The Furious Legacy of an American Maverick
by James Calemine
2004 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film that still resonates as a disturbing volume in American cinema. Peckinpah, “Bloody Sam”, contends as a pioneering filmmaker best known for his violent and nihilistic stories that reveal dark complexities relevant for every generation. Other influential Peckinpah work includes Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, and The Killer Elite.
Sam Peckinpah was born in Fresno, California, on February 21, 1925, into a family of lumberjacks, cattle ranchers, and frontier lawyers. Young Sam played under the rural shadow of Peckinpah Mountain named after his grandfather. After serving in the marines, Peckinpah moved to Hollywood. In 1955, he landed a job writing scripts for the famous TV show, Gunsmoke. Soon Peckinpah’s talent led to a position as writer on legendary television shows The Rifleman and The Westerner. Peckinpah left an indelible print working as an actor, director, and writer for many movie and television projects including Zane Grey Theater, Noon Wine, Trackdown, Broken Arrow, Have Gun Will Travel, Route 66, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among others.
In 1961 Peckinpah directed his first full-length film titled The Deadly Companions. The following year he achieved a breakthrough with Ride the High Country, starring Randolph Scott. This beautiful film remains a Peckinpah gem epitomizing an undertone of “salvation and loneliness” in a story about two old lawmen.
Peckinpah fought with movie executives during filming of his next project, Major Dundee (1965), featuring Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, and James Coburn. The Dundee Civil War plot unfolds around a Confederate group of POW’s led across the Mexican border to pursue renegade Apaches. Studio executives cut a great deal of the vital Hogue scenes out to make the movie shorter. Peckinpah’s resistance with high-ranking production bosses led to his blackballing from Hollywood. Peckinpah later said of the film, “Dundee was one of the most painful things that ever happened in my life.”
In 1969, Peckinpah’s vast scope culminated in perhaps his greatest motion picture, The Wild Bunch. The unforgettable opening scene shows giddy children tossing wounded scorpions onto a swarming anthill as The Bunch rides up in a moment of eerie premonition that remains a classic moment on 70mm celluloid.
In The Wild Bunch Peckinpah’s trademark shift in perspective, the same event viewed from a variety of camera angles, revealed a new cinematic technique. The ultra-violent film, starring Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, William Holden, and Robert Ryan, tells a grim tale of an aging gang of outlaws who become involved with Mexican revolutionaries. Upon release, the movie stirred wide praise and outrage. During the Vietnam era, The Wild Bunch reminded the public how violent America remained throughout history as well as current times. Peckinpah explained, “You see, people begin to see the violence within them, the violence just below the surface. It’s in all of us, as the film shows, whether we be criminals, lawmen, children (who learn from their elders), or old men. Violence usually begins with a reason, with some principle to be defended. The real motivation, however, is a primitive thirst for blood, and as the fighter continues reasons or principles are forgotten and men fight for the sake of fighting.”
Peckinpah’s next film The Ballad of Cable Hogue, released in 1970, emerges as one of Peckinpah’s most lighthearted and romantic films. Peckinpah claimed Cable Hogue ranked as his favorite work. Cable Hogue, like Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, continued to prove Peckinpah’s genius cinematic presentation of any austere countryside.
In Straw Dogs (based on the Gordon Williams novel The Siege of Trenchers Farm), Dustin Hoffman portrays a pacifist living in the country with his wife. Soon the couple discovers their home is invaded by a violent a gang of local thugs. A haunting rape scene lingers as one of Peckinpah’s most disturbing. Peckinpah mentioned at the time, “Straw Dogs is about a guy who finds out a few nasty secrets about himself, about his marriage, about where he is, about the world around him…it’s about the violence within all of us. The violence is reflecting on the political condition of the world today. It serves as a cathartic effect. Someone may feel a strange sick exultation at the violence, but then he should ask himself: ‘What is going on in my heart?’”
Fired from The Cincinnati Kid in 1965 Peckinpah managed to maintain a relationship with the film’s star, Steve McQueen. McQueen starred in Peckinpah’s next two formidable films, Junior Bonner and The Getaway. The latter proved a major hit amplifying the off-screen chemistry between McQueen and Ali MacGraw in an adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel.
In 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, including cast members James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Pickens, and Bob Dylan (who wrote the movie sound track) disappointed critics although the film displayed flashes of brilliance. A simple shot of a cactus against an overcast mountainous skyline arouses a mysterious melancholy in Peckinpah’s trademark shots of desolate terrain. This under-rated film weaves a sad theme of friendship and betrayal between two legendary old friends Pat Garrett and William Bonney. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, another film causing a war with studio executives, signified Peckinpah’s last western.
Perhaps Peckinpah’s most autobiographical work surfaced in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (featuring Mexican sex goddess Isela Vega) where Warren Oates portrays a down and out American pianist looking for one last big paycheck. Oates’ character accepts payment from a wealthy landowner that wants to find the man who impregnated his daughter. Filmed around Mexico City and Cuernavaca, Peckinpah’s mastery renders the film worth seeing just for the vivid Mexican landscape. Garcia remains a gritty tale of dangerous characters inspired by revenge, greed, and black humor——verifying, once again, Peckinpah’s films do not sit well with the weak of heart.
In later years, his alcohol-cocaine fueled lifestyle affected his health, but Peckinpah managed to create The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977) (Orson Welles called this the best anti-war movie he’d ever seen), Convoy (1978), and his final film The Osterman Weekend (1983).
In 1984 Peckinpah shot two music videos for Julian Lennon, “Valotte” and “Too Late For Goodbyes”, that launched the young singer’s career. Peckinpah began adapting several stories for the big screen months before he died of a heart attack in Inglewood, California, on December 28, 1984.
Peckinpah’s hypnotic films weigh heavy in any historical context since the world continues turning on a violent axis. His work reflects savage truths the audience must face in everyday life. In the words of legendary filmmaker Martin Scorcese, “There is no doubt when seeing Peckinpah’s films that you are looking at one of the great masters of American cinema.”