On March 3, nearly 26 years after the first audience faced the bullets and now legendary blood ballets of the late director Sam Peckinpah’s landmark Western “The Wild Bunch,” a new generation of fans will see the film that Peckinpah intended for audiences.
For fans of the genre, the film boasts a dream cast that includes William Holden, Warren Oates, Emilio Fernandez, Edmund O’Brien, Strother Martin, Robert Ryan and Albert Dekker, and veteran character actors Ernest Borgnine, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Jaime Sanchez. The film’s tale of a band of doomed outlaws (Holden, Borgnine, Oates, Johnson, O’Brien and Sanchez) toiling along the Texas-Mexico border in the early 1900s affected audiences at the time in a way that few films have before or since.
Once called the “Citizen Kane” of the Vietnam generation, the film has decidedly dark-hatted heroes. They close ranks for one last train heist, with a U.S. government weapons shipment as the bounty while the unlikely benefactors of the theft are a mercenary band of Mexican Civil War government soldiers, led by Gen. Mapache (Fernandez), who is trying to subdue the Pancho Villa-led rebellion.
What gets in the way of the success of the mission is the code of honor that the men have lived by. Their uneasy alliance with the Mexican army is shattered when Sanchez’s character, Angel, is discovered to be siding with the Villa resistance. When he’s held hostage by the Mapache forces, his compatriots enter a consciously futile gun battle whose real purpose is a retrieval of honor. In the film’s celebrated and much-debated closing battle, the outlaws kill their former allies in copious numbers and are themselves consumed in the hellish melee of gunfire and grenade blasts.
Warner Bros, is providing audiences a chance to watch a more complete cut than the one the majority of viewers of the picture have seen over the past 2 1/2 decades. The film will be released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles in 70mm and in San Francisco in 35mm, with six-channel sound, in what Warners is touting as the “U.S. theatrical premiere of the director’s cut,” which includes 10 minutes of footage that nervous Warners execs had excised from Peckinpah’s cut of the pic soon after its initial release.
Those 10 minutes were at the center of a year-and-a-half battle over a controversial re-rating of the film by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which changed the pic’s original R rating to the commercial kiss-of-death NC-17. Though Warners had ample proof that the missing footage contained only character-establishing flashbacks – and not, as legend or the censors might have it, excessive, gratuitous violence or sex – the MPAA stuck to its guns through a series of appeals that lasted until a surprising reversal of the rating late last year.
The MPAA relented only hours before a high-profile Hollywood screening Oct. 14, organized by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. in protest of the NC-17 rating assigned the film. The R rating allowed Warners to proceed with the restoration, which it had put on hold due to the financial restraints that an NC-17 would have placed on the film.
So what will fans of the film and newcomers to the piece de resistance of the Peckinpah oeuvre be seeing on March 3? To one who has seen the film dozens of times in various forms and formats over the last 26 years, the result is a triumph, albeit with some technical glitches.
The new print that was screened at Warner Bros, earlier this month contained color-timing and sound-level problems that are, according to Warners, in the process of being tweaked for the final rollout.
At those screenings, several Peckinpah scholars were disturbed by problems with scenes being too dark and the score too loud. Whether those complaints are nitpicking or fully justified, there’s still an emotional rush in seeing the film up on the bigscreen, in the cut that Peckinpah envisioned.
From the brilliant period recreation courtesy of Edward Carrere’s production design and the cinematography of Lucien Ballard, to the then-revolutionary editing techniques intercutting random acts of violence with slow-motion details of mayhem courtesy of a team of editors led by Lou Lombardo and Robert Wolfe, Peckinpah commanded an army of dedicated film professionals who made an epic study of the changing American West that was, as one of the stunt directors once commented, “one of the few chances you get to make one you can hang on your wall.”
But underlying it all, and greatly enhanced by the additional footage, is the powerful, thoughtful screenplay by Peckinpah and Walon Green, from an original story by Green and Roy N. Sickner. For ’60s audiences, the story resonated with themes of rebellion against authority and the need to live by a code that only outlaws, nonconformists and outcasts would understand or embrace.
Virtually every character in “The Wild Bunch” is a fully fleshed-out, complex portrait of humanity, for better or worse. And the new version reminds one that Peckinpah was once quoted as having “learned everything he knew about drama from directing Tennessee Williams plays.” His wild mixture of passionate humanism, romantic idealism and corrosive misanthropy is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the Peckinpah canon. Peckinpah fought for the footage that was deleted precisely because it deepened our understanding of the central characters and took the film from actioner to dramatic epic.
The missing footage helps explain the tragic arc of Holden’s character, by taking us through his past failures of courage and commitment to his inevitable realization that his whole life is a lie if he can’t follow through on his beliefs, even if it means his death. The film now makes even greater dramatic sense and provides the emotional payoff Peckinpah sought in presenting his heroes’ sacrificial last fight.
The film might not strike chords with ’90s audiences the way it originally touched viewers, but it’s a tale that is just as important and pertinent as ever. And while the restoration’s critics may have a point about the failings of the new version, the bottom line on the new “Bunch” is that it still blows away nearly every American film made in the decades since.