THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
****/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras A+
starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates
screenplay by Walon Green and Sam Peckinpah
directed by Sam Peckinpah
McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
****/**** Image C+ Sound B- Extras B+
starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane
screenplay by Robert Altman and Brian McKay, based on the novel McCabe by Edmund Naughton
directed by Robert Altman
THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973)
1/2*/**** Image B- Sound C Extras F
starring John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Rod Taylor, Ricardo Montalban
written and directed by Burt Kennedy
DVD - Image D+ Sound C- Extras F
BD - Image B+ Sound A- Extras C+
starring Robert Redford, Will Geer, Allyn Ann McLerie, Delle Bolton
screenplay by John Milius and Edward Anhalt
directed by Sydney Pollack
by Walter Chaw From John Ford to Akira Kurosawa to Sergio Leone then back to the United States with Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, trace the odd, international lineage of the American western genre as the seeds of its own completion are sown by Ford, only to be harvested a few decades down the line with a singular bloodbath south of the proverbial border. You could say that the western was already nearing its completion in the postwar films noir set in the sunshine and bluffs of the Old West: homegrown oaters by Anthony Mann and Fritz Lang; William Wellman's Yellow Sky and Robert Wise's Blood on the Moon; Budd Boetticher's subversive Ranowns; Arthur Penn's glass darkly Billy the Kid pic The Left Handed Gun; Brando's filthy One-Eyed Jacks; and even Ford himself with terminal pieces like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Searchers. But it's through Kurosawa's admiration and transfiguration of Ford's themes--then Sergio Leone's incandescent prism of dirt and blood that transfigured Kurosawa's (and Ford's) ideas about heroics and individualism into something poetically base--from which Peckinpah1 took his cues.
The timing couldn't be better, either, as, right at the dawn of the New American Cinema, following fast on the heels of Penn's Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch seemed--indeed, was--the perfect summary account of Woodstock, Altamont, the death of Camelot (and the assassination of every one of its knights), the moon shot, the death of idealism, and the black shadows of Vietnam and Watergate. It should be seen in repertory with evil-children movies like Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead2 as much as it should be seen with Leone's quartet of Spaghetti westerns--signposts, all, along the road to the paranoia cinema of the 1970s, where the conversation's not about the dissolution of traditional societal mores, nor even really about mitigating the collateral of the coming apocalypse. Mostly, it's about bearing witness to the coming of the inexorable blood-dimmed tide. Though many mark the bookends of the New American Cinema as Bonnie & Clyde on the left and Raging Bull on the right, a case could be made for The Wild Bunch (being, as it is, the death knell for an entire genre and the goddamned American naïvete that genre represents) and its emotional doppelgänger at the end of the Seventies, Apocalypse Now. Both, after all, deal with the failure of American idealism in foreign missions, don't they? Twin evocations of the debauched delirium of any true vision of Hell--latter-day Goyas and Bosches.
It begins with a scene sussed from either or both, as the title characters ride slow past a group of children gathered around the spectacle of scorpions overwhelmed by piles of ants. It's an image unshakeable that the film will pay off in approximately 142 minutes' time with the spectacle of our principals getting overwhelmed by the entire Mexican army. In between, The Wild Bunch presents coffin nails for every single thing sacred in the western genre: its heroes are broken-down, paunchy, exhausted, and driven by the wrong things; its whores are nasty; and its bloodshed is excessive and unconscionable.3 Other New American westerns could only pretend at this picture's level of absolute obscenity; like Apocalypse Now, it wasn't a movie about Vietnam--it was Vietnam. The white knights fall, yet they were still scorpions, weren't they.
Compare it to the same year's narcoleptic, madly-overpraised, utterly irrelevant Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which also ends in a literal Mexican stand-off, as it happens) for a succinct précis of the wide gulf between what's popular and what's good. No Katharine Ross here, just a woman on the arm of Mexican warlord Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), gunned down for choosing the wrong bed. The opening credits freeze a procession of disguised bank robbers as they trot into the sleepy town of Starbuck in the brown bas relief we associate in cinema with New York artistry before snapping back to the lurid colour of Lucien Ballard's brilliant cinematography. This is a mile marker along the slow evolution of noir from the mystery blacks of its nascence to the deep reds of its New American Cinema renaissance. What's seldom observed is that films like Taxi Driver and The Godfather don't look the way they do without pioneering pictures like The Wild Bunch first understanding how colour could be used in noir to glorious, nasty effect.4 The Wild Bunch does it well enough that it was threatened with an NC-17 rating upon its re-release twenty-five years later in 1994. Garish, audacious, soaked in crimson gore and involved in petty, ugly, bestial behaviours put forward with an uncomfortable level of matter-of-factness, it's all underscored by a saturation palette that replicates in my mind the effect of the neon stings of Hitchcock's Rope first and then Vertigo and Marnie.
The underlying message of The Wild Bunch is of course they act like animals--we're all animals. Very much the primary source for John Woo's heroic bloodshed cycle in the Hong Kong of the 1980s, testosterone-based relationships are shown to be the only ones that matter. When one of the bunch, in a pique of ill-advised jealousy, kills the senorita he perceives has wronged him, order is restored in the boundaries-crossing recognition of "bitches, right?" Consider, though, how the outlaw leader Pike (William Holden) negotiates later for the release of young, conspicuously-named Angel (Jaime Sanchez) in what appears to be less a sign of his maturing leadership than penance of a sort for his earlier abandonment of dimwit Clarence (Bo Hopkins)--just as his later refusal to dispense with liabilities within his group ("When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can't do that, you're like some animal--you're finished! We're finished! All of us!") harks back to his abandonment sometime in the recent past of the agent of his destruction, former partner Deke (Robert Ryan). His admonishment against betraying the bonds of man serves the dual purpose of being Peckinpah's mission statement: that the illusion of civilization offers a balm it invariably snatches away. Among the film's countless offspring, count, too, the Coens' double-bill of noir-infected border westerns Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men, as well as the oeuvre of Cormac McCarthy.
It begins north of the border with railroad boss Harrigan (Albert Dekker) assembling a posse of skeezy bounty hunters to ambush grizzled Pike and his misfit band of bandits and assorted miscreants. To say that it's hard to tell the two sides apart is an understatement. It's a moral equivalency confirmed by the coming conflagration, as neither side seems to see a square full of old men, women, and children as much of a deterrent to staging a massive gunfight. Harrigan's ace in the hole is broken, conflicted Deke, Pike's former partner, enlisted to hunt his friend down or return to the tortures and privation of Yuma prison, from which Harrigan has sprung him. When Harrigan calls Pike his "Judas goat," you get the literal reference, but there's also the intimation therein that the picture is the essence of the male struggle boiled down to nails and leather. There's explanation there, too, for the relentless crassness of its frontier vision: it's established from the first that this is an Old Testament tale5 full of vengeance and duplicity, where women are akin to horses or pack animals and children are blueprints for the same cycle of atrocity and obscenity. The horror.
An excoriation of the staid, conservative threads of the traditional western, The Wild Bunch could be called an "anti-pretty" picture in addition to the quintessential anti-western, displacing Ford's Monument Valley in favour of the blasted, barren wastes of Anthony Mann's Jimmy Stewart westerns. The build-up feels long by today's standards, but the glimpse that Peckinpah offers of what paradise might be like in his utopian Sodoms of grinning peasantry bearing promises of food, booze, and sex sets the table for a post-orgiastic deflation that is the only alternative to the bloodbath that ends it. The limited options for men betrayed, Peckinpah suggests, are disappointment unshakeable or, much-preferred, a gaudy, violent death in the defense of however bruised a concept of honour. It's something he would explore for the rest of his career in films high (Straw Dogs, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) and low (The Killer Elite, Convoy), but never again to such brutal, glorious, cathartic effect. As the different forces in the picture converge, the Bunch take a stand against an endlessly replicating horde of antagonists in one of the bloodiest sequences ever committed to celluloid. Life is cheap in The Wild Bunch, but the right way of dying is priceless.
It's a lesson told in a quieter way two years later by Robert Altman's masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller, wherein erstwhile entrepreneur John McCabe (Warren Beatty) discovers the right way to die in a snow bank while his lady-love Constance (Julie Christie) obliterates herself in a haze of opium. They're the two most prominent citizens in the frontier town of Presbyterian Church, which, despite its scenic mountain setting, is shot by Vilmos Zsigmond as relentlessly dour and close, all sepia brown and soaked in palpable stink. Enter McCabe, come to this place to turn his gambling winnings into a whorehouse for which he'll hire experience-worn madam Mrs. Miller. Ebert has described McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a perfect film, and what can you do but agree? When Truffaut calls The Birds an "apocalyptic tone poem," he could easily be talking about this picture that paints a cold, tiny portrait of a settlement hewn together from wet logs and animal comforts wholly inadequate as insulation against the wild. Not merely the wilderness, of course, but also the beast in Man, aroused to a literal flame by sex and power (prostitutes, gambling, guns) that will burn the town's humble church to the ground--clouds of smoke coalescing around Mrs. Miller in rhyme with the last puffs of icy breath as McCabe reaps the bounty of his stupidity and greed.
The whole of the film can be encapsulated around this intoxicating, maddening Romanticist pillar of things lost and unrecoverable in time. Seek to define McCabe & Mrs. Miller as a piece Keatsian in its instant regret of things past and opportunities missed. Altman's style is perfect for a film about not quite being able to catch everything, not getting the whole picture, not knowing the whole story, not understanding with any rational part of the consciousness. Mark it in the way McCabe is always a step behind what the universe has in store for him: he's too slow for Constance, too slow to understand that his rejection of the offer to buy his properties has doomed him. His efforts to recover his situations are pathetic and his triumph at the end is the very definition of Pyrrhic. Through it all is a sense that in this place and time, there was a chance at bliss, even though that chance was squandered--and that the squandering of it is the essential story and tragedy of human existence. Every bleak set-up, every melancholy passage, every secondary character, offers a fragment to complete the central metaphor.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is infinitely sadder than The Wild Bunch because in it is the implication of another element in the universe against which the nihilism of existence is helpless. It's that idea of poetry (poetry McCabe claims is in him in his endless, mumbled, angry monologues to himself)--not the small moments of grace, but the recognition of them by an elevated consciousness. There is a thread of the ineffable buried in the piece, a mermaid song calling each to each. Enough so that every moment of it is infused with complexity, every gesture and glance with the unbearable weight of our experience. The film invites the sort of active participation that defines the best, most personal criticism of the arts--it provokes time spent in study of love, loneliness, and how we measure happiness in the short stretch from dust to dust. The moment where McCabe realizes he's crossed the wrong man is exactly as heavy with dread as when a kid (Keith Carradine) trying to avoid a fight finds one anyway and another when a widow (Shelley Duvall) at her husband's funeral realizes that the only occupation for her in Presbyterian Church is as one of McCabe's whores. The father of contemplative American classics like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, like The Wild Bunch, packs every bit the wallop of relevance and currency that it did over three decades ago. No hint of hyperbole, they are two of the best films ever made.
Then there's The Train Robbers, with Budd Boetticher's long-time writer Burt Kennedy taking the hyphenate reins on what washes out as a frickin' godawful artifact of the old western style that wasn't any fresher back when Kennedy was minting classics with Ranown. How can the author of this piece of shit be the same guy who wrote Seven Men From Now and Comanche Station? There's probably no better case for the genius of Boetticher than the failure of Kennedy in each of his post-collaborative endeavours. In The Train Robbers, find a fossilized John Wayne in a bad wig playing the fatherly head of a thoroughly uninteresting "mild bunch" that swaps Robert Ryan, Ernie Borgnine, and Warren Oates for Rod Taylor. Colour is completely without irony in the film, splashed up there in that old Technicolor style that seemed the tired, unimaginative carnival when Alan Ladd was strutting around in immaculate tassels. The Duke plays train robber Lane, hired by widow Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret, in a bad wig herownself) to escort her to where her dead husband has hidden some loot. She needs a chaperon because there are bands of bad men searching for the loot as well and yadda yadda yadda. It all boils down to Lane encouraging Mrs. Lowe to shrink her shirt a few sizes so that she can "poke out" in the right way. Where The Wild Bunch and McCabe & Mrs. Miller take the same basic plot devices and turn them into savage/lovely reveries of male-male and male-female dynamics, The Train Robbers reduces them to predictable, sentimental goo for the laborious inspection of the vegetative and otherwise undemanding viewer.
It's so bad, in fact, that all the defenses you could mount for it as a passable western strike me as condescending platitudes offered by people who don't respect, can't, or are unwilling to understand westerns overmuch. There are too many classics in the genre to give The Train Robbers a pass despite its juvenile dialogue and unforgivable performances. Wayne was never worse--which is saying something--and still he's Brando next to Ann-Margret. Wayne is fashioned into a frontier prophet/Miyagi, a father-figure sage to this whole gay marching band that reaches its pinnacle/nadir once Lane apologizes to one of his hands and gets a flushing rise out of the feller to rival the John Ireland/Montgomery Clift flirtation in Red River. The lone possible saving graces are a few arresting landscapes (the climax is set in a sand-drowned engine derelict erected against a pretty dusk) and a reminder that a good version of this disaster does exist in Comanche Station. If only it had resisted the impulse to give Duke extended, soul-searching campfire dialogues with Ann-Margret that are nearly physically painful in their awkwardness. It's risible that The Train Robbers would be part of a conversation with movies like The Wild Bunch and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, much less a box set. I guess they were desperate to shoehorn Boetticher in the conversation, even in an ancillary fashion.
Less easy to explain is the inclusion of Sydney Pollack's prosaic Jeremiah Johnson. I guess it reminds a little of stuff like The Hired Hand in terms of pacing, but it washes out as an unpleasant-to-no-useful-end frontier melodrama. Robert Redford is the titular reclusive mountain man seeking a place of his own in the wilderness--but goldurnit, he can't find no peace. First he's saddled with some mute kid (Josh Albee), then an Injun bride (Delle Bolton), and if that weren't enough, once he gets used to 'em, they're murdered by a marauding band of redskins furious that Johnson's disturbed one of their sacred burial grounds. Welp, what's left for Jeremiah but to do some Indian killing, Daniel Boone-style? Pollack's attempts at myth-making yield the same results as his attempts at most anything else. Jeremiah Johnson is boring, overlong, and pointless, a plodding, methodical journey from A to B with neither a hint of innovation nor, indeed, anything like a slight deviation from the expected. I don't think Pollack's films are bad, exactly, so much as they're without a hint of a whisper of genius or, lowering the bar, evidence of imagination. It's what a film looks like when it's not directed by an artist. You see where it's going--you see it after five minutes--and then it goes on for at least another two hours, complete with, in the case of Jeremiah Johnson, a useless orchestral intro and intermission. It's the Sand Pebbles school of ostentation, such an anomaly in the early supernova of the New American Cinema as to be, despite its somewhat ambiguous resolution and cruel violence, an exact cast-fossil replica of David Lean's epic yawners. Pollack only ever made movies for old people. Case in point, this yen to yoke himself to the likes of Redford--people who can act but are never terribly interesting doing it. Oh yeah, the movie looks good. So did Brokeback Mountain. So does The Train Robbers. So does a calendar. So fucking what?
Under the Turner Classic Movies imprimatur, Warner bundles the four above-mentioned titles on two DVDs in a set called "Greatest Classic Films: Western Adventures." Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, The Wild Bunch appears to be a straight port of the first disc from the Two-Disc Special Edition of the Director's Cut, reproducing the film with a newfound clarity rivalled only by the pristine Blu-ray incarnation of same. Still, while edge-enhancement is at a minimum and the colours are saturated but free of bleed, it looks like a film from 1969--a thin patina of filmic grain preserving a sense of authenticity in the experience of watching it at home. Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle record a feature-length commentary that begins shakily with what sounds suspiciously like the kind of nervous pissing contest scholars engage in at the beginning of panel discussions before progressing into a genuinely interesting and information-saturated dialogue, one which demonstrates that for all the differences these guys might have, they're united in astonished awe before one of the absolute best movies in the short history of the medium. I particularly enjoy those moments when the guys point out specific images and relate anecdotes from the shoot--moments that happen so thick and fast that for the first time maybe ever, I'm tempted to revisit a non-Raimi/Campbell or non-Carpenter/Russell commentary track. It's "The Wild Bunch 101" and indispensable stuff, even if in sanctifying the picture's long dialogue sequences and lamenting that this stuff doesn't happen anymore in modern action films they overlook the work of Quentin Tarantino entirely.
A cool "Peckinpah Trailer Gallery" features spots for Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Oddly enough, there's also a James Dean montage trailer for Warner's "The Complete James Dean Collection". I'm not sorry to watch it, mind, it simply doesn't have much relevance here. Flip the platter for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, likewise transplanted whole-cloth from an earlier release. As Bill is infinitely better at these things than I (as he is at most things (Uh, no.-Ed.)), I'm going to quote from his now-retired review in assessing the flipside's A/V quality and supplementals:
Warner's DVD version of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is unfortunately something of a disappointment in the technical department: the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is too black for a film that was pre-exposed in order to decrease contrast, while digital video noise reduction looks like it was rather severely applied to the intentionally gritty images, resulting in a general lack of detail. The last few minutes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller are the strongest in appearance on DVD, even calling attention to the optically enhanced snowflakes. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is exactly right throughout, though. Extras include a wonderful commentary by Altman and producer David Foster (recorded separately and spliced together) wherein history buff Altman gets in a few digs at George W. between anecdotes related to the production. A 1971 documentary on the construction of the film's inhabitable mise-en-scène (which includes rather condescending voice-over regarding Julie Christie's place in the "man's territory" of British Columbia), cast and filmmaker filmographies, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller's theatrical trailer round out the disc.
And then there's The Train Robbers, presented in its expansive Panavision aspect ratio (2.35:1) and anamorphically enhanced to wring every last byte of information from Kennedy's vistas. It's all bright and well-delineated and free, for the most part, of edge enhancement or digital artifacts. The DD 1.0 track is unimaginative but otherwise fine. "John Wayne: Working with a Western Legend" (20 mins.) is a toothless hagiography of the Duke enacted by a collection of stuntmen, interesting mainly because these guys are legends in their own right and out to pasture collectively, I'm afraid. Basically, Ann-Margret was a doll and Duke was a gent and that's all she wrote. More worthless yet is "Wayne Train" (4 mins.), a vintage puff piece with a few B-roll and behind-the-scenes home movies of the shoot that come without commentary and make no particular impact. Finally, a "Wayne Trailer Gallery" compiles spots for Fort Apache, Blood Alley, The Sea Chase, The Train Robbers, McQ, Cahill: United States Marshall, and Tall in the Saddle.
I really can't think of many things more vestigial than a flipper containing Jeremiah Johnson on one side and The Train Robbers on the other, but alas. One of Warner's very earliest DVD releases and never subjected to a remaster, Jeremiah Johnson looks fairly like shit in this recycled 2.35:1, 16x9-compatible presentation--if bright, scrubbed shit thanks to a certain telecine-proof professionalism. Exteriors gleam, interiors are only too filmlike in evoking a particulate storm, and, in the biggest tip-off that this transfer dates back to, gulp, 1997, there's a ton of shimmer. The DD 5.1 remix offers no appreciable upgrade from mono; dialogue varies wildly in volume and sounds hissy throughout, while the instances of ADR are always glaringly obvious. "The Saga of Jeremiah Johnson" (9 mins.) is a vintage piece that talks about the truthiness of the source material in a folksy, almost-dead way that encapsulates Pollack's style. Production notes (which misspell "Pollack"), a trailer, and brief text bios of cast and crew round things out. Originally published: January 7, 2010.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - JEREMIAH JOHNSON
by Bill Chambers Compared to its snapper-DVD counterpart, Warner's Blu-ray release of Jeremiah Johnson is impeccable. The 2.40:1, 1080p image is clean and crisp yet not excessively glossy. The blue skies are a little too brilliant for my tastes, and overall I'd probably have dialled back the saturation a bit, but then there's always some cognitive dissonance when '70s movies are restored to their original lustre. My real beef with this transfer is that contrast is periodically more dark green than black, aging the film by causing it to appear moldy (as opposed to the songs, which merely date the flick). Dynamic range is excellent apart from this inconsistency, while grain is unobtrusive except where opticals come into play. Though Walter was unimpressed by it, the attendant 5.1 audio garnered raves when the DVD debuted, and it holds up reasonably well in a lossless (DTS-HD MA) encode. I believe it's a fairly pure port of the six-track mix that accompanied 70mm prints of the film, as there's nothing particularly digital about it. (Only the ADR stands out as conspicuous.) Meanwhile, the hiss that beleaguered the DVD seems to have been tamed without taking away from the clarity of the soundtrack.
Returning from the DVD--though not the TCM reissue--is a commentary from director Sydney Pollack, actor Robert Redford, and screenwriter John Milius, with the late Pollack, probably as a consequence of having more to say than his collaborators, getting the most mike-time. (The participants were individually recorded.) He talks about how the film was a direct reaction to his previous They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, in that, having just spent months on one location shooting non-stop dialogue, he jumped at the chance to be outdoors basically making a silent movie. Predictably sympathetic with the picture's milieu, Milius hails Jeremiah Johnson as one of the most beautiful westerns ever made, if not the most, and we learn from Pollack just how miraculous some of those beauty shots were, considering the impossibility of second takes. Alas, what Redford contributed to this patchwork quilt I can scarcely remember days later, and let it be said that while this yakker offers three very unique perspectives on the same production, the results don't exactly add up to Rashomon. The vintage behind-the-scenes doc and theatrical trailer likewise return, although all the text-based features have been hung out to dry.
1. After offering his own death of the West with the remarkable Ride the High Country, Randolph Scott's chosen exit, Sam was the terminus station for a couple of western hallmarks. return
2. Still stunning, those scenes of townsfolk looting every conceivable thing of value from the newly dead in The Wild Bunch's abortive opening bank heist--not unlike zombies perching on fresh meat. return
3. Push the lineage forward and find Peckinpah as the key infection for the Heroic Bloodshed genre in Hong Kong, which would, with its energy and invention, redefine the entire action genre in the United States: full circle again. return
4. It's Peckinpah adopting Sam Fuller's tabloid-lurid splash pages; announcing that The Wild Bunch is akin to the unexpurgated The Big Red One in its diary of war atrocities. return
5. And earlier, as Angel's body will be dragged around Mapache's compound by a carload of whores, presaging the bloody conclusion to a bloody siege the same way as Achilles's defiling of Hector. return