When I told Mark Andrew Edwards that I was going to tackle the filmography of Sam Peckinpah, he replied, “That’s strong whiskey.” I think that may have been a bit of an understatement.
This is the man who brought the culturally significant bloodbath at the end of his revisionist Western The Wild Bunch, who filmed the sexual assault and home invasion of Straw Dogs, who made a movie titled Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia where, yes, a man’s head gets carried around in a fly-covered sack for nearly half the film. He also has a host of behind-the-scenes stories of extreme antagonism and violence stemming from his lifelong alcoholism and later drug addictions like Joe Don Baker describing how he was perfectly willing to get into it physically with his director on Junior Bonner before Steve McQueen intervened.
It’s hard not to come away from his body of work without appreciating his approach to violence, which is multifaceted, but, at the same time, understanding that there’s something else going on. Peckinpah wasn’t a nihilist who just loved to see guts and blood on screen. I don’t often do this because most film directors don’t have particularly deep histories in television before they start working in feature films, but after watching his first film, a work-for-hire job directing the Maureen O’Hara western The Deadly Companions, I went back and watched all of the episodes of the television show he produced, The Westerner, that he also wrote and directed. Working in network television through the fifties, there was no massive gunning down of an army like Pike does at the end of The Westerner, but it does provide a very clear view of his take on violence, as well as the sadness underlying almost all of his work. It’s sadness about losing the independence of the Old West, about decisions made in the past that led to the present, and how some people simply can’t be together.
There are filmmakers who are primarily storytellers, not trying to bring themselves to the screen in any conscious way, but Peckinpah really feels like an artist who was out there trying to make movies about himself.
Beginning at The End of the Studio System
I’m not going to go in depth talking about The Westerner because I did only watch five episodes, and I’ve read nothing about it. I would recommend it in general, though. Those five episodes were solid, short-form storytelling and really do provide a great window into Peckinpah as a filmmaker. Check them out.
However, it all happened in that period when television was really eating into Hollywood’s dominance as the cultural hegemon in America. The studio system was failing and, more importantly to Peckinpah, the Western genre as a movie draw was dying as well. When provided with the opportunity to jump from television to features at the behest of his The Westerner star, Brian Keith, to direct Maureen O’Hara in a Western her brother was producing, he jumped at the chance. He ended up having no real say in casting, and he couldn’t change anything in the script. He was dissatisfied with the filming experience, and it’s largely forgotten and ignored by Peckinpah fans today.
However, in retrospect, it has a lot of what made Peckinpah interesting in film in some sort of proto-form. Men who feel out of place, caught up in the past, a “dancer” female character (I assume that if he could have changed the script, he would have made O’Hara’s character an outright prostitute because just so many of his female characters are prostitutes), an odd journey into the desert, and people bonding through the shared experience of violence. If Peckinpah had been allowed to work on the script, a lot of this would have come out in greater focus, but the seeds are there. However, Peckinpah was unsatisfied and swore that he would never work on another film he couldn’t have control of the script on as well (he ended up breaking this promise eventually, when he had lost a lot of his professional power and cache late in his career).
His next film could be viewed as just another Randolph Scott B-movie western, Ride the High Country, and it kind of is. I’ve seen a handful over the years, and this would fit, except that Peckinpah, well trained in efficient visual filmmaking and storytelling in his television years, combined with his sheer talent, helps to elevate the material. It becomes about more than just two roughs going up a mountain to collect gold in exchange for bank notes and return it to the bank below, but about two old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, separated by different paths in life, and facing a world that is rapidly changing all around them, leaving both of them behind, and the moral choices one has to make to keep on. It also ended up being Randolph Scott’s final film when he saw that he would never give a better performance and decided to retire on a high note.
Peckinpah’s third film, Major Dundee, is the kind of film that really helped sink the studio system in the mid-60s. It’s not Heaven’s Gate (the Michael Cimino film that sunk the “director is king” approach in the mid-80s), but Major Dundee was the first sign of Peckinpah’s inability to efficiently manage a production. There’s a famous story where his star, Charlton Heston, had to threaten Peckinpah with a saber to get Peckinpah under control during a particular drunken tirade against his crew. He was firing crewmembers constantly to the point that the studio, Columbia, simply cut the shooting schedule short, preventing the filming of certain key scenes, while Peckinpah reportedly got so drunk that he couldn’t work, and Heston helped direct the final scenes. That didn’t end the troubles because the studio took the final cut from Peckinpah during editing, making changes he objected to, and cutting the film from the proposed four-hours (it was supposed to something akin to Lawrence of Arabia meets Moby Dick in the West during the Civil War) to just over two. There was a posthumous restoration that brought in some of what was cut decades later, but it’s an obviously compromised work that still manages to touch on Peckinpah’s key themes around violence and male comradery.
The debacle of the production of Major Dundee along with the fact that Peckinpah ended up getting fired from the production of the Steve McQueen film The Cincinnati Kid after a week (none of his material is in the final film), sidelined his career for a few years until Warner Brothers hired him to make the movie he’s known for: The Wild Bunch.
I don’t consider The Wild Bunch to be Peckinpah’s best movie, though it’s really not hard to figure out its cultural impact from the film itself. The violence of this film isn’t that gory, but it is epic in scale and the embrace of the carnage of using a gatling gun on an army in an enclosed space. That ending of slaughter, especially when combined with the cool walk down the streets of the four remaining heroes towards their fate, is probably the perfect encapsulation of the public perception of Sam Peckinpah. There’s no denying the importance of it in his body of work, but the rest of the movie give it this incredible sense of sadness and loss. These are men who have lived their lives on the edges of civilization, and civilization, with all of its corruptions, will not stop moving in on them until it swallows them whole.
The interesting thing about Peckinpah’s filmography really came to the fore with his next film, though, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, which I’ll get to in a second. All I really need to say now is that it was a financial bomb. The studio had no idea what to do with this tender, quiet, and largely non-violent follow up to The Wild Bunch and let it languish without much marketing. Peckinpah, finding himself swiftly on the outs with the studios yet again so soon after his financial success, ended up finding financial backers in England who gave him money to make Straw Dogs.
Returning to a certain embrace of shocking violence, this time including sexual violence, it tells the tale of a bookish mathematician who flees modern American (with special emphasis on Vietnam as an issue) to rural England, the hometown of his pretty, English wife. The violence of Star Dogs ends up transformative, essentially turning Dustin Hoffman’s character into a man (the idea is present on taglines on the original posters), and that points to the nature of violence in Peckinpah’s work: violence is a part of life, and it is neither inherently good nor bad.
Going back to The Westerner, the first episode “Jeff” includes a barroom fight between two men fighting over the titular woman, and the fight ends up actually bringing the men together. In Peckinpah’s mind, fighting was simply part of being a man. It was transformative, a right of passage and how men communicated. There’s a moment about halfway through Junior Bonner where a father and adult son are coming together for the first time in years, and father smacks son on the back of the head. It doesn’t lead to a fight, and the father picks up the fallen hat and gives it back to his son. The fight is over, and the two end up slightly closer as a result.
Peckinpah called himself a “1939 American”, an individualist who wanted America before the vast changes in American governance that swept across the country with the advent of WWII. It’s also obvious that he viewed contemporary America as a “them” versus him proposition. The “them” took several forms throughout his work from the government wanting to kill Billy the Kid to corrupt Mexican federales in The Wild Bunch to drunk locals in Straw Dogs to glory hound aristocratic Prussian officers in the German army in Cross of Iron, and they’re generally those with more power within whatever structure exists, grinding down on the individual.
This is where his view of violence gains a different hue, especially deeper into his career. The cynicism he feels towards those in power just increases the older he got. Sure, the evidence of this power dynamic is there in something like Ride the High Country where the two roughs are working for the man, effectively, but by Cross of Iron, fifteen years later, it had become pretty much the point. The aristocrat captain of Prussian descent makes it his mission to grind down and put under his thumb the individualist NCO who is too effective at what he does for the colonel to get rid of. The captain feels it is within his power to disobey orders and try and get the NCO killed. That’s something much more than just hiring some men to do some dirty work.
That can get matched with how it plays out in his final commercial hit Convoy where the corrupt local sheriff turns a personal beef with some truckers into a multi-state chase where the governor of New Mexico shows up to figure out how best to take advantage of the situation to benefit himself politically. The man was out to grind down the individual and use them no matter what the individual wanted, and there was nothing that was going to get in their way. Considering Peckinpah’s storied production history (Convoy was his last chance at independence that was a disaster from a production perspective that went weeks overscheduled and doubled its budget, so even though it was a financial success, no one wanted to work with him anymore), it’s no trouble seeing how he had such a negative view of authority figures, especially when you combine it with his view of the America of his youth being shorn away by modernity.
He would have one more movie in him, the work for hire adaptation of a Robert Ludlam novel, The Osterman Weekend with a script he hated but couldn’t change a word of. He only got it after doing uncredited second-unit work for one of his early mentors, Don Seigel, on the movie Jinxed!, repairing his reputation enough to get at least one more job. He died of heart failure a few months later, and it’s not hard to see why. A life of hard alcohol drinking and a few years of hard drug use had turned him old. He has a small cameo in Convoy, and he doesn’t look like a man in his mid-fifties, he looks like he’s in his seventies.
The Softer Side
This is evident all the way back in The Westerner, but Peckinpah really did have a softer side. You have to get through his rough and tumble personality to find it, but the heart of his body of work is in movies like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner. Both are quiet, character pieces about men on the edges of civilization trying to make their own ways. The first has a man, left to die by his two partners, finding a watering hole on a stagecoach route and turning it into a successful business while he connects with a (of course) prostitute. The second is about a traveling rodeo performer who returns home to Tacoma to reconnect with his family, most particularly his father, while he connects with a young woman who very easily leaves another man for him.
They’re sedate affairs with little violence (can’t be no violence) that show men figuring out how to survive in a world that is simply leaving them behind. They’re also two of Peckinpah’s worst performing films at the box office. The reaction to Junior Bonner was so wounding for Peckinpah that he latched onto McQueen (one of those who really did seem to like Peckinpah personally) for The Getaway, which is much more of a standard McQueen film than a Peckinpah one.
Once again, it’s enlightening to go back to The Westerner. As I’ve said, there was violence, but there was also a concerted melancholy in episodes, especially about the young man wanting to be a gunfighter that ends in tragedy. In his best films (in my opinion, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) the violence is supplementary to the sad state of the main characters, having to commit violence just to try and make their next steps in the world (the potential subtext of Peckinpah having to make violent movies to make the movies he seems to have preferred is unescapable).
Peckinpah was a man out of sorts with time, the conventions of Hollywood, and the needs of the box office. He knew it as well, and I think that may have been one of the contributing factors to his seeking escape through alcohol and later hard drugs. Peckinpah is ultimately a very sad figure to me, and that’s clear in his films.
His Place in History
Peckinpah died with fourteen films to his name, at least three he probably wouldn’t have minded having his name struck from (The Deadly Companions, The Killer Elite, and The Osterman Weekend), not because they’re necessarily bad (the first of the three is better than its reputation) but because they’re his mostly purely work-for-hire projects. The other eleven are as much him as he could make them at the time. Even with films like Convoy that were completely taken from him in editing, his mark is still present.
His productions were a mess, though. He shot so much footage and found ways to make it all work in the editing bay, in cohesion with his worldview, and he was consistently interesting. He was extremely talented, especially when things lined up right for him. He had cultural impact, especially with The Wild Bunch, and a dedicated little fanbase that celebrates him to this day (Tarantino was obviously influenced by him greatly).
His films are not for everyone. They’re too violent on the one hand, and too understated on the other (an interesting contrast, if you ask me). However, I think there’s really something to discover for those interested.
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