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Wild Bunch’ bleeds brilliant cinema violence

Brian Doxtader | Monday, April 2, 2007

Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 classic “The Wild Bunch” is one of the defining westerns, a blaze of glory that signaled the end of the genre in a traditional sense.

As a reaction against the cold operatics of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, it demonstrated that Hollywood still understood the genre better than anyone – although by subverting its own conventions, “The Wild Bunch” also brought closure to the genre that would not be revisited until Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Best Picture winner “Unforgiven.”

“The Wild Bunch” is the story of Pike Bishop (William Holden, in one of his finest performances), who is the leader of the eponymous group, along with Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Angel (Jaime Sanchez) and brothers Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson). At the start of the film, the Bunch botches a robbery and flees to Mexico. As Bishop starts to realize that their brand of outlaw justice is becoming antiquated, he comes to grips with his aging philosophies and decides to go out in one final confrontation.

Peckinpah’s film is a symbolic exploration of changing times. Set in 1910, it features aging men trying to understand a changing world. Ultimately, the Bunch realizes that they too have become outdated and must face their destiny the only way they know how. “The Wild Bunch” has become revered for its portrayals and characterization, and while the film is very violent (especially in its opening and closing confrontations), it has much more on its mind than being a typical Western.

For a long time, “The Wild Bunch” was only available as a two-sided DVD that split up the movie. It has finally been released in a two-disc special edition from Warner Bros. that preserves the original director’s cut on a single disc (the second disc houses the special features).

The picture quality, which preserves the original widescreen ratio, is very good – the image appears to have been cleaned up from the previous release, and the transfer is noticeably better, with a high contrast that highlights the cinematography.

As with most Warner Bros. releases, the special features are informative and plentiful. There is commentary from Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. They relay a lot of information to the audience, though they often get sidetracked with unrelated anecdotes and stories about the director.

There are also three documentaries: “Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade,” which is a feature-length biography. This is one of the best extras to come around in a while, and it sheds a lot of light on a director known for his outrageously violent films.

Peckinpah also directed such classics as “Straw Dogs” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” The other features include a short called “The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage” and a documentary called “A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and the Wild Bunch.”

It was a long time coming, but “The Wild Bunch” has finally been released on a DVD worthy of its classic status. While it isn’t as spectacular as the treatment given to other classic films, Warner’s update of the 1969 classic adds a lot to Peckinpah’s best film. For those who have never seen “The Wild Bunch,” the two-disc special edition is an excellent way to become acquainted with one of America’s best westerns.