The Wild Bunch appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This made the disc different than the original 1997 release in two ways. The old version lacked anamorphic enhancement, and it was a “flipper” that spread the movie to both sides of the disc.
Those weren’t the only changes, as the transfer offered a marked improvement over the prior one. Sharpness was excellent. At all times, I thought it looked accurate and concise. Very little in the way of softness interfered. I noticed no jagged edges or shimmering, and only a smidgen of edge enhancement occurred. Print flaws caused no problems. I saw maybe one or two specks, but otherwise this was a clean, smooth transfer.
Colors usually looked quite good. They often appeared bold and accurate. The movie didn’t offer a broad palette, as it preferred sandy, neutral tones much of the time, but the hues were strong within those parameters. Black levels also worked well, as they demonstrated depth and richness, and shadow detail looked fine; I never had trouble making out nuances in darker scenes. This was a terrific transfer that did the film justice.
Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Wild Bunch remained problematic. This appeared to be the same mix found on the old DVD, as it showed similar flaws. Quality was a big issue here. Distortion was a frequent concern, especially in regard to effects; gunfire and explosions usually sounded harsh and crackly. Dialogue also often appeared rough and edgy. Speech seemed pretty weak most of the film; the tone varied radically throughout the movie and ranged from distorted and trebly to dull and flat, but it mostly seemed flawed in some way and could be difficult to understand.
The track's one saving grace came from its score. Clearly the music stemmed from a source different from that of the dialogue and effects because it sounded very good. It seemed smooth and clear and even offered some nice bass response. The score occasionally appeared a little edgy, but it provided the only positive listening experience on this DVD, so I found it very pleasing.
Although Bunch was mixed for 5.1, most of the action still resided close to the center. However, the score was spread nicely to the front side speakers as well, and effects and even voices occasionally appeared from channels other than the center. In regard to the speech, this didn’t happen a lot, but when it did, it degraded the quality even further. Dialogue from the center was bad enough, but when it came from the sides it was practically unintelligible. Some decent "wind-blowing" effects emanated from the rears, but anything else from those channels - such as occasional gunfire - seemed badly distorted.
I don't know if the original mix of Bunch sounded this bad, but this remixed version certainly seemed disappointing. I would guess that the problems stemmed from the source, though, as I expect this track depicted the material about as well as it could. In any case, only the high quality of the music kept this one above “D” level.
In addition to the much stronger visual transfer, this new DVD improved on the old one in regard to its supplements. Starting on Disc One, we find an audio commentary with Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.
Also on Disc One, we find some trailers. We get an ad for the “James Dean Collection” as well as a “Sam Peckinpah Trailer Gallery”. That set includes promos for Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
As we move to Disc Two, we discover a few documentaries. One of these carries over from the 1997 DVD. Called The Wild Bunch: An Album In Montage, this show runs 33 minutes, 25 seconds as it intermixes clips from the film and a great deal of behind the scenes footage. All of those shots are accompanied by informative voice-overs from many original participants and others who read quotes from notables. For example, Ed Harris "performs" as Peckinpah. We get notes from these real people: writer Walon Green, actors Edmond O’Brien, LQ Jones, Ernest Borgnine, Peckinpah’s friend and colleague Jim Silke, Peckinpah’s daughter Sharon, and composer Jerry Fielding. As for the performances, in addition to Harris, we hear Newell Alexander as assistant director Cliff Coleman and actor William Holden, Mitch Carter as wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson and actor Strother Martin, and Peter Rainer as special effects supervisor Bud Hulford.
The show covers general script issues, themes and characters, shooting challenges and action sequences, stunts and effects, and Peckinpah’s attitude and work on the set. Don’t expect a concise chronological look at the film. Instead, it jumps from subject to subject, though it never becomes confused or disjointed. It takes an honest look at the project and adds a lot to the experience, especially since it packs in a great amount of information for a relatively brief program.
New to this edition, we get another documentary entitled Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade. Originally created for the Starz channel and narrated by actor Kris Kristofferson, the 82-minute and 35-second show includes comments from Kristofferson, Simmons, Weddle, Seydor, Silke, LQ Jones, Peckinpah’s sister Fern Lea Peter, son Mathew Peckinpah, daughter Lupita Peckinpah, editor Garth Craven, critic/author David Thomson, critics Elvis Mitchell and Roger Ebert, writer/director Paul Schrader, producer Dan Melnick, writer Stanley Booth, assistant Katy Haber, props manager Bobby Visciglia, assistant/friend Chalo Gonzales, and actors Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Madsen, Ben Johnson, James Coburn, Stella Stevens, Benicio Del Toro, RG Armstrong, and Donnie Fritts.
The program looks at basic biographical notes about Peckinpah and how his life influenced his filmmaking, his entry into movies and his early work. We get notes about his various westerns through the years, with a strong emphasis on influences, themes and interpretation. The program concludes with info about Peckinpah’s addictions, family relationships and demise.
This means you won’t find a concise look at Peckinpah’s career here. Again, it concentrates on the westerns and cares more about personal interpretation of the films over production details. I don’t think this causes problems, though, as I feel “Renegade” is rich and insightful. We get a deep look at the methods and madness of Peckinpah in this honest and distinctive program.
Next we discover an Excerpt from “A Simple Adventure: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and The Wild Bunch”. The 23-minute and 45-second show features remarks from Simmons, Seydor, Weddle, Redman, Dawson, Lupita Peckinpah, and writer/Peckinpah family friend Jesse Graham, The program shows them on a trip to the movie’s Mexican locations. This seems vaguely useful as a curiosity, but I can’t say I think it’s very informative or entertaining. At least some decent footage from the original shoot appears.
Finally, DVD Two ends with a collection of Never-Before-Seen Outtakes. We get an eight-minute and 45-second set of shots. The DVD refers to these as “a montage of outtakes from the River, Desert, Train Robbery and Bridge sequences”. They come without production sound, as we instead hear score. Frankly, they aren’t very interesting.
Does this new DVD lose anything from the original disc? Yes, as it drops some text components. I don’t miss the biographies, but the production notes were pretty good, especially since they detailed the footage that had gone missing over the years.
The Wild Bunch stands as an influential film that strongly epitomizes the Western genre. More than 35 years after its release, it remains an impressive piece of work. The DVD presents it with pretty good picture quality but disappointingly distorted sound. The extras expand the set well, as we get a few nice documentaries and a positive commentary.
I’d definitely recommend this release of The Wild Bunch to all with an interest in it. That includes all who own the original DVD. This one not only adds many strong supplements, but also it marks a substantial improvement in picture quality. It’s clearly worth the money.