When Fox remade John Ford’s “Stagecoach” in 1966, the studio took out a full-page notice in Variety warning that anyone caught exhibiting the original “will be vigorously prosecuted.” Don’t expect similar advisories for Warner’scontempo remake of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” — if anything, look forward to more DVD offerings like the “Sam Peckinpah’s Legendary Westerns Collections” box set, the centerpiece of which is a newly minted re-release of the helmer’s most famous pic. The set, which also includes DVD debuts of “Ride the High Country,” “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” comes complete with commentary and featurettes by noted Peckinpah scholars.
“Sam was the sort of person that if he didn’t have a nemesis, he couldn’t be creative,” recalls Peckinpah’s former assistant and companion Katy Haber in one extra. In another, biographer Garner Simmons remembers a pre-production meeting that didn’t go the helmer’s way, after which “he insisted that we both take a piss on the walls of the studios as a statement.”
The director came to be known by such dramatic gestures. A “Pat Garrett” featurette shows a staged photo of the director strapped to a gurney with a whiskey bottle connected to an IV tube that read, “There is no truth to the rumor that Sam Peckinpah is drinking on the set.”
“He could have made his life much simpler,” says Haber, “but he decided to put on the boxing gloves.”
That “me vs. them” subtext lurks beneath the more overt religious theme of “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” in which a man left for dead pleads with God to show him water. After Warner dumped the film with little fanfare, Peckinpah struck back with “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” a bitter sell-out parable that was rushed through post and remains the most compromised of his visions.
The DVD contains two versions — the rough 122-minute “director’s cut” (a good 16 minutes longer than MGM’s theatrical release) and a new, “streamlined” (though no more definitive) version prepared expressly for the DVD in which Peckinpah expert and editor Paul Seydor combines “all the fine cutting of the theatrical version” with material the helmer intended to include. Either way, Peckinpah’s failed pic features fleeting moments of poetry — like the raft sequence — set adrift amid his least engaging western.
The strongest film in the set remains “Ride the High Country.” The early masterpiece reveals glimpses of Peckinpah’s revolutionary editing and self-conscious co-opting of generic conventions that would later explode in the bullet-riddled “Wild Bunch.” By the film’s final gunfight, “he’s really not afraid to use two-frame cuts,” Seydor points out.
Spanning 11 short years, the set captures the birth and burnout of a genius, along with the revival and ultimate demise of a genre: The same farmyard chickens caught in the crossfire during “Ride” are having their heads blown off in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”