Don’t make me out a saint but don’t put me down too deep — Sam Peckinpah
The legend goes like this: they called him 'Bloody Sam'. His personal style was combative. His metier was the West and the Western. If John Ford brought glory and grandeur to America’s once most beloved of genres, then Peckinpah came to bury it in muck and gore, finding no pride in its epic landscapes, only loneliness, disappointment, compromisers and corrupters. At his peak, say 1972, this was after The Wild Bunch (1969), and Straw Dogs (1971), Peckinpah was the favoured chew doll of liberals who called him fascist. This cut him deep. For Peckinpah identified with that mildly left tradition of post-war American artists where family, nation and God were not to be counted on but ideals to prod and poke at in search of signs of weakness.
Peckinpah never had the chance to grow old and take part in defining his legacy. He died at 59 in 1984. Almost immediately after he was gone he had defenders who wanted to restore his reputation tattered by violence, drugs and booze.
We look back at the films screening in a new Sam Peckinpah retrospective*, to wade through the myth of ‘Bloody Sam’.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
It was a Western nothing like anything anyone had seen. It had stars like William Holden and Robert Ryan, and they looked old and dirty. They acted like savages. It was set in Mexico, 1913, a place where outlaws who’ve outlived their guns back off to make a dirty deal with a murderous warlord in order to survive. The movie opens with a massacre where innocent bystanders are slaughtered in a botched robbery. It ends in another massacre but this time it’s an act of honour, an explosion of suicidal glory, a last ditch act of redemption.
When it previewed in Kansas City one outraged punter was heard trying to raise a lynch mob in order to run Peckinpah and his fellow Hollywood heretics out of town. All things considered, it was a controversy well earned; its arrival brought the knives out (figuratively speaking) and set the tone in the debate over screen violence for the coming decade, making the quarrels over Bonnie and Clyde (1967) seem like a mere spat. The big hit of ’69 was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a cuddly toy next to the scorpion sting of Bunch. Critics saw Vietnam in it. Many hated it. Now it’s thought of as one of the great films. Still, it’s fashionable to look at The Wild Bunch in the 21st century as something mild, its gouts of slow-mo blood little cause for upset next to torture porn. That’s a false note if ever there was one. It still has the power to disturb, because in the words of Peckinpah pal Paul Schrader, “it knows how sick it is”.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Bloody Sam had his tender side that rarely got the attention it deserved. This lyrical, often funny western launched his reputation as a director with a great eye, a feel for atmosphere and a conjurer of authentic performances. It’s about two old cowboys, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, on a last ride that takes in betrayal, the ties that bind but rarely bond, and the beauty of the West. It was a rehearsal for a mood Peckninpah would return to again and again over the next 20 years: reflective, contemplative, a search for hope and meaning at the end of a long journey. Peckinpah had a not underserved reputation as an onscreen misogynist. Country has that rare Peckinpah character, here played by Mariette Hartley: a woman who is neither trashy nor disloyal, but decent, independent and kind.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
This was his follow-up to The Wild Bunch, which made it controversial for the relative lack of blood and virtually no action. It’s a poetic re-run of High Country’s mood minus the machismo. It has the simplicity of a Biblical story, with Jason Robards left for dead in the desert by his pals, only to discover water and love in the form of Stella Stevens. As wonderful as she is, Stevens is but a variation on the ‘whore with a heart of gold’.
Major Dundee (1964)
In one of those quirks of history, a director who fights for his vision is seen as heroic when it might also be equally valid to say that such battles are reckless self-destruction more about ego than anything as pure as art. Which is to say, Peckinpah’s tussles with the powerbrokers of the movie biz are, on the record, un-exaggerated, and they cost him dearly, as it did here in this partly wonderful but butchered epic. This was meant to be a Civil War Moby Dick with Charlton Heston as a crazed Ahab on a hopeless adventure. There was distrust between Peckinpah and the Suits from the start. The star ended up giving up his salary to protect Peckinpah. A gesture characteristic of the generosity this supposedly friendless ‘bastard’ inspired throughout his life, a paradox no biographer has or can adequately explain. (And note, too, how the director remained loyal to an ensemble of actors throughout his career including Warren Oates, Strother Martin, LQ Jones, RG Armstrong and many more.)
Peckinpah was fired from his next picture and didn’t work again for three years. As for Peckinpah’s obsession with talented men in the service of venal masters… well, they are, as David Thomson puts it, “metaphors for the eating of shit in the making of movies”.
The Getaway (1972)
This is not a western. Peckinpah dismissed it as a “flick”. Based on a Jim Thompson novel, it’s a pursuit narrative about cross and double cross. It paired Steve McQueen with supermodel Ali McGraw, who as an actress made a good supermodel. It was a hit. It’s a brilliant shoot ‘em up and even has some moments of spectacular tenderness as when a newly released from prison McQueen would rather snuggle than get it on. Later on he’ll beat the crap out of McGraw – who everyone knew was McQueen’s lover! Today it looks like a slap in the face to the anodyne routines of the ‘70s action pic.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
Peckinpah was in a mess – with coke, illness and booze taking their toll – when he made this bizarre piece, part black comedy, part de-constructionist revenger’s tragedy. Warren Oates plays a beaten down piano player who drags a head across Mexico in order to collect a bounty, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. Its controversy is well earned. It reeks of degradation; the battering and stripping of women is a leitmotif here. It’s smeared with a kind of nihilistic rage rarely seen in a Hollywood pic. At the time it looked like self-parody. Now it plays like Tarantino but with a brainy self-scrutinising, self-loathing that that fan boy could never face up to.
Melbourne’s Cinematheque will screen Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Getaway, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, Major Dundee and The Ballad of Cable Hogue in September. Visit the official website for more information.