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When judgement day comes down on the great westerns- The Searchers, Unforgiven, Lightning Jack—popular opinion holds that The Wild Bunch will be somewhere near the top of the list. Since its release in 1969 it has been hailed not only as a landmark in its genre, but as one of the great achievements of American cinema.

Wild Bunch, The
It opens with a robbery, as a group of outlaws in army uniform ride into a small Texas town. They're led by Pike Bishop (Holden) and they're in no mood to mess about ("If they move....kill 'em."). But lying in ambush are Deke Thornton (Ryan) and his posse. Thornton used to run with Bishop but they parted ways after a falling out and now he's out to bring him down, a plan which degenerates into an unholy massacre involving the robbers, the law and the unfortunate townsfolk. Tearing out into the desert, Bishop and his men hole up only to find they've been set up and that their haul is nothing but washers. Biding their time while contemplating their next move, they come up with a plan to steal an arms shipment for a tin pot general in return for ten thousand in gold.

It's probably been a good ten years since I last watched The Wild Bunch and for a horrible time I thought it wasn't going to live up to either its reputation or my memories of it. Some of the dialogue is a little clichéd, some of the acting a little ripe and it plods up to the hour mark, but from the moment the gang begin the train heist right up until the final frame, The Wild Bunch exudes the glow of legend and it becomes easy to see why it's so revered. It's not about the action, it's not about the violence (the balletic bloodletting that so shocked audiences of the day barely registers now), it's about these men and what they represent.

Wild Bunch, The
It's also just as much a treatise on the dying of the Old West and a way of life as it is about these men themselves. The film may be set well into the second decade of the twentieth century but Bishop, his men and everything they stand for are rooted firmly in the nineteenth. It's about their code of honour, their mark as men—as Dutch (Borgnine) says to Bishop "It ain't giving your word that counts. It's who you give it to."

The cast is simply sublime, Holden having aged perfectly into the role after years as a romantic leading man, and he's ably backed by some truly great character actors (Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, Edmond O'Brien). But ultimately the film belongs to Sam Peckinpah, his revisionist stamp killing off the John Ford and Howard Hawks western forever and paving the way for the further glories of Eastwood.

Wild Bunch, The
Video
This film is thirty seven years old. That's a fact worth remembering and possibly even repeating because you would never know it from looking at the transfer. This film is thirty seven years old and the picture quality is so good it could have been made last year. The virtually flawless anamorphic transfer comes to us with breathtaking clarity and sharpness, with no noise, even in darker scenes. Colours are lush in the early parts of the film and stand out beautifully, but later dustier scenes are equally impressive. It's hard to imagine how this could have been made to look any better.

Audio
This is where things get a little disappointing, with the 5.1 track not providing as immersive an experience as you might expect from a film of this type. The opening shootout is lively enough, and guns do blast with authority at the front, but you should find yourself ducking for cover with bullets whizzing past your ears from all angles. Later gunfights don't offer any improvements, but at least the sub kicks in for explosions. Other aspects of the soundtrack are well enough presented, with bold and clear dialogue and music—it's just a shame about the lack of directionality.

Wild Bunch, The
Extras
Commentary: Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle deliver a hugely informative but not especially entertaining track that goes into tremendous depth about the film, but remains somewhat dry and aloof. They're all obviously huge admirers of Peckinpah and this is both a blessing and a curse: their encyclopaedic knowledge of the film leads to lots of great information and anecdotes, but their awe of the man means there's very little objectivity and often just outright fanboyism.

They discuss 1969 audience reactions to the opening shootout and how there were near riots. Peckinpah as a visual storyteller is one of their favourite themes and key scenes are dissected. While these are among the most interesting parts of the track, they're too keen on discussing locations and this can get a little tiresome at times.

Also on the first disc are a Peckinpah trailer gallery— Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—and a trailer for the James Dean Collection.

Wild Bunch, The
‘The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage’ is the first of the featurettes and runs for thirty three minutes. It dates from 1996 and received a Documentary Short Subject Oscar nomination. It provides lots of background information into the shooting of The Wild Bunch, with lots of grainy black and white behind the scenes footage of filming. The words of Peckinpah and others provide occasional narration, which gives it the feel of an audio book, but it eventually comes across as an engrossing and unconventional making-of.

‘Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade’ is an outstanding documentary narrated by Kris Kristofferson and running for eighty two minutes. It begins with a look at Sam's upbringing, paralleled with his early films. His key films are examined, starting with Ride the High Country, and how his choice of film reflected his character and beliefs. The disaster of Major Dundee, with its big budget and longer shooting schedule, saw Peckinpah out of his depth, with feuds with star Charlton Heston. It was three years before he worked again and this was where The Wild Bunch came along and where he got his reputation for violence. But he would then go on to confound expectations with gentle and emotional films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue. His behaviour and drinking were beginning to become a problem and we get lots of thoughts and recollections from friends, family and co-stars about this. As Kristofferson himself once sang, "Sam Peckinpah era un hombre for sure."

Wild Bunch, The
‘An Excerpt from A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch - A Documentary Film by Nick Redman’ runs for twenty four minutes with a title almost as long as the featurette itself. The commentary dudes return for this but, being an excerpt, it kind of starts in the middle. It's clip heavy, mostly consisting of them going back to the filming locations and reliving their memories of the film.

‘Never Before Seen Outtakes’ is eight minutes of B-roll footage from some of the main sequences, including the train robbery and a lot of horse riding.

Overall
Warner Bros remain the standard bearers when it comes to special edition releases of their classic library titles, and The Wild Bunch is up there with their best. Beautifully restored and presented with extremely worthwhile extras, this is an outstanding release for an outstanding film. With a little more variety to the extras and some improved audio it would be just about perfect, but it's still easy to recommend as it is.


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