'Wild Bunch' survives improvements

March 31, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Twenty-six years ago, Sam Peckinpah altered the landscape of American film forever with his dense, apocalyptic western "The Wild Bunch," a movie so saturated in violence that people fled the original screening to puke in the gutters outside the theater.

It's one of the great, arrogant take-it-or-leave-it jobs in history, and by this point it is so beyond either defense or attack that I come neither to praise nor to bury it but merely to describe it. See it at your own risk; barf bags optional.

Set in 1913, it was the ultimate end-of-the-road western. It told the story of a tired gang of gunmen running out of time and space; selling themselves to a cheesy Mexican military unit, they steal guns from the U.S. Army. But when the Mexican general claims one of their number as his enemy and tortures and beats him, the wary survivors decide that their tarnished honor demands some kind of statement. So they tiredly buckle on their guns and calmly walk into the middle of an army and declare war: Everybody dies.

But Warner Bros., shocked by the response and a little numbed by the film's excessive running time, recalled the prints and hastily re-edited them, cutting about 10 minutes. Peckinpah, a notoriously thorny character, screamed bloody murder (as he was wont: He did the same thing on "Major Dundee" a few years earlier) and a legend was born: that the original "Wild Bunch" was the true and dangerous masterpiece and the ultimate release version just a shadow of it.

For years, among the "Wild Bunch" cognoscenti, rumors have circulated that a true director's cut existed, and in dribs and drabs, as the movie ran through various video incarnations, extra bits emerged. (I've seen at least four versions.) Now Warner Bros. has restored the fading film, reassembled the thing to its author's specifications, and here at last is the true text, playing exclusively at the Towson Commons.

Is it better? Is it deeper? Is it fuller? Is it more violent? Is it any less the most difficult masterpiece in movie history?

No, no, no, no and no.

The additions feel incidental. Despite some published reports, they don't deepen motive, they simply slow down the pace. One is even a little screwy: That's a long flashback that intensifies the relationship between the Bunch leader, Pike Bishop (William Holden), and his primary pursuer, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), as they simultaneously seem to share a memory of the time Deke was captured and Pike escaped. It feels like one of those sci-fi things in which two creatures share one brain.

Then there's a long sequence that establishes the desperation of the Federales, as we see them suffer a bloody defeat at the hands of the revolutionary Villistas. We see the incredible bravery of the General (Emilio Fernandez, in a great performance). In some way, it works counter to the film's racist impression of Mexicans as violent buffoons, lost in depravity -- but not enough to matter. (That's one of "The Wild Bunch's" many crimes against '90s political correctness.)

A third sequence points out that Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins), a minor gang member killed in the first robbery, is actually the unmourned grandson of Edmond O'Brien's Eddie Sykes, but that bit of footage and information has been available on video for years.

None of the great set-pieces seem altered in the slightest and, all these years later, the movie retains its almost seductive grandeur, plunging one ever closer to the heart of darkness and chaos. It remains one of the best-written and best-performed American films of all time. I love the colloquial majesty of the dialogue and the intellectual gropings of the Bunch as they try to figure out what honor requires. Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates and Robert Ryan were superb, as were the Mexican actors. FYI, the smiling officer who wears the goggles on his cap and utters the famous line "Uh, damn gringos!" is Alfonso Arau, who became the director of "Like Water for Chocolate."

Read Stephen Hunter's appreciation of "The Wild Bunch" in the Arts and Entertainment section of Sunday's Sun.

"The Wild Bunch" (1969)

Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Ben Johnson

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (violence)

****

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