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One of the many good things I can say about director Sam Peckinpah (1925-84) is that, as the creator of Westerns as revolutionary as The Wild Bunch (with its extreme, stylized violence) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (with its countercultural dubiousness about law and order), he probably would have viewed Brokeback Mountain as a very cool extension of the genre he helped transform. Like Ang Lee, Peckinpah loved beautiful landscapes against which to portray troubled, threatened lives. Watching the four entries in Sam Peckinpah’s Legendary Westerns Collection — Bunch, Garrett, Ride the High Country, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue — you’re repeatedly struck by the way Peckinpah takes an Old West movie convention, like a blazing gunfight or a barroom brawl, and turns it into a moment when moral codes are tested, when inarticulate men reveal their souls through actions rather than words.
The flawless masterpiece here is The Wild Bunch, whose endless inventiveness is DVD ideal. After watching it, you want to skip around, replaying scenes to catch throwaway lines you now realize are crucial turning points. Ostensibly about aging outlaws out for one last score, the 1969 film defined the then-novel term antihero: Holden’s Pike Bishop is the guy we’re rooting for, yet, when his ruthless gang takes hostages during an opening-scene bank robbery, he snarls, ”If they move, kill ’em!” Whoa, said audiences back then, and even now, seeing the suave star of Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard barking deadly orders is startling. Peckinpah implicates us in Pike’s actions: If we like his gruff authority and his rootin’-tootin’ pals, then we must also accept that we are siding with a band of horsey nihilists.
Peckinpah refined the use of slo-mo violence and graphic bloodshed here, but the deeper artistry was in how such actions revealed character: Every bullet shot ate away at his protagonists’ souls.
Then, in descending order of achievement:
Ride the High Country Peckinpah brought Western legends Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea out of semiretirement to make a movie about?well, Western legends brought out of semiretirement for one last adventure. Life isn’t simple, says McCrea’s character. ”It should be, but it isn’t.” A rich critique of loyalty and betrayal.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid Now best remembered for Bob Dylan’s soundtrack (this is where ”Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” premiered, kids), this saga about Sheriff Garrett (a silver-foxy James Coburn) tracking down outlaw Billy (a pudding-faced Kris Kristofferson) is Peckinpah’s most poetic work, providing a languid rhythm for Billy’s insouciant fatalism.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue Like most fundamentally serious people, when Peckinpah tried to be funny, he was more often just corny. But if you think Jason Robards as a grizzled prospector hopping around in long underwear is a giggler, this is for you.
All the movies feature commentary tracks by three Peckinpah biographers; they not only explicate him as a sensitive-souled cuss sneaking art past the greed-heads but also pinpoint examples of his gifts as an editor, writer, and on-set improviser. A title of one of the numerous documentaries here — ”One Foot in the Groove: Remembering Sam Peckinpah and Other Things” — suggests how aimless these mini-memoirs can be, but on the second Garrett disc, author Paul Seydor offers a smashing crash course in studio politics that every film student should heed closely.
I know the Western is supposedly a deadwood genre (except for Deadwood). But these films — especially The Wild Bunch and High Country, and minus Cable Hogue‘s silliness — are elemental, rattle-your-bones thrillers. You gotta watch ’em.