Now that audiences are no longer shocked by the violence of Sam Peckinpah's films, we can see the late "Bloody Sam" for what he actually was -- a storyteller in love with the American Old West and obsessed with the passing of that era. His cinematic forebears were John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, and a handful of other he-man directors who wore eyepatches, drank whiskey, and went hunting with their actors. His descendants are Walter Hill and practically nobody else, unless we count hero-worshippers like Quentin Tarantino. Peckinpah, the movie-smitten, hard-living son of a patriarchal family from Fresno, didn't particularly worship anything other than his instincts.
The rootin'-tootin' stuff came naturally to him. The tall men who strode through his films eventually came to resemble the director himself -- lean, mean, and soaked in tequila. In the manner of Ford and Hawks, Peckinpah fronted his regular stock company with a series of iconic, larger-than-life faces: Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott (Ride the High Country), Charlton Heston and Richard Harris (Major Dundee); William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and Edmond O'Brien (The Wild Bunch); Jason Robards Jr. (The Ballad of Cable Hogue), Dustin Hoffman (Straw Dogs), Steve McQueen (The Getaway and Junior Bonner, with Robert Preston), James Coburn (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Major Dundee, and Cross of Iron), James Caan and Robert Duvall (The Killer Elite), Maximilian Schell and James Mason (Cross of Iron); Rutger Hauer, Dennis Hopper, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson, and no less than Burt Lancaster (The Osterman Weekend). All were doomed, either to slo-mo death spirals or to the aching melancholy of Ryan's Deke Thornton, who sits wearily in the dust at the end of The Wild Bunch and watches the mad procession move on without him.
Riding in the wake of the tall men -- and making fun of them between sips of who-hit-john -- were the redneck peckerwoods, the gutter trash, Peckinpah's stock company, a collection of unforgettable faces and voices that seemed as if they had just climbed out of the bed of a pickup truck in El Paso. They were as much a part of Peckinpah's Western landscape (and all of his films were really Westerns, whether they took place in San Francisco Chinatown, England, or the Crimea) as the cantinas, whorehouses, dry-gulches, and river banks, and in real life many of the regulars functioned as Sam's on-location honor guard, watching his six in saloon brawls. He inherited a few of them from Ford, and the rest clumped together as if they had been loafing in that beer joint parking lot, fighting over cigarette butts, forever: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, Jaime Sanchez, R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor, Alfonso Arau, John Anderson, and the irreplaceable Slim Pickens ("My wife, goldurn she's a tough ol' hide").
In a special category all his own is Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, the fabled Mexican filmmaker (La Perla, Río Escondido, Salón México) and actor who cast a malevolent shadow over The Wild Bunch as the corrupt, inebriated General Mapache -- and was Sam's mentor as well as drinking buddy. And let's not forget Kris Kristofferson, who began his Peckinpah career as a biker rapist in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and hung around long enough to become Billy the Kid (alongside the marvelously out-of-place Bob Dylan as Alias the troubadour) and the mythical mother-trucker of Convoy.
What of the Peckinpah women? There were indeed substantial parts for females in Sam's macho sagas, one of the least predictable of which is Ida Lupino's sensitive role as the mother of McQueen's modern-day rodeo rider Junior Bonner in the 1972 movie of the same name. Austrian Senta Berger was also effective in Major Dundee, as an incongruous European stranded in revolutionary Mexico. Peckinpah at times excelled in wringing poignant, Hawks-style supporting performances from actresses not known for their skills. Chief among these is Ali MacGraw, the former model who overcame her limitations to inject a note of unplanned-looking reality to The Getaway and Convoy. Mexican actresses Aurora Clavel (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Isela Vega (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) lent authenticity and cariño, but were hampered by Peckinpah's chippies-and-outlaws perspective. In real life, the director's relationships with women were generally brief and nasty, and his films reflected that.
The Pacific Film Archive's ambitious retrospective "The Battles of Sam Peckinpah," curated by the PFA's Steve Seid, gathers together nearly all of the director's features for a twelve-film survey of his influential career. Convoy and The Deadly Companions are missing, as is Jinxed, the Don Siegel-helmed 1982 Bette Midler-Rip Torn comedy on which Peckinpah directed the second unit, uncredited. But, beginning Friday with a twin bill of Ride the High Country (the elegiac pairing of actors McCrea and Scott, in the twilight of their careers, playing aging gunfighters) and the woefully underrated The Ballad of Cable Hogue, with its similarly wistful tale of a lucky/unlucky prospector (Robards) and the requisite hooker with a heart of gold (Stella Stevens), audiences have a chance to catch up with the filmography of one of Hollywood's most distinctive talents. He may not have possessed the visual poetry of Ford (too much zoom, rack focus, and flaring the lens), but Peckinpah's tales of men struggling against fate form one of American cinema's most cohesive bodies of work. Even the clinkers -- The Osterman Weekend (nicknamed "The Osterizer Weekend" when it was released in 1983) and the drive-in novelty item Convoy -- carry a recognizable stamp. And his masterworks, especially The Wild Bunch, are among the best Westerns ever made.
By all means see each and every one of the PFA's Peckinpahs, but pay special attention to Major Dundee, Junior Bonner, and The Getaway. The latter two are among Sam's best efforts, and lead us to believe that McQueen, despite his reported on-set orneriness and maniacal attention to the bottom line, might be the archetypal Peckinpah protagonist. Washed-up bull rider Junior, tired of being stomped by animals, walks with a regretful limp in the midst of his hard-scrabble family; it's Peckinpah's least violent story -- only one comic barroom melee amid plenty of buckin' broncos. Meanwhile in The Getaway, bank robber Doc McCoy springs from the poisoned pen of Jim Thompson to efficiently dismantle everyone who stands in his way, and there are many. Major Dundee, now restored to at least a respectable vestige of its 1965 prerelease glory, is more than a foreshadowing of the themes and motifs of The Wild Bunch -- it's a sprawling, meandering, subjective revenge story of Yankee horse soldiers vs. Apaches, Johnny Rebs, French Zouaves, Mexican federales, and buzzards, not necessarily in that order, with one of Heston's least irritating performances.
Saddle tramps and four-flushers, of course, will be curled up in front of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The 1974 contemporary actioner, which in its day typically played double features in grind houses alongside another Warren-Oates-on-the-rampage feature, the Southern slavery shocker Drum, is racist, sexist, homophobic (veteran actors Gig Young and Robert Webber play gay hit men), and has lots of flies. They're buzzing around the burlap bag that sits on the front seat of Bennie's (Oates) car, ripening in the hot sun, as he races to deliver it to El Jefe (Fernandez), the ranchero who has sworn vengeance on the lowdown, dirty, never-shown title character for impregnating his daughter. Bennie talks to the cabeza, the same way he whispers to the corpse of his sweetheart Elita, yet another sympathetic whore. For Peckinpah, as well as for El Indio, Malcolm Lowry, John Huston, Budd Boetticher, and old Sean O Fierna, among many others, nothing is so ennobling as to face death in Mexico for the right reason.
"The Battles of Sam Peckinpah" runs through December 16 at the Pacific Film Archive. BAMPFA.berkeley.edu
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