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The Wild Bunch(1969)
After a bloody holdup attempt at a railroad depot, a notorious gang of outlaws rides south to Mexico pursued by bounty hunters. The outlaws are led by Pike Bishop, a tough man weighed down by age, regret and the knowledge that his way of life is over. The bounty hunters are led by Deke Thornton, Pike’s former partner, who has been bailed out of jail by the railroad on condition that he bring back Pike, dead or alive. Thornton would rather join Pike, but he gave his word. In Mexico, Pike’s gang takes a job stealing weapons to supply a Mexican war lord, but is this really the kind of work they want to do?
For more about The Wild Bunch and the The Wild Bunch Blu-ray release, see the The Wild Bunch Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on August 31, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sánchez
Director: Sam Peckinpah
» See full cast & crew
The Wild Bunch Blu-ray Review
Revisiting a Classic
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, August 31, 2011
What can one say about The Wild Bunch that hasn't already been said? Like Citizen Kane, 2001 and other cinematic masterpieces that have so transformed the way we look at films that there's almost a visible line between their before and their after, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch has been pored over, written about, dissected frame by frame and so thoroughly absorbed into world cinema that it's inescapable. Take any major filmmaker from the last forty years, and chances are that Peckinpah is in there somewhere, either directly or through someone he influenced. Admire Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Oliver Stone or (God help you!) Michael Bay, and you're a Peckinpah fan, whether you know it or not. Not that Peckinpah would necessarily be pleased with his reputation. A notoriously irascible and contradictory man, he was already objecting to being so firmly linked in the public mind with fast editing and graphic violence while he was still making films. He was capable of so much more, but whenever he tried to branch out, no one bought tickets. (I yearn for the day when we get a Blu-ray edition of the criminally underseen Junior Bonner.) And while Peckinpah's goal in The Wild Bunch may have been to show the ugly consequences of violence, filmmakers who followed have seldom been as deliberate as he was when it came to melding his techniques with a morality tale teeming with biblical overtones (Peckinpah's mother was devoutly Christian). In The Wild Bunch, the adrenaline jolts are always followed by a sickening aftermath. Today they're more likely to be followed by a joke.
The Wild Bunch tells its story at numerous levels, and part of the film's brilliance is that it does so with such seeming ease that much of it is received subliminally. You're not always fully aware of everything you're being told, but you feel it all the same. As much as both the film and its director are commonly associated with the cinematic expression of violence, in fact there are only three major action sequences in the nearly two and half hour running time. Viewers looking for a non-stop thrill ride may be disappointed, because what occurs between those action sequences is often steady, deliberate and focused on character interaction of the kind that has largely disappeared from mainstream moviemaking today. The action sequences, when they occur, chart key points on a dramatic arc -- several of them, in fact -- for which the character interactions provide essential build-up. At its most basic level, the film tells the story of an outlaw gang led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his faithful second-in-command, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine). Other key members are the Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), plus a Mexican national, Angel (Jaime Sanchez). The gang is larger when the film opens, but it loses a lot of members in an attempted holdup of a railroad office, when they're ambushed by a mob of bounty hunters hired by a railroad security man named Harrigan (Albert Dekker), who has a grudge against Pike after years of successful robberies. The ambush leads to a bloody shootout, killing railroad employees, local law enforcement and numerous innocent civilians from a temperance meeting, but Harrigan doesn't care. All he cares about is that Pike got away. He orders the top bounty hunter, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), the only one who has a clue what he's doing, to lead the remaining bounty hunters to pursue Pike. Meanwhile, Pike and the survivors have rendezvoused with their supply man, Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), and are riding toward Mexico, where they will try to find "work" and stay one step ahead of Thornton. Thornton's presence adds an additional level. It's no accident that Harrigan wanted him for this job, because Thornton and Pike used to be partners. In a remarkable piece of editing that falls shortly after Thornton begins his pursuit, the two men "share" a recollection of how their partnership ended when they were surprised by detectives while celebrating a score in a hotel room. Pike escaped, but Thornton was injured, captured and sent to jail. Harrigan bailed him out and will send him back unless he gets Pike, dead or alive. Thornton would rather be riding with Pike than with "gutter trash" (one of his favorite phrases) like Coffer and T.C. (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), surely the most repugnant duo of comic scavengers ever to grace the screen. But Thornton gave his word, and like Pike he believes in keeping it. (Pike and Dutch have a heated argument about this.) Pike has his own pair of troublesome doubters questioning his leadership in the Gorch brothers. The relationship between Pike and Thornton, both literally and as mirror images of each other, raises difficult questions that bounce back and forth throughout the film. Is Pike hunting himself? Is he trying to outrun himself (if that's even possible)? What will Thornton do when he catches up to Pike, join him or kill him for abandoning Thornton to the law? Indeed, Thornton's presence is a constant reminder that Pike, for all of the loyalty he seems to inspire in people like Dutch and Sykes, has leadership skills on a par with General Custer. He's constantly leading people into terrible situations, whether it's Thornton in the hotel room, or the gang in the railroad office robbery (from which they gain nothing), or the train robbery that occupies the middle of the film. The robbery is a job they undertake for General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), a would-be Mexican strongman who needs U.S. army weapons to fight Pancho Villa. The robbery goes fine, but Pike agrees to give some of the weapons to Mapache's enemies, which doesn't go so well. If you start scrutinizing Pike's decisions, a whole different level of The Wild Bunch emerges, and it's one that's largely unspoken. Much of it plays out across William Holden's expressive features in such scenes as the extended sequence where the gang visits Angel's village, which has been devastated by Mapache's troops. It is the only place where we see them welcomed with warmth and genuine emotion, even though, as a village elder (Chano Urueta) makes clear, everyone knows who and what they are. In these brief hours, Pike glimpses (and perhaps considers) a different kind of life than the one he has led, a phenomenon that is not uncommon as people feel the years slipping by. Some of the major decisions that Pike makes in the latter half of the film are best understood in light of Pike's consideration of these roads not taken and the resulting determination to hew more closely to the road that he did choose. And finally, as if to reinforce the sense of time slipping away that a man of Pike's age feels, there's a general sense in the film of a new era that's rapidly eroding the only way of life that this gang of outlaws knows. One of the most interesting scenes is General Mapache's first entrance . . . in an automobile. After the general exits the vehicle, Pike and the bunch slowly approach the foreign object with wonderment and curiosity. Only Pike recognizes what it is, and he has to explain it to the others. The American West they knew is quickly being replaced by the age of ever-expanding railroads, cars and, shortly, airplanes ("It'll do sixty miles in an hour!" Pike exclaims). Shortly there will no more place for outlaws of their breed, which is why, at the end of the film, the few who have survived remain in Mexico, where things are still disorganized and chaotic enough to provide opportunities. "It ain't like it used to be", says one of them. "But it'll do."
The Wild Bunch Blu-ray, Video Quality
Warner's reissue of The Wild Bunch in a new Blu-ray + DVD package provides an occasion to look back at this early entry in the Blu-ray market. Technology, production capacity and, perhaps most importantly, consumer expectation have progressed substantially since then. How does The Wild Bunch hold up? Pretty well. The 1080p, VC-1-encoded transfer reproduces the substantial detail of Lucian Ballard's "deep focus" photography, which is essential to Peckinpah's visual storytelling. Natural-looking film grain remains visible throughout the film, which leads me to wonder why there are persistent complaints of DNR. Surely if the film had been subject to heavy grain reduction, then the grain would be gone. It's possible that the presence of certain shots with a soft focus has been mistaken for the presence of DNR. It's also possible that we are seeing the effects of the digital "massaging" that accompanies any restoration where multiple sources of varying quality must be melded together. Such a process was necessary with The Godfather, and it was certainly necessary with The Wild Bunch, as anyone who saw the appalling state of the director's cut when Warner released it to theaters in 1995 can attest. Black and contrast levels are quite good on this transfer, as is shadow detail. The colors have been a subject of controversy, at least on the Blu-ray.com forum, but to my eye they were generally accurate. Still, I'm not as willing as some to trust my recollection of color values from over forty years ago, when the film was first released (yes, I saw it then), or even sixteen years ago, when Warner released the director's cut in a badly damaged 70mm blow-up. It's worth noting, however, that Robert Harris, a Blu-ray.com insider, has pronounced the Blu-ray image to be an accurate representation of the film based on his ownership of a 35mm roadshow dye-transfer print, which he has donated to AMPAS. Mr. Harris' experience puts him in a better position than anyone else I know to pronounce on the accuracy of the transfer. I did spot the occasional appearance of some red edging, always in the lower portion of the frame. An example appears in the included screenshot of the bunch sitting on a wagon surrounded by General Mapache's soldiers. I suspect that it's this phenomenon that has prompted reports of "edge enhancement" in the transfer, but I do not believe that to be the case here. In every case I've seen, the artificial sharpening known as "edge enhancement" results in white outlines, because it's essentially an attempt to create an illusion of detail by boosting contrast at edge separations. Moreover, when such sharpening has been applied, it usually affects the entire frame, and this "red edge" is limited to small areas. While I am happy to be further educated on this subject by anyone with direct access to source materials for comparison (or hands-on knowledge of telecine techniques), these artifacts appear to be something akin to the bluish edges that appear around certain bright objects photographed at night with older lenses. In other words, they appear to be source-based. (In the commentary, the Peckinpah scholars discuss the fact that Lucian Ballard was one of the last of a generation of cinematographers who were unafraid of the challenges of working "hot" in intense direct sunlight. Of course, today's DPs have the safety net of a digital intermediate.) Could the image be improved? Of course. A new 4k scan using the latest technology might reveal new depths in the frame, but as Mr. Harris has often noted, every restoration brings its own new set of problems that would require time and resources to address. Warner has a huge library to work through, and those resources could be better devoted elsewhere. The current version of The Wild Bunch is more than adequate; it's a pleasure to watch.
The Wild Bunch Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The disc's DD 5.1 track has been dismissed by some, because it isn't lossless. As is often the case, what is being dismissed is a spec, not an audio experience. If one sits and watches the movie, the 5.1 track provides an involving and enjoyable experience of The Wild Bunch as it was meant to be heard, which is to say that it's a front-oriented mix with the dialogue in the center, Jerry Fielding's distinctive and dramatic score spread across the front, and the occasional sound effect thrown into the rear speakers. Bass extension is fairly modest, because, with rare exceptions, that's how movies sounded then. The common assumption that older movies mastered for Blu-ray will suddenly acquire ringing gunshots and room-rattling explosions is a misconception. An additional note: The DD track on this Blu-ray is mastered at 640 kbps, which is the highest available rate for Dolby Digital and higher than one will find on the DVD (or, indeed, on most DVDs). It would therefore be inaccurate to say that the Blu-ray features "only DVD" sound. Moreover, I don't subscribe to the notion that a Blu-ray without lossless audio is not fully "HD" or that only lossless audio is "HD sound". The term "HD sound" has become a popular term that expresses a legitimate preference, but it's nothing more than a hobbyist's term. It's not a standard established by any official body -- and certainly not by the BDA, which considers a Blu-ray sufficiently "HD" with a lossy DD or DTS soundtrack. I review tracks for their sound, not their spec, and this one sounds damn good. It might sound better in lossless. Then again, given the source, it might not.
The Wild Bunch Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Wild Bunch Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
As much as I would like to see an entirely new transfer of The Wild Bunch with the latest technology and techniques, the current version is perfectly serviceable and certainly bests any version I've seen theatrically or at home in the last two decades. It comes with a wealth of fine supplements and represents the film far better than can be said of many great world classics. It's a film that every film enthusiast should see and that every serious collector should own, especially at current prices. With the caveat that someday you will be buying this film again (and it will be worth it), this Blu-ray edition is highly recommended.
The Wild Bunch: Other Editions
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