations. The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage is Paul Seydor and Nick Redman's 1996 Oscar-nominated short subject that was the sole extra on the first DVD release. Its main appeal is the chance to peruse a giddy overdose of B&W behind-the-scenes footage (found at Warners by producer Michael Arick) of the shooting of key sequences like the buildup to the final battle. Voiceovers with actors like Ed Harris interpreting Sam Peckinpah lay on the gutsy man-talk a little thick. An item billed as a docu excerpt from A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch by Nick Redman is a new featurette showing Redman and his fellow authors visiting the film's locations outside Durango, partly accompanied by Peckinpah's daughter Lupita. Luckily for us, they're very good with hand-held video cameras.
The supplemental bullets underscore an extra called "Never-Before-Seen Additional Scenes", which naturally leads one to expect a Holy Grail of unseen Peckinpah treasures. What we get instead is a montaged assortment of odds 'n ends dailies of varying interest. Any chance to view uncut camera footage from the movie is going to be welcomed, and the selection concentrates on action scenes in alternate angles or in trims of angles we recognize from the film. They appear to be high-quality transfers from negative, which is a plus as well. Pieces of this recovered footage are also glimpsed in the newly edited featurettes. Only a couple of bits caught Savant's eye. One a view of a dead bounty hunter oozing blood over the top of the Starbuck bank building looks like the kind of thing that might be deleted to remove extraneous gore. Another shot shows Deke Thornton in convict clothing, working on a rockpile straight out of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. 3
What we don't get are the missing scenes implied on the package text. Besides the apocryphal stories of even more outrageous gore (the demise of the clerks and the female customer in the telegraph office, for one), there's also the tantalizing moment retained in the trailer of Sykes' distress at learning that Mapache has seized Angel. Although these legendary remnants are probably just legends, I wouldn't be surprised if legal issues restrained the disc producers from including a lot of special material - note that that the recovered dailies avoid clear views of name actors. The only mementos Savant has of the film are some original transparencies and a 3/4" tape (somewhere) of the Network Television re-cut of the final gundown scene, artistically censored into a dreamlike and incomprehensible blur of violence-free violence.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
1970 / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 121 min. / available individually at 19.98
Starring Jason Robards Jr., Stella Stevens, David Warner, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Leroy Coleman
Film Editor Frank Santillo, Lou Lombardo
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by John Crawford and Edmund Penney
Produced by Sam Peckinpah and Phil Feldman
The Ballad of Cable Hogue was a big departure for Peckinpah, who clearly wanted to use his new-found notoriety from The Wild Bunch to establish a wider reputation for himself. Most of Hollywood was still unaware of his Class-A status as an actor's director in Noon Wine, an acclaimed TV drama. Although Cable Hogue is another western, it is also a light comedy. There isn't another movie like it, which works in its favor.
Cable Hogue is a stack of ideas both good and bad. Jason Robards and Stella Stevens are excellent and Peckinpah is able to coax a pleasant warmth from their tawdry romance. Hogue first visits Hildy as a prostitute and then provides a home for her at Cable Springs, a relationship that ends abruptly when the penny-pinching man of property jokes that he's bartering meals for her services. Hildy never acknowledges the slight, which tells her that it's time to move on. This is one of the few Peckinpah films with a positive male-female relationship at its center, but from The Wild Bunch on he has a hard time conceiving of women as much more than prostitutes, she-cats or one-night lays. Even though Robards and Stevens sweeten the relationship, there's a lot lacking in Peckinpah's view of men and women together.
The film seeks its own pace and rhythm and succeeds whenever Peckinpah lets his character scenes dictate the flow. Robards interacts well with Warner's shady preacher, the various town businessmen and stagecoach driver Slim Pickens. Genre expectations are turned on their head more than once, as when Hogue's forgiveness toward the treacherous Bowen inspires the crook toward a complete reformation. Hogue's reconciliation with Hildy is effected with the gift of a flowered chamber pot, to replace the one she broke while trying to bash his head in.
At 121 minutes The Ballad of Cable Hogue eventually comes off as too long and too slack. It opens with a badly dated split-screen title sequence, and returns at several junctures for grating musical interludes sung by Richard Gillis. "Butterfly Mornings" would have been okay once, but Robards' and Stevens' duet never quite gels. The feeling of being out at a desert rest stop is hurt by direction that sacrifices Peckinpah's formal touches for multi-camera coverage that merely records the performances.
Peckinpah has a gift for verbal humor that doesn't translate well into slapstick. Jokes fall flat - a tent collapsing over a temperance union meeting, or David Warner scuttling around in speeded-up motion. The humor jumps to life whenever the focus returns to the characters, as with Bowen and Taggart's frantic episode with a pit of rattlesnakes.
Film critics in 1970 loved The Ballad of Cable Hogue but film distribution with smaller studio fare that year was hit-and-miss. That put its reputation squarely on the shoulders of film journals eager to laud it on an 'auteurist' basis. Since most everything that happens in the film is a restatement of familiar Peckinpah themes -- the End of the Frontier, the unwelcome encroachment of progress -- critics thought that events like the final automobile accident were inspired touches. The change in perceptions between The Wild Bunch and Cable Hogue is like day and night: The former seems naturally profound, an author's angry statement bursting to get out. The latter comes off as a catalogue of "director's themes." Still, the film's amiable attitude and endearing characters place it far in plus territory.
Warner's DVD of The Ballad of Cable Hogue is presented enhanced at a widescreen 1:78 aspect ratio, optimizing its sometimes arbitrary compositions. The picture becomes grainy only during optical sections. Audio is clear. Jerry Goldsmith's score is no standout, and mainly seems to serve as extensions of the 'song interludes.'
This disc has one welcome featurette, as the 1970 promotional piece listed on the box does not appear on the disc menus. A new interview with Stella Stevens lets her tell her Hollywood story starting with Li'l Abner. Her perspective demonstrates how actors saw the director completely differently from everyone else -- Peckinpah served his performers well and they loved him.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
1973 / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 122 115 min. (two versions) / Two-Disc Special Edition / Available separately at 26.98
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Jason Robards, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, R.G. Armstrong, Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Rita Coolidge, Jack Elam, Emilio Fernández, Paul Fix, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Jorge Russek, Charles Martin Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, John Davis Chandler, Michael T. Mikler, Rutanya Alda, Walter Kelley, Gene Evans, Donnie Fritts, Aurora Clavel, Elisha Cook Jr., Barry Sullivan, Dub Taylor
Cinematography John Coquillon
Art Direction Ted Haworth
Film Editors: David Berlatsky, Garth Craven, Richard Halsey, Roger Spottiswoode, Robert L. Wolfe, Tony de Zarraga
Original Music Bob Dylan
Written by Rudolph Wurlitzer
Produced by Gordon Carroll
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a major Peckinpah picture dogged by production grief. This time his nemesis was a genuine studio joy-killer. MGM's James Aubrey routinely took pictures away from directors (Blake Edwards was one) for re-cutting, often just to prove who was in charge. Peckinpah may have thought he'd learned his Major Dundee lesson and could do things his own way by filming in Mexico, but MGM botched the film's release just the same. Savant remembers seeing it on opening day in Westwood with screenwriter Steve Sharon, and both of us thought it a complete failure. For television showings several "R"-rated sequences were replaced with new material we hadn't seen in the theater, like the brief appearance of Barry Sullivan as John Chisum.
In 1988 Jerry Harvey's Z Cable channel reignited interest in the film by airing Peckinpah's longer Preview cut. But, as reported by Paul Seydor in the featurette extras, the film had never gone through a fine-cut process. Scenes lack energy and the film sags badly in its middle section. This 2-Disc Special Edition addresses that problem with two separate versions of the film, the slightly slack 1988 Preview/Turner Cut, and a new 2005 fine cut that combines it with sections from the original theatrical cut. The 2005 combo cut is tightened up, with a few surprises added and subtracted along the way (see below). It adds yet another cut to the stack of versions in the vault, but it is the best so far.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is yet another elegiac and lyrical look at the death of the West seen through the soul-weary eyes of an outlaw turned lawman. Looking for a comfortable existence, Pat Garrett takes the bait offered by the "Santa Fe Ring," a cabal of territorial fat cats. The fix is in in New Mexico, and at its center is Governor Lew Wallace, a pious hypocrite who would eventually gain fame as the author of Ben-Hur. Grasping old-time land barons like John Chisum (played in stark contrast to John Wayne's heroic version) are being squeezed out by the Eastern politicos to whom Pat reluctantly sells his soul. His first job as part of a territorial image enhancement campaign is to eliminate the notorious William Bonney.
Peckinpah's most easily recognized filmic pattern is the use of a binary hero to provide character conflict, and every critic from Jim Kitses forward has ruminated on the polar tensions between Steve Judd and Gil Westrum, Amos Dundee and Ben Tyreen, Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton. In each case the bonds of loyalty go deep into the past, and the present conflict illuminates the pair's weaknesses and strengths.
Without any malice toward Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, its character conflict lacks impetus. James Coburn's Garrett broods with regret and self-loathing in the very first scene and the rest of the movie is a slow reveal of a static situation. Despite a lot of comings and goings, neither Pat nor Billy engage in anything resembling a constructed plot; everything is left to interior states. The time is taken up with images of our two heroes deeply immersed in soul-searching (or, staring meaningfully), repetitive shoot-out scenes and a couple of key moments restaged from older Billy the Kid movies such as The Left-Handed Gun. Peckinpah helped write One Eyed Jacks and his staging of the jail breakout compares well with Marlon Brando's, mainly because R.G. Armstrong's ferocity easily bests Slim Pickens in the original.
Most of the action in the story is repetitive; too many scenes are structurally unnecessary. Billy and Pat arrive at various trail stops and either shoot people or beat them up. Characters are introduced and eliminated, adding more bloodshed but not advancing the story. Billy's big decision to not go to Mexico is fumbled in yet another gundown of Chisum cowboys, a brainless moment in which he tenderly says his farewells to his old buddy Paco (Emilio Fernández), and then leaves Paco's raped daughter to deal with the body and her ransacked wagon on her own. Much of the film's narrative tension is expended on random action scenes.
What Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has going for it in spades is atmosphere and peripheral characterization -- in the details, it's brilliant. We see both Billy's gang and Pat bedded down with prostitutes and completely believe scenes where they hang out in groups in corrals and barrooms. A quick look at the cast list above will make any fan of American westerns think he's died and gone to heaven - just about every character actor capable of picking up a gun is represented, and more tiny but effective roles are filled by interesting casting choices. Hanging around in the background when Pat and Billy first talk are Jorge Russek (The Wild Bunch, Hour of the Gun), Harry Dean Stanton (Two Lane Blacktop) and Charlie Martin Smith (American Graffiti). Bob Dylan's acting turn is something of a casting stunt, but he's not allowed to do much more than say some elliptical dialogue and be a fly on the wall.
Among the good scenes is a shorter selection of priceless, classic moments. The most beautiful turn is by Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens; their poetic farewell by the river is in itself worth the price of admission. The framing story restored to the preview version, showing Pat Garrett's murder by the Santa Fe Ring in 1909, is equally effective and editorially brilliant. It's intercut with the chicken-shooting scene, so that Pat is first hit by a bullet fired 28 years earlier.
But Peckinpah pays a high penalty for pretentious details. Billy's surrender while assuming a Christ position isn't all that offensive, but having Pat shoot his own reflection in a mirror is the ultimate in trite Peckinpah lore. It worked the first time in The Wild Bunch because it was one detail in a flurry of action. The eye-rolling moment where Peckinpah appears as a coffin maker is the last straw. Garrett encounters him on the way to keep his appointment with destiny, and we're treated to the worst drivel ever spoken in a serious western: "So you finally figured it out, eh Pat?" This unexpected pomposity is the shape of things to come in Peckinpah; even the best of his later films (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron) labor mightily under the weight of an 'auteur' straining for significance.
Warners' DVD of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid looks stunning in two new transfers. The enhanced transfer on the "1988 Preview/Turner Cut" is so good we can see evidence of film damage traceable to camera and lens problems that plagued the film on location - a handful of scenes still have emulsion scratches. Paul Seydor and Katy Haber explain that retakes were able to fix most of the affected material.
Bob Dylan's laid-back acoustic and electric music comes across well in both cuts, providing a laconic mood that blends nicely with Billy's song-singing during his laid-back jailbreak. In the original theatrical cut the perfectly pitched top-40 hit Knockin' on Heaven's Door had audible lyrics. When we saw the same scene without vocals in the Preview/Turner cut we assumed that Peckinpah preferred an instrumental-only version. Dylan's voice has been restored for the 2005 Recut, and unless one is dead set against hearing the folk singer in a Peckinpah picture, it adds greatly to the moment.
Paul Seydor and the other value-added producers/contributors explain that their 2005 Special Edition Recut (disc one) carries out Peckinpah's cutting notes. These fellows knew the director well enough to suggest that their changes are less 'experimental' than the late 90s recut of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
The Recut version is an attempt at the fine cut that Peckinpah never got to make, combining sections of the tighter Theatrical Cut with the 1988 Preview cut, and adding some new editorial alterations. Some of the improvements are worthy of applause. A simple shuffle of shots in the opening editorial time-shift between 1909 and 1881 gives the scene more impact. Several meandering scenes perk right up by ending them earlier, rather than let them peter out. Some tangential dialogue lines are lost in the process -- Savant didn't miss them but some viewers might.
The fine cut sections cleverly reorder some material. The interesting raft scene happens much earlier. A long patch of previously alternating Billy-Pat material is arranged to a more felicitous effect -- a montage shot of a rider at sunset now seques into a nighttime campfire scene, suggesting a more fluid continuity. Savant only noticed one scene missing entirely, the brief bit where John Beck bunks down with Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor (or maybe I blinked and it got by me). The new ending is a bit surprising - it reverts to a slightly altered version of the original theatrical finish.
The additions are also interesting. The still-based title sequence from the Theatrical Cut perks up the beginning. Garrett has a scene with prostitute Ruthie Lee (Rutanya Alda of The Deer Hunter), forcing her to tell him where Billy has holed up. But best of all, the Recut restores the domestic scene between Garrett and his wife Ida, played by Aurora Clavell of The Wild Bunch, previously seen only in a television version. It's a great scene of a typically lousy Peckinpah male-female relationship, an addition that adds greatly to our understanding of Coburn's character. Between this movie and Major Dundee Ms.Clavell has had two major Peckinpah scenes restored in less than a year.
This shorter 2005 Recut is also given a better digital brush-up. I didn't notice any scratches this time. John Coquillon's ruddy photographic style looks better than it did in original prints.
The second disc also holds a pair of interesting taped interview featurettes done in jumpy multi-camera style, as was the Stella Stevens interview on Cable Hogue. Peckinpah secretary, production associate and sometime girlfriend Katy Haber gives us an excellent run-down on Sam's state of mind while making the movie, putting several legendary tales about the director into proper context. Editor/author Seydor appears on camera to explain the crazy path Pat Garrett took on its way the screen. James Aubrey apparently had his own editing team assemble a version of the movie in parallel with Peckinpah's cutters, a blood-chilling abuse of executive power which amounts to creative terrorism.
Kris Kristofferson's interview piece offers up an accounting of his career from the Army to Heaven's Gate, accompanied by country singer and actor Donnie Fritts. Kristofferson's testimonial is one of the few to fully understand Peckinpah's excesses, as he remembers holding the half-crazed director in line on more than one occasion, even taking a gun away from him once. He chalks up Peckinpah's erratic behavior to ordinary alcoholism -- in his drunken rage the director would become confused and lash out at completely innocent victims.
As an added treat, Kristofferson and Fritts perform two songs about Peckinpah for Nick Redman's docu camera. Kristofferson comes off as an impressive fellow indeed, amiable and firm-minded. We can indeed picture an Army general accepting Kristofferson's statement that he wants to quit teaching English Lit at West Point, to become a songwriter!
Warner DVD's Sam Peckinpah's Classic Westerns Collection is a terrific boxed set that represents an enormous amount of work by both the Turner/Warner DVD department and the Peckinpah experts assembled by Nick Redman. Every transfer is a vast improvement. The Wild Bunch strikes one as a renewed experience. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid's two versions will give the Peckinpah adepts fresh fodder for contemplation and debate.
The assembled authors provide full-length commentaries for all of the features. We get facts, opinions, analysis and personal perspectives from each of them, with the phrase most commonly heard being how Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch changed their lives. Their collective interpretation of the world of Sam Peckinpah is nigh-unimpeachable.
The assembled extras will be too much of a good thing for many fans, especially because of understandable overlaps in coverage and other redundancies between commentaries and featurettes. The collection comes to honor Peckinpah and not to criticize him, and some viewers are going to get the idea that he belongs in the company of other Hollywood casualties like Orson Welles and Erich von Stroheim. His story is a lot more complicated than that.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviewed: January 2, 2006
1. Do you know the Byrds/Bob Dylan song Old John Robertson? It carries the same sentiments we develop for these two aging lawmen.
2. Viewers seeking roots for Peckinpah's revisionist cynicism should keep an eye out for two films unavailable on DVD. Man of the West is Anthony Mann's soured look at the western genre made after a series of tough but reassuring James Stewart westerns. It has a railroad robbery staged almost identically to the one in The Wild Bunch; an even earlier train ambush set at a similar underpass is in Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo. Also, Robert Parrish's impressive version of Tom Lea's 1959 The Wonderful Country involves Texas lawmen and outlaws with both Apaches and violent Mexican politics in a way that foretells the complex legal-political world of The Wild Bunch. Its Alex North score is also a precursor to Jerry Fielding's densely evocative Mexican adventure themes for Peckinpah's film.
3. If that scene were in, The Wild Bunch would add another sub-genre to its eclectic stew. I remember racing to get to the 1974 Beverly Canon screening with Joe MacInerny, then a graduate student at UCLA writing about Gangster Films. He argued that The Wild Bunch was at least 50% a gangster film, as its bandits used modern methods to defeat 20th century foes, and planned their train robbery like a classic caper. Then we saw the uncut scenes for the first time, which include the flashback moment where Deke Thornton is captured. He's concerned about a knock at the door, but Pike tells him not to worry. It's just like the moment in Scarface when George Raft leaves his gun behind to answer the door - a sure sign in Gangsterland that Raft is going to be shot.
Does anybody know what became of Joe MacInnerny? I'd like very much to contact him again.