"We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closin' fast."
-Pike Bishop (William Holden)
In 1964, an Italian director by the name of Sergio Leone turned the western on its head with a little movie called A Fistful of Dollars. It, along with its two sequels (you know their names), gave a whole new definition to the western. The heroes in these films were often no better than the villains, with only a thin line of compassion separating the good from the bad (from the ugly). The series didn't reach American shores until 1967, but when they did, they created quite a stir. Still, it's one thing for an Italian director to make a revisionist western, but it's another entirely for an American to do it. After all, the Wild West is a uniquely American phenomenon, and Americans were damn proud of it. Gary Cooper and John Wayne cemented the idea of the noble western hero, who saved the village and got the girl. Not for gold, not for fame, but because of an innate sense of rightness.
That is why The Wild Bunch is still the most important modern western ever made. While a few American genre pictures used the western to tell some bleak stories (John Ford's The Searchers being the most famous example of a film that subverted conventions), none of them reached the level of violence and lawlessness in which The Wild Bunch indulged. The movie tells the story of Pike Bishop (William Holden), a thief and an outlaw in the Old West who knows his time is coming to an end. After a failed bank robbery leads to a massacre, Pike and his team retreat to Mexico, where they end up running guns for General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), despite his despicable ways and oppression of the local people. Eventually the few lines that separate Pike from Mapache become too much for them to ignore.
Director Sam Peckinpah had long worked in westerns, mostly for television. Clearly galvanized by the electric, stylish, and ambiguous films of Leone, Peckinpah was able to hit upon the revisionist western at the crest of the wave, crashing it into American cinemas, crafting a work of undeniable power. The opening, which features a bloody shootout in the midst of a public square, was perhaps the most visceral and explicit scene put to film to date. This was 1969, and while the 60's were certainly a period of great cultural upheaval, film was a little slow to respond. Most movies that excited the counterculture dealt with drugs, free love, and psychedelic music. Easy Rider, released in the same year, is a picture that best exemplifies the preoccupations of the period. Peckinpah looked beyond the spirit of the 60's, delivering a grim and unrelenting work that was not at all in sync with the times.
But The Wild Bunch wouldn't have the lasting effect that it does if it weren't telling a great story. Peckinpah forges an unrelenting final shot for the western. It's worth pointing out that the only western since The Wild Bunch to gain any kind of notable place in film history is Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a film that took a hard look at the legacy left by Leone and Peckinpah. Peckinpah turned the desperate last stand of these despicable men into a modern myth, operatic in its structure and reflective at its core. William Holden's character, Pike, in particular spends much of the film going over a life of crime and debauchery and finding much to regret.
Holden leads an ensemble cast, many of whom never did better work than here. Holden was the highest profile actor of the bunch, having starred in such masterpieces in Sunset Boulevard and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Generally seen as a barrel chested white hat, he uses the gravitas of his stature to turn Pike into an unstoppable force. He's the only one who can keep the group together, especially as they begin to turn on each other. And he doesn't try to make Pike into any kind of nice guy. He leaves the character as immoral as written. Ernest Borgnine plays Dutch Engstrom, Pike's second in command. With his baby face and infectious smile, Borgnine has been used more often for comedy. Here he proves that he's capable of drama, crafting a fully realized character. Robert Ryan does his best work as Thornton, doggedly pursuing Bishop for both professional and personal reasons, despite his desire to run with the pack.
The Wild Bunch is one of those films whose influence can be felt in every movie made afterwards. Even westerns that are dissimilar to it are seen in that term: Not like The Wild Bunch. It is the benchmark against which all other westerns are judged. But no filmmaker has dared make a picture in the genre that reaches to the level of The Wild Bunch, neither in terms of scope nor the sheer ruthlessness of the characters and construction. The movie marks a turning point in the western from which the genre can never turn back. For better or worse, The Wild Bunch is the end of the West.
The HD DVD:
Warner Bros. presents The Wild Bunch in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1 in this VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. Warner clearly knows the value of the property, because the disc looks great. The colors pop with a vibrancy you wouldn't expect from a 1969 film, with the blue skies and dusty sands equally impressive in the frame. The skin tones are accurate, and details in faces are very well defined. Peckinpah was a man who understood the power of medium and wide shots, and the quality of the image does not waver in these longer shots versus the close-ups. For a film nearing its fortieth anniversary, this transfer is practically a revelation. Considering I've seen transfers of movies half the age of The Wild Bunch, I cannot heap enough praise upon Warner for the high quality work they've done here.
Warner offers a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix for The Wild Bunch. To be honest, the sound is not as strong as the picture. The film was not made with surround sound in mind, and while the action scenes do use the surrounds, most of the picture is confined to the front stage. The bass is weak and trembly, and sometimes dialog dips too low to be clear. Also, a lot of the sound effects suffer from sounding dated and muffled. But given the age of the sound elements, it's not terrible.
Warner reproduces all of the special features from the simultaneously released 2-disc DVD set, although none of them are in high definition.
- Commentary by Peckinpah Biographers/Documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle: The world's foremost authorities on Peckinpah gather together to discuss his greatest achievement. The four are clearly enthusiastic about Peckinpah's work, and The Wild Bunch especially. They play off each other well, making the commentary feel more like a relaxed conversation than a history lesson. One of the best commentary tracks I've heard from a group that wasn't involved with the making of the film in question.
- The Wild Bunch - An Album In Montage: An Oscar-nominated documentary, "An Album In Montage" weaves together behind the scenes footage, photos, voiceovers, and clips from the film to give the audience an idea of what went into the making of the picture. This is the only extra that was available on the previous one-disc DVD release and worth a look.
- Sam Peckinpah's West - Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade: Peckinpah's life and filmography are examined in this documentary, which runs at almost an hour and a half. Interviews with actors, friends, and academics paint a portrait of the man behind a unique and influential body of work.
- Excerpt from A Simple Adventure Story - Sam Peckinpah, Mexico, and The Wild Bunch: Documentarian Nick Redman revisited the Mexican sets Peckinpah used on The Wild Bunch. Surprisingly, he found that a lot of the locations used are still standing today.
- Deleted Scenes: About nine minutes of low quality footage.
- Trailers: Not only do we get the trailer for The Wild Bunch, but also Ride The High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.
Note: The images used in this review are not indicative of the quality of the transfer on the HD DVD.
The Wild Bunch was a seminal turning point in the western genre and American cinema in general. Director Sam Peckinpah brought a fearlessness and viciousness to film that predated many of the movies that would get made in the 70's and through to today. It's an absolute masterwork and must be seen, and this HD DVD is the way to do it. The picture is beautiful, wonderfully replicating the look Peckinpah worked so hard to achieve. A nice selection of special features offers perspective on a film that's still as essential today as it was almost forty years ago. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.