The title of the four-movie/six-disc set Sam Peckinpah's The Legendary Westerns Collection implies that these are the essential Peckinpah Westerns, and though fans of the director's cult TV series The Westerner and his quasi-Western contemporary dramas Junior Bonner and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia might quibble, there's no denying that these four movies run the full gamut of his approaches to the genre. In 1962's fairly straightforward Ride The High Country, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott play aging outlaws trying to go straight, even as a crate of gold and a family of ruffians tempt them to return to thievery and violence. In the 1969 epic The Wild Bunch, William Holden leads an exhausted band of bandits through a big score that dead-ends in Mexico, under the gun of embittered ex-partner Robert Ryan. In the lyrical 1970 fable The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, bitter prospector Jason Robards finds a water hole in the desert and fights to defend it against rivals, deadbeats, and the inevitable press of progress. And in 1973's Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, badman-turned-lawman James Coburn loses what's left of his soul while hunting down a younger version of himself, played by Kris Kristofferson. Though they range in tone from earnest to myth-busting to foggy, all four films deal with corrupt men chasing other corrupt men through dusty, obscured landscapes.
Some of the hallmarks of Peckinpah's style—most notably the moving POV shots, quick cuts, and off-center close-ups—manifest even in the colorful, smooth High Country, but Peckinpah didn't start experimenting recklessly until Wild Bunch and Ballad. The former's syrup-slow butchery and the latter's comic acceleration are tempered by leisurely scenes of people hanging out, enjoying each other's company. But Peckinpah had lost a lot of his bonhomie by Pat Garrett, a dry, dour film where the moments of poetic Americana barely cohere.
Pat Garrett remains Peckinpah's most self-conscious contribution to the early '70s' "revisionist Western" wave—right down to its high-lonesome, hookless Bob Dylan soundtrack, which recalls Leonard Cohen's score for Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller—but Peckinpah was remaking the genre right from the start, by bluntly describing the base motivations of heroes. In Ballad especially, Peckinpah positions his star as a likeable old fool whose bearish face goes slack as he contemplates how to make money off a natural commodity. And in all Peckinpah's Westerns, movie legends walk through familiar situations in ways that feel wholly new and even a little dangerous, with facial expressions that express relief at finally being able to tell the truth, as actor/fan Benicio Del Toro phrases it on one of the set's documentaries: "I like losers. Sometimes second place is more exciting."
Key features: Behind-the-scenes featurettes accompany each individual film, and Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle provide multiple commentary track fawn-fests.