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Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns
Still from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns
reviewed by Donald Melanson

February 01 , 2006 | One of the great trends in DVD in recent years has been the studios’ decision to release an increasing number of titles in box sets, often at a significant discount compared to the individual releases. Warner Bros. has been at the forefront of this area, with impressive but wallet-friendly sets like the Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection, the Film Noir Classic Collection (Vols. 1 & 2), and the Val Lewton Horror Collection.

Their latest is the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection, which includes a new two-disc special edition of The Wild Bunch alongside three often under-appreciated Peckinpah classics: Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Ride the High Country.

All four movies in this set share a similar theme - that of the end of the Old West - but they are each quite different in tone.

Ride the High Country, the earliest of the films here, is also the most deceptive. For anyone not already familiar with it, the movie initially appears to be a very traditional western, with veteran stars Randolf Scott and Joel McCrea pulled out of retirement for one last job. But the movie gradually reveals itself to be something much different, and by the time we reach a hastily arranged wedding ceremony at a whorehouse in a mining outpost you know this is no ordinary western.

But Ride the High Country is still only a glimpse of what was yet to come from Sam Peckinpah. The film that really got people to take notice of the director was, of course, The Wild Bunch, a film that cemented Peckinpah’s reputation and influenced the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino.

The Wild Bunch is a bold, uncompromising movie that will no doubt still shock many people seeing it for the first time. Like Ride the High Country, it is about aging men in a changing time -- in this case, just before World War I. But these men are far from your archetypal western heroes -- in the opening scene alone, they help an old woman cross the street one minute and rob a bank the next, with violent and bloody results.

Indeed, it is the violence that most people remember about The Wild Bunch, which is both more realistic than previously seen in most movies, and more stylized in the cinematic sense, making great use of slow motion and some masterful camerawork.

If The Wild Bunch represents a violent death of the west as we knew it, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garret & Billy the Kid are two elegiac odes to the Old West, both slow and deliberately paced, the former often light-hearted in tone and the latter one of the most melancholy westerns ever made (in a good way).

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is also infamous for its troubled history. In his review at the time, Rogert Ebert said that Peckinpah attempted to take his name off the film, protesting the changes made to it after it was taken out of his hands by the studio. That cut was less than two hours long and, as Ebert points out, had no less than six credited editors and actors listed in the credits that never appeared in the film.

The film then went largely unseen until 1988 when a new, longer cut was released, bringing the picture closer to Peckinpah’s original vision. Now we have another brand new cut, which adds some footage never seen before and removes other material present in the 1988 version. Like Welles’ The Magnificant Ambersons, we’ll never see a version of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid exactly as Peckinpah would have wanted it, but what we do have is a lot closer than many other "lost films", and a great movie no matter which version you watch.

Warner’s new box set certainly lives up to their high standards , with great picture and sound on all four films and an impressive array of extras. The standout being the commentary tracks on all four movies by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, the same group of scholars that appeared on the DVDs for Major Dundee and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Apart from that, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garret & Billy the Kid get the most in the way of extras, with two discs apiece.

The Wild Bunch includes three documentaries: Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade, the 1996 Oscar nominee The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, and an excerpt from A Simply Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico, and The Wild Bunch.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid includes two versions of the film, the 2005 special edition and the 1988 Turner Preview Version (both with commentaries by the aforementioned group. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to have been quite as much care taken restoring the 1988 version, which has some audio problems and a somewhat lackluster picture compared to the new version. It also includes a couple of newly produced featurettes and original songs performed by Kris Kristofferson and Donny Fritts.

As with most other Warner sets, it makes a lot more sense to pick up the box set than to buy a couple of the titles individually. And in this case especially, viewing each film in the set will give you an even greater appreciate of the others.

Donald Melanson is the editor-in-chief of Mindjack and a freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Mindjack, his work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, Engadget, and MovieMaker Magazine, among other publications.

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