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Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection DVD Review

Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection

March 7, 2006

Director: Sam Peckinpah,
Starring: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley, R.G. Armstrong, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner, L.Q. Jones, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Richard Jaeckel, ,

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DVD Review

Sam Peckinpah defines the word “maverick.” He came out of Hollywood with his own unique brand of filmmaking that often clashed with studio executives. This resulted in a career of tough, uncompromising movies that were either loved or hated – there was no in-between with Peckinpah’s movies. This collection feature some of the man’s most memorable westerns and if there is a theme that unites them all it is the continuing pre-occupation with over-the-hill professionals existing in a world that they no longer belong in and are given one last shot at glory and redemption.

Ride the High Country (1962) unites two icons of the western genre, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea who play veteran lawmen hired to protect a gold shipment. Peckinpah sets up their obsolesce in the first scene where Steve Judd (McCrea) saunters down the street oblivious to people shouting at him until he’s ushered off to make room for a horse race won by young man on a camel. Gil Westrum (Scott) has sold out, running a side show game of chance for chump change. Both men are clearly out of step with the fast pace of society and have seen better days. They need this job badly. It not only makes them feel useful but it’s their last shot at a past life that they once enjoyed and is now gone.

The film is one of the director’s more conventionally shot and edited efforts, at least compared to his later works which got more experimental in this area. He is also working with pretty standard material script-wise but, as always, he keeps things interesting visually.

The Wild Bunch (1969) is easily Peckinpah’s most famous and influential film. Picking up where Bonnie and Clyde’s (1967) violent demise had left off, he presented a hyper-violent western quite unlike anything anyone had seen before. The story is a classic one: a group of aging bank robbers finds it increasingly harder to ply their trade with one of their ex-members, Deke Thornton (Ryan), now working for the law. He is torn between his guilt for betraying the group and obsessed with catching them. And so, you have two opposing forces in direct conflict with each other. In Peckinpah’s world this can only be resolved with a violent conclusion in one of the most memorable gun battles ever committed to film.

Pike Bishop (Holden) and Thornton each have their valid reasons for doing what they do. For Thornton, hunting down his old gang keeps him out of prison and for Pike it is a matter of personal honour. He can’t change who he is and Peckinpah sets them up as members of a dying breed, tormented by their own personal demons.

The opening shoot-out, a bank heist gone horribly wrong, establishes what kind of movie this going to be. Not only is the violence stylish, often captured in slow motion, but the way Peckinpah depicts it is so shocking. It is bloody and brutal as he transforms the main street of a small town into a chaotic massacre with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire (a woman is stomped to death by a horse and people are killed in front of innocent children). Afterwards, the mercenaries working for the law loot the dead bodies with no respect for the dead. All of this violence often obscures the powerful, often soulful character study that Peckinpah created. There is an unmistakable melancholic tone that hangs over the entire movie as the director laments the death of a genre he loves so dearly.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) is the flipside to The Wild Bunch in terms of tone and style. Betrayed, robbed and left to die alone in the desert by two men, Cable Hogue (Robards) goes on to make a fortune selling water to people traveling through the desert.

Like so many other Peckinpah protagonists, Hogue is a dying breed. He represents the frontier, the Old West which is rapidly disappearing in 1908 when this film is set. One can see this in Hogue’s tired eyes. Peckinpah crafted a decidedly whimsical tale with a rather absurd concept of a man left to die in the desert who then proceeds to set up an outpost selling water instead of trying to escape to more fertile areas. Hogue even shoots and kills his first customer (the man was trying to rip him off) which gives one an idea of the skewed sense of humour of this movie.

In a weird way Hogue’s oasis makes sense. After all, everyone needs water to survive a trip through the desert. He becomes a shrewd businessman but throughout it all he hasn’t forgotten about those two men who robbed him and Hogue patiently waits for them to cross paths again making this movie a very unusual tale of revenge.

The final film in the box set is a real treat for Peckinpah fans, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). This was one of the director’s most adventurous westerns with a contemporary folk score by Bob Dylan (who also has a role in the movie) and a challenging screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer (who also wrote Two-Lane Blacktop). This movie is Peckinpah’s unique take on the conflict between Billy the Kid (Kristofferson) and Pat Garrett (Coburn). The latter used to be in the same outlaw gang as the former but they eventually split with Billy remaining a criminal while Garrett became a sheriff determined to bring his old friend to justice.

Right from the prologue, the film challenges the audience as it drops us right in the middle of the action. Peckinpah cuts back and forth in time, leaving it up to the audience to figure out what is going on. He masterfully sets up Billy and Garrett as two opposing forces (just like Thornton and Pike in The Wild Bunch) that won’t back down and will not compromise, ever. This is tough world about tough men and the bond between them. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, Billy and Garrett still respect each other.

This 2-DVD set presents two versions of the movie. There is a new one that attempts to restore Peckinpah’s original vision by combining the theatrical cut with the 1988 Preview Version. On the second DVD is the 1988 version which offers an interesting comparison for fans of this movie and how crucial a role editing plays.

Special Features:

All of the films in this collection feature audio commentaries by Peckinpah biographers/experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. For the Ride the High Country DVD, they start things off by pointing out that what makes the film so interesting is how Peckinpah plays with generic conventions. They identify his major themes (i.e. appearance vs. reality, death of the west, and so on) and analyze them.

“A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country” documents Peckinpah’s life and career. His sister tells all kinds of stories of their childhood. He and his family lived in a remote area much like the high country of the movie.

On the commentary for The Wild Bunch, the participants point out that this film is not afraid to depict the darker side of humanity. As with their other tracks, they impart a lot of information about Peckinpah and the film. They discuss the editing and how the opening shoot-out juxtaposes three different groups and builds the tension until the inevitable eruption of violence. They also talk about how the level of violence was so shocking for its time and how viscerally audiences reacted to it. Not surprisingly, the movie divided critics and audiences alike. These guys are all astute observers and provide an essential commentary for Peckinpah fans.

Also included are several documentaries including “The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage” that takes a look at how this classic movie was made and even features vintage, behind-the-scenes footage. Over this footage and clips from the movie is narration that quotes Peckinpah and the cast, providing a unique look at this movie.

“Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade” is an in-depth, feature length documentary on the man and his films, covering most of his classics.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 95%

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