The Wild Bunch (2 Disc Special Edition) Review


Let’s Go!
Why not!

Towards the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, four men walk down a street to face their destinies. Facing overwhelming odds and armed with only rifles and righteous vengeance, they don’t go for honour or glory but for the love of a friend. The walk takes them much further than the small Mexican township of Agua Verde. It takes them into the realm of myth where they fulfil their dream of becoming the legendary outlaws that they always wanted to be.

If I had to choose one scene which sums up why I love movies, it would be this one. It’s the ultimate stand-up-and-cheer moment; exhilarating, moving, suspenseful and as profound an examination of the human capacity for reaching out for something more as anything ever put on screen.

It’s a distillation of the things which make The Wild Bunch my favourite film and one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s not a perfect, flawless piece of work in the manner of The Searchers or La Regle De Jeu. It’s difficult and messy with too many ideas and it overreaches itself, letting various genies out of their bottles without quite knowing how to capture them again. But these jagged edges are part of the film’s strange, unique beauty and what makes the mess of ideas and ambitions cohere is the overarching vision of the man who made it. I used to say that Peckinpah was the greatest director of the 20th Century but I was wrong. He was potentially the greatest but we’ll never know because his career was cut short by self-hatred, abuse of himself and everyone he knew and the terrible ignorance of the Hollywood establishment. For this lost, endlessly sad, violently confused man to have made one good film would have been impressive. For him to have made four or five masterpieces, along with a number of other films which are never less than interesting, is a cause for celebration and the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to both the series of men who took his work and screwed it up and the personal demons which destroyed him.

What follows is a lengthy exploration of a film which means more to me than any others and I hope it will be of interest to other admirers of the film and Peckinpah. If you’re primarily interested in my comments on the DVD then please move straight down to the section on the disc.

The plot can be seen as a combination of the classic guys-on-a-mission framework, the Lonely Are The Brave twilight western and an outlaw/posse narrative. The Wild Bunch are a group of ageing outlaws, led by Pike Bishop (Holden) and his ceaselessly loyal lieutenant Dutch (Borgnine), who continually dream of one last, big score against the moneyed railroads so they can retire and cross the border into a terribly misunderstood, hopelessly idealised Mexico, symbol of freedom where tired men find their sins forgiven and are allowed the bask in rest and peace. But this is 1914, the eve of the Great War, and nothing is simple anymore. The railroads have hired Pike’s former compadre, Deke Thornton (Ryan), to catch the gang – though Deke’s sympathies are more with his quarry than his own men, a group of seedy mercenaries who include the great Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. The last big score goes wrong – the company have followed the Bunch and changed silver for iron washers – and the trip into Mexico becomes complicated when one of the Bunch – young Angel (Sanchez), a Mexican – discovers that his sister has become involved with a corrupt Mexican general, Mapache (Fernandez). Trying to hold things together, Pike agrees to do a job for Mapache. He says, “We’ve gotta start thinking beyond our guns. These days are closing fast,” but he barely realises that they’re closing faster than he could have imagined.

It’s difficult, after thirty seven years, to appreciate the shock which The Wild Bunch delivered to audiences in 1969. It takes a familiar plot line – the outlaw gang out for one last score – and subverts it so thoroughly that it becomes barely recognisable. The expected elements are all there but in forms which are deliberately twisted. It’s the Wild West but well into the twentieth century. There are people on horseback but also cars, machine guns and talk of machines which fly. The carefully planned robbery turns into a bloodbath in which innocent people are unceremonially massacred. The outlaws are violent and brutal but they’re also reflective, often tender and bound together by friendship, honour and love. The representatives of the law are corrupt, morally bankrupt and incompetent. The Mexico to which the outlaws escape begins as the idyllic dreamland they expected but soon turns into a hellish inferno of sadistic fantasy where the militarism and imperialism about to explode into World War One are already running loose. The hero and his former best friend are on opposite sides of the law but they don’t hate each other – it would be easier if they did. The outlaws begin by going after money but end up throwing it away because they discover that loyalty and friendship are more important to them.

Thematically, the film has often been described as an ‘end of the trail’ Western – one of many in a sub-genre which goes back to Peckinpah’s own Ride The High Country and before - but it seems to me that by the time the film is set – 1914, shortly before the outbreak of war – the trail has been dead and gone for some time. The film is closer in period to The Big Sleep than, for example, The Searchers, and the moral ambiguities that distinguished Ford’s film have turned into abstract questions which can only be answered equivocally, if at all. In this sense, the film has some noir elements to it. Certainly, the darkness of the film’s world view is a lot closer to Film Noir than the traditional Hollywood western. At one point, one of the Bunch – wondering who has switched the silver in the railroad money bags for steel washers – asks “They? Who the hell are they?” and the question must surely remind many viewers of Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (the presence of Albert Dekker is another reminder). There’s a very powerful sense that traditional notions of heroism – the lone gunslinger of the West, the last honest Marshal standing up against the bad guys – can no longer apply in a world where honour and loyalty are valued less than money and power. Albert Dekker’s Harrigan represents the obscenity of the modern world, caring less about the numerous innocent people massacred in his screwed-up ambush than the fact that most of the Bunch have got away. Harrigan is the nearest we get to the ‘law’ in the film – i.e. capitalist exploitation - and he’s an amoral fool. Peckinpah’s instinctive political stance of liberal-leftism is a very confused creature, hopelessly mixed up with notions of masculine power and feminine weakness and worthy of a monograph in itself, but throughout his films, power and money are very closely associated with decadence and corruption. You see it in Emilio Fernandez’s characterisation of General Mapache as well – so dissolute that he can barely sit up, let alone stand up straight.

This theme reached its grand conclusion in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, where Fernandez repeated his characterisation in a story which can partly be read as an ironic political allegory for the age of Watergate.

Yet, unlike most Noir directors, Peckinpah refuses to give in to either cynicism or hopelessness. Honour, loyalty and, yes, heroism do exist but you have to look in the last place you’d expect to find them. The men who make up the Wild Bunch are middle-aged, tired and lack a sense of basic morality, largely because they’ve spent their lives robbing and killing. But they are bound together at the most basic level through the thing which, if you believe Philip Larkin, is what will survive us once we’re gone – love. The theme of love in the film tends to have been sidelined, possibly for fear of sniggering at the back of the class, but it’s actually right at the centre of the film. Love of one kind or another keeps recurring throughout the film, sometimes in the most unlikely places as when Strother Martin offends L.Q.Jones and makes it up with not one but two brotherly pats on the shoulder. On an obvious level, there is the love which the men of the Wild Bunch feel for each other. You can see it in the half-smiles between Pike and Dutch when one sticks up for the other. You feel it in the humour between the men when they find there’s nothing else to do when faced with the bags of washers but laugh hysterically. It’s there powerfully in the way the men go back to save Angel when they see him tortured in Agua Verde. There’s the love which Angel feels for his people and the love that the men have for their craft, as seen at length in the extended train robbery sequence. Then there’s the love between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton, the love which best friends feel for each other that even mutual betrayal can't quite destroy. Love binds these men together – and it binds Deke Thornton to the men he’s meant to be hunting. At the end of the film, we don’t feel hopelessness. I think we feel exhilaration and optimism. When we see each member of the Bunch die, we mourn them but we find compensation in their bravery and loyalty even at the end – when Dutch screams out “Pike!”, his voice almost breaking along with his heart, it’s a glorious moment because it finally acknowledges the bond which has been unspoken throughout the film.

If The Wild Bunch is about love, it’s also about violence – the violence of the West and the violence of cinema itself. It’s not true to say that it was the most violent film ever made up to 1969 – which some film studies textbooks suggest – but earlier violent films tended to be low-budget independent productions intended for Southern drive-in cinemas – the work of Herschel Gordon Lewis for example. Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 brought that violence into the mainstream and without Penn’s film, it’s unlikely that Peckinpah would have been able to include so much graphic bloodletting. The actual on-screen violence occurs mostly in the first fifteen and last fifteen minutes but it’s so vividly and brutally presented that it hovers over the whole movie. The famous argument for including graphic violence is that it persuades us that violence is a bad thing but that’s diversionary. Any intelligent adult knows that violence is a bad thing and if they don’t then a violent movie is hardly likely to persuade them otherwise. I don’t think that Peckinpah’s attitude is so simple. He’s fascinated by the aesthetics of violence – in this sense he’s close to Kurosawa and later filmmakers such as De Palma – and the ways in which death is presented to an audience. Each death matters in a Peckinpah film because it is distinguished by a very particular visual presentation.

Blood spurts when bullets hit a body. This is, of course, quite realistic and entirely moral. But it’s also horribly beautiful in a way which disturbs us because we know that death isn’t beautiful – and the conflicted response it elicits is what Peckinpah is aiming for. People fall through the air in slow motion, the moment of death extended from a flash to an eternity, a life lived in a few seconds almost as if we’re watching someone drown. In other words, death is made significant and when this principle is extended to characters we have grown, over the course of two hours, to love, the emotional effect is devastating. There’s also a sense in which Peckinpah is exploiting the post-Code environment in Hollywood. Peckinpah, like Leone, realised the obscenity of the MPAA rule that a gunshot could not be featured in the same frame as a bullet hitting someone and he plays up the new freedom for all it’s worth. And he’s right to do so because cinema must surely tell the truth about life and death, even while it’s lying 24 times a second.

This was pretty revolutionary stuff back in the Hollywood of the late 1960s and it’s not surprising that some early audiences – including critics who should have known better – laughed at the bloodletting because it is terribly, gruesomely absurd and one response to absurdity is to laugh. But what’s more revolutionary – and, if you will, revisionist – is the absolute refusal to offer us easy comfort. The Wild Bunch die, fundamentally, because they love their friend more than they love money but they also will their deaths. Throughout the film, Pike talks about getting tired and wanting one last job and once he and his men enter Agua Verde for the last time, they have walked to their certain bodily end and, just in case, Pike puts the matter beyond doubt by shooting Mapache’s German military advisor – there’s a sardonic Peckinpah comment about imperialism here which links up to the power/money/corruption axis I mentioned earlier. To me, Pike’s shot and what follows is in a grand sentimental (and perhaps slightly self-pitying) rebel tradition where it’s better to go down in a blaze of glory than fade away. What would Pike and his men have left after this? Where could they possibly go? The answer is nowhere. The Mexican idyll has been shown to be an obscene lie, they are dead men the minute the return to America. There should be something better, something finer for men like this but America doesn’t have the imaginative capability to find it for them and they don’t have the energy or time to figure it out for themselves.

The paradox is that, for all the revisionism, the men who make up the Bunch are so iconic that it becomes hard to believe that they haven’t always existed on the edges of a hundred Hollywood westerns. It’s partly the faces. Bill Holden was always a handsome leading man but as he aged – and his somewhat unwise lifestyle began to catch up with him – his face became a map of the many little ways in which a young man grows old. He got less handsome but more interesting and his face, in late middle age, began to take the camera beautifully. You can see this at its fullest extent in Network, Holden’s glorious last hurrah, but the process starts here and it’s this which makes him the only possible choice for Pike Bishop. The character has tough dialogue which could be read in different ways. You can imagine John Wayne giving it the macho hard-sell, rousing his men into excited aggression or Gene Hackman calmly uttering them with an air of cynical irony. Holden states them matter-of-factly with an undertone which hovers between bitterness, fear and self-doubt. He pounces upon an emphasis with unexpected force and makes you understand how this ageing, exhausted lion commands respect and affection.

In his movies, Peckinpah loves actors who are past their prime. If they are supporting actors – Strother Martin, R.G.Armstrong, Slim Pickens, Albert Dekker, Ben Johnson – then he gives them deliciously unexpected quirks. If they are – or were – stars then he gives them the kind of parts they must dream about, full of what screenwriting gurus call ‘back story’ and a range of emotions which they are free to either hold back or express to the full. Look, for example, at Edmund O’Brien – virtually unrecognisable and never better – or Ernest Borgnine whose work in the latter half of his career can best be described as enthusiastic. In a film such as The Poseidon Adventure, his mugging and hamming is almost unbearable.

Somehow, though, Peckinpah manages to rein him in and in The Wild Bunch, Borgnine is sublime. Time and again, he’s the voice of reason, holding one or other member of the group back from the brink. Borgnine is still a little over the top now and then but there’s something hugely likeable about him and Dutch seems to embody a kind of life-force which Pike Bishop can’t quite summon up.

Pike doesn’t exactly embody a life force but he does symbolise something equally significant – the relentless urge to find meaning and, through that, to give life some kind of definition. In his life of disappointments and might-have-beens, his only fixed point seems to have been his partners in crime and it’s their very specific code of honour and loyalty to which he desperately clings. This code gives definition and shape to the Bunch and distinguishes them from the mercenary rabble sent to catch them. Pike is all too well aware of this and his purpose in life is to keep his band together – he memorably tells the Gorch Brothers, when they show signs of insubordination, “I either lead this bunch or end it right now”.

William Holden plays this beautifully, as he does a scene which comes soon afterwards when a whole lifetime is summed up by a back view shortly after he has failed to mount his horse. This is great acting and great direction. Holden loved directors who had some guts about them and in a late career littered with lazy performances, this shines out like a good deed in a bad world. Pike also gets the lion’s share of the great dialogue - my favourite being “When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can’t, you’re some animal You’re finished. We’re finished. All of us

Deke Thornton is Pike’s best friend turned would-be nemesis and it’s a measure of how good Robert Ryan’s performance is that we never quite know where he’s coming from. At one moment he may seem weak – pleading with Harrigan not to be sent back to jail – and then strongly contemptuous of the disgusting creatures he has to work with. In his conflicted heart, he is still a member of the Wild Bunch and he eventually makes this plain when he rounds on his posse and says, “We’re after men. And I wish to god I was with them!” Ryan is tough as nails here but retains an ambiguity. We’re never entirely sure that he wouldn’t shoot Pike given another chance but at the end, he surveys the wreckage of his past as it lies bleeding on the floor and sits down against a wall to wait for … whatever…. In that moment, the character suddenly makes sense. Deke is trying to trade in his past, a basic weakness that sets him apart from the strong convictions of someone like Pike. At the end, he realises that he never really did make the trade and he might just as well be among the bloody corpses of his former friends. But if Deke’s soul is dead at the end, he can still manage a sardonic smile – exactly what he is smiling about is a moot point which each viewer has to interpret for themselves. Perhaps it’s because he’s free for a moment, of both his mercenary bond to Harrigan and his brotherly bond to Pike. Perhaps he’s simply struck by what Larkin called “the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing and is nowhere and is endless.” If this isn’t quite Ryan’s best performance, it’s a dignified and intelligent one and stands out in a period when this strong, subtle actor was all too often required to play weak men in films like The Dirty Dozen and The Professionals. Deke is a tough bastard but he’s an intelligent one and he realises that his present is made up of a million different memories and actions that can never be reversed and words which can never be taken back.

In this respect, the character is an honourable reminder of Ryan’s great Noir heroes in On Dangerous Ground and The Set-Up and a foreshadowing of his final triumph in The Iceman Cometh.

The film is a technical marvel. It looks remarkably beautiful thanks to Lucien Ballard, a DP who reached his peak of artistry in his collaborations with Peckinpah. Gorgeous as it looks and profound as it is, however, let’s not forget that The Wild Bunch is an action movie and a damned exciting one. Peckinpah’s revolutionary idea of beginning with a climax and then building up to several others before his big finish still works just as well after many viewings. Like a few other directors, Peckinpah knows how to draw out suspense for just long enough and then stretching it out a little more so that it becomes witty. The opening gunfight is a great example of this, as is the great scene which climaxes with the exploding bridge where expert editing by Lou Lombardo and Robert Wolfe seems to place us right in the middle of events. Few other films know quite as well as this when to use silence – usually right after an explosion of sound. It says a lot for Jerry Fielding’s fantastic score that it’s a constant presence which adds much to the film but never intrudes on the pacing or the scenes where the absence of sound is essential. I realise that I haven't mentioned the screenplay much. Suffice to say that without the script by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner, there would be no Wild Bunch and the spare, ironic dialogue suits the film and the actors perfectly.

The Wild Bunch is a dark and painful film which is sometimes nightmarish to watch but what redeems it from being despairing is that it isn’t cynical. When the Bunch arrive at Angel’s village they speak to Don Jose who says to Pike “We all dream of being children again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst of us most of all.” This is certainly double-edged – the opening scenes have shown us the casual cruelty of which children are capable as a group of kids torture and burn a scorpion – but it also indicates the thing which this film achieves and its ultimate paradox; in amongst the violence and blood, it has a kind of innocence, an innocence born of hope and belief in that something more to which I alluded earlier; the something more which Pike looks for through honour and love and loyalty and all the other things which don’t matter a damn until you’ve lost them. As each of the Bunch meet their unbelievably courageous deaths, they achieve the purity of myth and find an innocence in their ultimate self-belief – that in dying, they are finally rising over the cruel landscape and finding the beautiful land over the river of which they have so often dreamed.

The Disc

This is Warners’ second release of The Wild Bunch. The first, which came out early in the history of DVD, was a flipper disc with mediocre picture quality. This new release has been a long time coming but the wait has been worthwhile. Although it’s possible to carp about some aspects of the transfer, this is generally a disc which deserves high praise.

The film is presented in an aspect ratio very close to 2.35:1 (DVD Beaver reckons 2.39:1 but I don't own a tape measure and maths was never my strong point). The good news is that it's a virtually pristine print with barely any damage and a considerably more satisfactory level of grain than the old release along with a high level of detail. However, a number of people have expressed dissatisfaction with the colours, claiming it doesn't look like it should do. My own view is that they vary from scene to scene, which in itself is unsatisfactory. At times, they are beautiful to behold and at others, they are bland and a little muddy. Generally, the second half of the film fares better than the first in terms of colour. There is certainly a soft appearance to much of the film but I didn't find this particularly distracting or annoying. I am, however, as sure as I can be that I prefer the look of this disc to the old release in every respect. It's anamorphically enhanced, it loses the omnipresent grainy texturing and skimps on the rampant artifacting, all things to be very grateful for. Having seen the film in the cinema on a number of occasions and on TV, Video and DVD countless times, I think it looks pretty damned good here.

I have no reservations about the soundtrack. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is derived from the original six-track 70MM Roadshow soundtrack and is a beauty. Gunshots ricochet all around you, Jerry Fielding's music drags you in from the first minute and every growl from Ben Johnson is as crystal clear as every note of Angel's guitar. Wonderful stuff. Play it loud.

The extras on the first disc are a trailer gallery and a commentary from the ‘Peckinpah Posse’. The trailers are all welcome, consisting of Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. These are duplicated on every disc in the Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

The commentary is a good one, as you’d expect from these Peckinpah experts who have forgotten more about Sam than I will ever know. They do what they've done on other discs - trade observations, compete for the spotlight and occasionally flatly contradict each other in a good natured way. How much you enjoy this will probably depend on how much of a Peckinpah-head you are. If you share their love for Sam, then you'll love it. If not, you might look for a bit more criticism and a bit less passion. Personally, I enjoyed every minute of it.

The second disc is packed with good stuff, although in one respect – and churlish as it sounds - it would have been nice to have more. There are four features here; three documentaries and some deleted scenes.

"Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade" was made for the Western Channel in 2004 and is about as good a summary of Peckinpah's career as you'll find this side of "Man Of Iron" - which can be found on the out-of-print Criterion edition of Straw Dogs. It doesn't have the elegant time-shifting and remarkable insights of Paul Joyce's documentary but it has the good fortune to feature interviews from a variety of Peckinpah collaborators and a delightfully gravelly narration from Kris Kristofferson. It's great to hear the views of Ben Johnson, L.Q.Jones, Stella Stevens, Garth Craven, R.G.Armstrong, Kristofferson, Bobby Visciglea and even better to see some archive material of the man himself and some making-of footage which is a pleasure to watch. Also present are Peckinpah biographers David Weddle, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor along with the likes of Paul Schrader, Elvis Mitchell, David Thomson and Roger Ebert. Slightly more bizarre is the inclusion of Benicio Del Toro, Michael Madsen and Billy Bob Thornton - although at least the latter has some original things to say and makes films in the Peckinpah spirit. The documentary is quite nicely balanced too with a reasonable amount of time spent on Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett as well as The Wild Bunch. It's a shame that the limits of the approach mean there's no room for extended comment on Straw Dogs or Cross of Iron but all in all, this is valuable and interesting. Newcomers to Peckinpah will find it extremely useful.

The other two pieces are the excellent An Album In Montage which was present on the earlier release and a mouth-watering excerpt from “A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch” which makes me simply ache to see the whole thing. “An Album In Montage” is a beautiful little film about Peckinpah’s filming of The Wild Bunch and it was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in 1996. It contains some rare black and white silent footage of the making of the film and is narrated by Nick Redman along with L.Q.Jones, Walon Green, Jim Silke, Edmond O'Brien, Jerry Fielding, Sharon Peckinpah, Ernest Borgnine and actors reading words from William Holden and Gordon Dawson. We also get selections from Peckinpah's own words read by Ed Harris and the music of Jerry Fielding. The effect is quite intoxicating and deliberately artistic rather than simplistically informative. It's incredibly moving too, particularly when you place it in the context of Peckinpah's decline during the 1970s and the height of the achievement which The Wild Bunch represents.

The excerpt from Nick Redman's documentary is a bare twenty minutes long but it's very engaging indeed. Basically, it's the Peckinpah Posse, as they now seem doomed to be known, wandering round the Mexican locations accompanied by Peckinpah's youngest daughter Lupita. The commentary by Redman is engaging and poetic and there are hugely enthusiastic interview snippets from the four guys. This left me desperate to see the whole thing, sooner rather than later.

The outtakes are just that, outtakes of various scenes from the film most of which involve horseriding. These are generally takes which aren't quite right in one way or another and you can see why they weren't included. It also shows how complex the eventual film must have been to piece together.

Although optional subtitles are provided for the main feature, none are given for the extras. This is particularly unfortunate given the nature of the main documentary and a severe oversight on the part of Warner Brothers. I've deducted a mark from the otherwise perfect extras score for this.

The Wild Bunch is my favourite film, one which I've seen more times than I can count and which seems more remarkable every time I watch it. There's a lot more to say about it but I won't try your patience any more. What I would add is that there's a huge debate to be join about Sam Peckinpah. Some would have it that he was screwed by producers and movie companies, the Hollywood establishment closing ranks against him. Others would scorn this, pointing the finger at his alcoholism, cocaine addiction and neurotic personality. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two. Peckinpah destroyed himself and tried to do the same to everyone who made the mistake of caring about him. But equally, as I've said many times before, everyone who knew him evidently misses him like mad. He was ragingly mad, probably misogynist, a bad father, a hopeless husband and an unreliable friend. But I watch that shot of Holden walking away from the camera, or Slim Pickens going down to the river in Pat Garrett or James Coburn laughing hysterically at the end of Cross Of Iron and I can forgive him anything. Perhaps that's the explanation - no matter how far from redemption the man may be, it's the work which allows the man to enter his house justified.

10 out of 10
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:18:46

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