Where to begin with Sam Peckinpah

A beginner’s path through the bloody brilliance of Sam Peckinpah.

21 February 2018

By Martyn Conterio

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Why this might not seem so easy

Sam Peckinpah (1925-84) directed 14 pictures in 22 years, nearly half of them compromised by lack of authorial control due to studio interference. The Deadly Companions (1961), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Convoy (1978) and The Osterman Weekend (1983) were all taken off him in post-production and released to the public in what the director considered to be corrupted form. The Wild Bunch was pulled from its initial release and re-edited by Warner Bros, with no input from the director. Even his first great success, Ride the High Country (1962), saw him booted out of the editing suite, though it was in the very latter stages of post, with no serious damage done.

An innovative filmmaker enamoured with the myths of the old west, if Peckinpah was (as Wild Bunch producer Phil Feldman believed) a directorial genius, he was also a worryingly improvisational one. Along with his extraordinary use of slow motion, freeze-frame and rapid montage, he liked to shoot with up to seven cameras rolling, very rarely storyboarded and went through hundreds of thousands of feet in celluloid (just one of the reasons he alarmed and irked money-conscious studio bosses).

His intuitive method of movie-making went against the grain of studio wisdom and convention. Sam was like a prospector panning for gold. The script was a map, the camera a spade, the shoot involved the laborious process of mining material, the editing phase where he aimed to craft jewels.

The best place to start – The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch (1969)

With Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Wild Bunch forms a set of elegiac westerns exhibiting – to varying degrees of success – Peckinpah’s obsessions with codes of honour, betrayal, loyalty and self-respect. Every single one of his films featured these themes, in fact, but The Wild Bunch is the most riveting example.

Set in 1913 during the Mexican revolution, The Wild Bunch sees a band of rattlesnake-mean old bank robbers, led by William Holden’s Pike Bishop, pursued across the US border by bounty hunters into Mexico – a country and landscape that in Peckinpah’s fiery imagination is less a location and more a state of mind.

It’s clear America has changed, and the outlaw’s way of living is nearly obsolete. “We’ve got to start thinking beyond our guns, those days are closing fast,” Bishop informs his crew, a line pitched somewhere between rueful reality check and lament.

The film earned widespread notoriety for its ‘ballet of death’ shootout, where bullets exploded bodies into fireworks of blood and flesh. Peckinpah wanted the audience to taste the violence, smell the gunpowder, be provoked to disgust, while questioning their desire for violent spectacle. 10,000 squibs were rigged and fired off for this kamikaze climax, a riot of slow-mo, rapid movement, agonised, dying faces in close-ups, whip pans and crash zooms on glorious death throes, and a cacophony of ear-piercing noise from gunfire and yelling.

Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), Peckinpah and editor Lou Lombardo spent a year perfecting the rhythms of the cutting and sound mixing, achieving giddy new heights in elasticated time, stretched moments, the long split-second. On the screen, he and Lombardo achieved the cinematic equivalent to Robert Capa’s iconic Spanish civil war photo: the soldier suspended in mid-air having copped a bullet. 

What to watch next

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

Scored by Bob Dylan, the studio-mangled Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid endures as Peckinpah’s other truly great western, and from there you should proceed immediately to The Getaway (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Cross of Iron (1977).

Of these, The Getaway is generally written off as slick mainstream entertainment; Peckinpah collecting a pay cheque and on his best behaviour after several flops. Yet this Jim Thompson adaptation (screenplay by Walter Hill) is full of exciting set-pieces. It also boasts a striking opening credits sequence mixing up the present, flashbacks and flashforwards, divulging everything we need to know about bank robber Doc McCoy’s (Steve McQueen) parole hearing, his hard personality, emotional weak spot (a woman) and the utter boredom of life behind bars. Time has melted like Dalí’s clocks, blurred into a meaningless daily grind.

Meanwhile, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a nightmarish south-of-the-border gothic tale in which a dive-bar piano player (Warren Oates), sensing a scheme to strike it rich, sets off to retrieve the head of a man who got a gangster’s teenage daughter pregnant. It’s the savage cinema of Peckinpah in its purest form: part love story, part road movie, part journey into the heart of darkness – and all demented.

As with his final masterwork, Cross of Iron, a war movie told from the German side, these films can appear alarmingly nihilistic, or as if they’re wallowing in sordidness. But while Peckinpah’s films routinely exhibit deliberately contradictory thinking and positions, he was a profoundly moral filmmaker. The ‘nihilist’ accusation doesn’t wash. What we see in his work is more a bitterness toward human nature’s urge to self-destruction.

Violence, too, is never irrational or senseless, but depicted as the manifestation of an instinctual drive governing all lives, and a reaction to provocation. Humans are at heart beasts, and it’s no great surprise that we act beastly. In the age of the counterculture revolution, flower power, the summer of love and protest marches against the Vietnam war, Peckinpah’s depictions of bloodshed could be read as reactionary, right-wing celebrations of carnage.

Where not to start

Beginning with Straw Dogs (1971) would be a mistake. Among his best-known films, Bloody Sam’s sojourn to Cornish climes is infamous for its button-pushing sex-turned-gang rape scene – a sequence that remains as disturbing and uneasy as it ever was.

Straw Dogs (1971)

In fact, the treatment of women throughout his filmography will prove a sticking point for many. In Peckinpah’s world, women are either whores or saints. It’s a stylised representation lacking psychological realism, and even when he tried to romanticise women, as in his acclaimed TV show, The Westerner (1960), with the line “Women must be God’s favourite because he made them finer than anything else in creation,” he still comes off as chauvinistic and patronising. Peckinpah movies are dominated by masculine concerns, as if that’s the natural order of things. “Women are no more than a nuisance,” Maximilian Schell’s aristocratic soldier explained in Cross of Iron.

Sam’s softer, sensitive side was showcased in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, starring Jason Robards as a rapscallion who finds a waterhole in the Arizona desert and starts a business selling water and meals to passing stagecoaches. The film’s tragi-comic sensibility is charming, if atypical, its lightness a world away from Straw Dogs.

His first teaming with Steve McQueen too, Junior Bonner (1972), is well worth checking out, even though it’s missing the trademark Peckinpah violence. The story of a lonely rodeo rider reuniting with his family, it’s an ode to blue collar living, a soulful and poetic work proving that Sam could do so much more than blood-and-guts thrills.

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