Controversial from the day it was released to the present, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a film that people either love or hate. John Wayne said that it ruined the myth of the old west, but the movie was nominated for two Academy Awards and Peckinpah was one of the contenders for the Director's Guild of America's Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures that year. Noted for its violence and blood, the film also has a strong story that carries the film once the action is over. This seminal western has now gotten the Blu-ray treatment and looks great. What's more, the disc ports over all of the special features (including three (!) documentaries) from the 2-disc SE that was released last year.
In the early 1910's, a few years before WWI, a group of outlaws are trying to survive in a time that has passed them by. Lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his second in command Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), the group tries to rob a railroad office, but things go wrong. They were anticipated and after losing some men in a shoot out the only thing they have to show for it are some bags full of washers.
With little in the way of money, a group of bounty hunters on their trail, and no prospects for future heists, the band of survivors heads into Mexico. Pike's is getting old and wants to pull one last job with a big payday and then retire. Just such a score seems to fall into their laps when a two-bit dictator, Gen. Mapache (as Emilio Fernandez) offers the men $10,000 to steal a shipment of arms intended for the US Army. They know that if they head back to the US the posse will still be after them and that Mapache can't be trusted, but the desperate men try it anyway.
This is a film about desperation, destiny, and honor, but most of all
living life on your own terms. At the beginning of the film, Pike
and his men know that their way of life is ending. The west has been
tamed except for a few hold-outs like themselves and they won't last long.
There are cars, planes, and machine guns now, and a group of men on horseback
with six-shooters can't stand against that. As Pike puts it "I'd
like to make one good score and back off." To which Dutch replies
"Back off to what?" In the end, rather than 'back off' the men decide
to make a stand; to live and die as the men they are, not the men that
society and the world wants them to be.
The casting of this film is superb. William Holden, Edmond O'Brien, and Ernest Borgnine were quality actors who were, like the characters they are playing, in the process of being left behind by Hollywood. Each of the actors manages to craft a multi-dimensional character that makes the movie a work of art. When Pike things back on the girl he loved he shows a small streak of vulnerability, something that is present when he shoots one of his own men at the beginning.
This is the film that made Sam Peckinpah famous, and it wasn't just because of the blood and violence. He crafted a compelling film that's hard to look away from once it starts, and it stands up well after all these years. Now the violence and slow motion cinematography that caused such an uproar when the film was released is common place. Even though the bar has been raised quite a bit in recent years, it's still very effective in this film and that's saying a lot. Peckinpah not only keeps viewers glued to the screen for the nearly 2 ½ hours that the film runs, but manages to put some interesting symbolism into the movie: the vultures arrive at one point just as the bounty hunters do, and the scene at the very beginning, of children pushing a scorpion onto a fire ant hill and laughing as it fights for its life is an apt metaphor for the entire film. The movie is more than just the blood that it's remembered for, it's an excellent piece of cinema.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 2.4:1, 1080p, VC-1 encoded image looks mighty darn good, easily surpassing the previous DVD releases. The first thing viewers will notice are the colors; bright, solid, and gorgeous. The desert scenery really pops out with wonderful hues, from the blue sky to the deep red blood, this disc really makes the movie look great. The colors are well saturated and the skin tones look natural and not digitally tweaked like so many films seem to nowadays.
The level of detail is also quite high with small features being strongly defined. The wrinkles and cracks in the character's faces come through clearly making them look like they've been living hard their whole lives. The only downside to this is that a few of the more ambitious make up effects look like they're artificial. The face of the man who is tortured near the end wasn't as convincing as it would have been if the resolution was poorer. Even in low light situations the lines are sharp and the image is clear.
The only down side, and it is a minor one, is the blacks. They are deep and solid, but some details do get lost in them. The black outfits of the members of the temperance association at the beginning are a good example. Folds and wrinkles in the suits are hard to see.
Digitally, the disc looks great. There isn't any mosquito noise in the wide blue sky, which I was partially expecting, and posterization isn't a problem either. There is some low level edge enhancement present, but it wasn't distracting. Overall this is a very good looking disc.
The film comes with a DD 5.1 mix as well as French and Spanish dubs in stereo. The original mono track was engineered into the 5.1 mix and the disc sounds like it's a construction rather than the way the movie was originally filmed. The surrounds come alive during the battles and there is some music ported to the rear but aside from that the film is focused in the front. The music sound very good and has a full dynamic range, but some of the dialog sounds a little flat and not as robust. Given what WB had to work with, the disc sounds fine.
Apparently the people who put this disc together didn't get the memo. Blu-ray discs aren't supposed to contain all of the bonus items found on their SD counterparts! That would make sense and help the format. Bucking the trend, this disc comes with all of the supplements that are present on the 2 disc CE version of this film. *woo-hoo!* Even though they are presented in SD, it's nice to see them all here.
First off is a commentary track by Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. They are very knowledgeable about Peckinpah in general and this film in particular and have a lot of interesting things to say. They talk about the filming, Peckinpah's life, the reaction to the film, and basically everything you could want to know about it. Though it does get a bit dry in parts, this is an enjoyable track.
Next up is Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade, an 83-minute biography of the film maker. Actors who worked for him as well as friends and scholars talk about the unique director and his life in this very entertaining piece. The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage is an Oscar nominated documentary made in 1996. It uses behind the scenes footage and voiceovers along with clips from the completed film to tell the story of the making of this classic. Running a bit over half an hour, it was a very nice look at the film, and much better than the typical HBO sneak-peak crap.
The final documentary is an excerpt from A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch. This 23-minute edit of Nick Redman's film (who appears on the commentary track) takes viewers down to Mexico and revisits the locations from the film. It was the weakest of the three documentaries, but is still worth watching.
In addition to all of that, there are 9-minutes worth of poor quality deleted scenes and a Peckinpah movie trailer gallery (including The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)
Superbly acted and impeccably directed The Wild Bunch is a violent
film about violent times. More than that, it's a film about living
life on your own terms, no matter what the price. A landmark western,
this Blu-ray presentation looks great and has some wonderful bonus features.
Make sure to check this one out. Highly Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.