Monday, September 12, 2011

The Wild Bunch

Appropriately enough, the first film in my Peckinpah retrospective was The Wild Bunch, courtesy of the spectacular Warner Brothers Blu-ray. It's one of only three Peckinpah films to have received a Blu-ray release in the United States to date (a Blu-ray of Straw Dogs was just released, presumably to coincide with the theatrical release of Rod Lurie's ill-advised remake). I was a late adopter of HDTV and Blu-ray thanks to an initial skepticism about the format's alleged superiority coupled with a resentment of being asked to upgrade to something better yet again. I finally gave in earlier this year, and I'm glad I did, as Blu-ray discs do indeed have the potential to look absolutely stunning when they're done right. Of course, upgrading to Blu-ray meant that I had to repurchase some films I already owned on DVD (and had previously owned on VHS and LaserDisc, for that matter), and it's a no-brainer that The Wild Bunch was among the first Blu-rays I bought. The screenshots accompanying this article, however, are most definitely not from the Blu-ray, as I don't yet have a Blu-ray drive on my computer (and it's unlikely that I will for some time).

The Wild Bunch tells the story of a gang of outlaws unsuccessfully struggling to remain relevant in the quickly fading American West circa 1913. The Bunch, the core of which is Pike Bishop (William Holden), Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) and Angel (Jaime Sánchez), find themselves on the run in Mexico after a botched robbery attempt and subsequent shootout that leaves scores of innocent civilians dead, though the deaths are attributable more to the ruthless bounty hunters pursuing them than to the Bunch themselves. As lawless as they may be, the Bunch maintain a certain code of honor, a fact not lost on Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Thornton is an ex-member of the Bunch who was captured and is being compelled to assist in tracking them down in the hope of avoiding a return to the hellish prison he was released from. After arranging to steal a trainload of weapons for a corrupt Mexican general, Mapache (Emilio Fernández), a series of events lead to a confrontation with Mapache and his troops, ultimately ending in a sustained massacre which leaves the majority of the participants on both sides dead.

"When you side with a man, you stick with him!" - Pike Bishop (William Holden)
delivers one of the film's signature lines to Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson)

Like many others,
The Wild Bunch served as my introduction to the cinema of Sam Peckinpah, and I'll freely admit that I was first attracted to it due to the notoriety that its graphic violence engendered. When I was fairly young and first starting to read about the cinema, I obtained a copy of John Brosnan's special effects bible Movie Magic. This eye-opening book had a section on violence and gore which discussed The Wild Bunch at length, as it was still considered at that time to be one of the most violent films ever made. Reading about the bloody bullet hits created by attaching condoms filled with stage blood to explosive squibs and the notorious throat-slitting scene, my curiosity was piqued, but my general antipathy toward westerns at the time meant that it would be several more years until I finally saw the film. As a young man who was by then used to horror films that casually spilled buckets of blood without much thought to the meaning of it all, the cataclysmic eruptions of violence that bookend The Wild Bunch were a revelation. Here were characters I actually cared about dying in a horribly vivid manner, their agony plainly visible on their contorted faces. When the mortally wounded Dutch Engstrom cries out, "Pike! Pike!," while witnessing his partner's death, blood gushing from both of their bullet-riddled bodies, it packs a powerful, emotional punch. At the time, it was something I had not yet experienced, and The Wild Bunch was one of the first movies to demonstrate to me that the medium of film could actually say something important while it was entertaining you. As I've grown older, I've found that the themes of alienation, regret and confusion in the face of changing times that infuse the film have only become more poignant.

Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates) heads up the Bunch's robbery of a munitions train

The 2007 Blu-ray release of
The Wild Bunch looks absolutely stunning to me. It's hard to believe that the film is over 40 years old. Over time, I've seen it in several different formats, including a theatrical screening that I was lucky enough to catch back in the day, and I can't ever recall being as impressed with the scenery as I was here. I never considered The Wild Bunch to be a particularly lovely-looking film, but the Blu-ray definitely brings that aspect out, with the color looking especially vivid compared to the previous DVD releases. When Angel surveys the panoramic vista of his home country, just across the Rio Grande, and remarks "Mexico lindo," I tend to agree with him, even the Gorch brothers don't. The Blu-ray's 5.1 soundtrack has been taken to task for not being lossless, but it sounded pretty good to me, with clear dialogue and a fairly impressive bottom end, despite the film's age. The disc contains numerous supplements, including a handful of documentaries and a commentary by several of the notable Peckinpah scholars mentioned in my previous post. (I believe all of these materials were present on the previous Special Edition DVD release.) Although I've read several of the books on Peckinpah that these men have written, I haven't yet found the time to listen to one of their commentaries; I hope to remedy that soon. The fact that I picked the disc up for under $10 was icing on the cake. I can only hope that subsequent Blu-ray releases of Peckinpah's films are handled as well as this one.

If you've never seen a Sam Peckinpah film, start here. As well as being his most renowned and arguably his best film, The Wild Bunch functions as a perfect encapsulation of everything he was trying to express through his art. It's a masterpiece made by a world-class filmmaker at the height of his power and creativity, and it's a glorious thing to behold.