Sam Peckinpah: No Bleeding Heart

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 21 Number 2, April 1985]

There is the grand truth …. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why, they … cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpetbag, —that is to say, the Ego.
–Herman Melville, in a letter to and about Nathaniel Hawthorne

“It’s not so much dyin’ you hate,” confides gravel-voiced Cable Hogue, sinking fast. “It’s not knowing what they’re goin’ to say about you when you’re gone.” Sam Peckinpah’s 14-film gallery is crowded with broken mirrors of himself; Cable Hogue was his wholest and holiest reflection. Betrayed, left for dead by his colleagues in outlawry, Peckinpah’s desert rat “finds water where it wasn’t” and shapes a corner of wasteland into a ramshackle, low-down Eden. Just another Peckinpavian parable about making water—movies, that is–in the City of raptor Angels. Hogue was the complexly comedic upside of the American hunger artist Sam Peckinpah took himself to be–and projected, cruelly, in film after film.

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Sam Peckinpah

So it’s only right that the dying Hogue, Sam’s surrogate, should prompt and prod his last critic, preacher and fellow-snake-in-the-grass Joshua Duncan Sloane, into composing a devoutly ironic funeral oration: “Don’t make me out to be a saint, but don’t put me down too deep.” The process of deathbed creation is cut; overvoiced into graveside performance, dissolving the time and space that separated Cable alive, Cable dead and buried, and Cable “gone into the whole torrent of years with the souls that pass and never stop.” Time may kill men; Peckinpah’s montage aims to kill time. His camera roams around Hogue’s kingdom, eulogizing, in the gathering dusk, the signatures and stations of his life, the mise en scene of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Easy to see Sam in the skinny coyote that laps water in this unlikely oasis.

Sam Peckinpah died on December 28, 1984. That evening, Entertainment Tonight buried him in a Mary Hart-slot of throwaway news: Dead at 59. Director of The Wild Bunch. Known for extremely realistic violence. Hart’s empty-headed epitaph distilled the kind of shallow reading that plagued Peckinpah’s work while he was alive. Most reviewers trivialized his art. Brandishing critical-moral cudgels, they beat film form and style down to barebones plot recital. Concerned, educated liberals would sooner have given up jogging forever than witness one of his orgies of “realistic violence.” (Only the aesthetically illiterate would describe Peckinpah’s dances of death as realistic.) Often, they’d never seen the devil’s work for themselves; knee-jerk-wise, his name alone was sufficient deterrent. Now, even notoriety can’t hold him. Like Alfredo Garcia’s head, the man’s a cinematic relic.

Just this once, I’d like to place Sam Peckinpah among friends. John Ford, for one. He and Ford made America legendary, mining more truth from the terrible beauty of fictions than could ever be squeezed out of fact. Ford’s landscape teemed with promise; the roads to paradise, the corridors to community beckoned his motley pilgrims toward progress. Still, he loved stepping-stones, those American isolatoes who moved men and history, but could not be planted, had to be cast out, when civilization took root. Peckinpah shot the dream going, gone rotten, machines and money choking the garden, those hard-won gatherings at the river mutating into cold centers of commerce, Chinese boxes of power and paranoia.

When that ranch-house door closes on Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, Ford’s hero is irrevocably out of space and out of time. Later, he’ll change his name to Pike Bishop, a man who’s got no place “to pull back to.” He personifies all of Peckinpah’s dispossessed, who have only themselves to live in and call home.

There’s Howard Hawks as well, with whom Peckinpah shared a sweet-tooth for death. In their darkest films, it’s as though everyone is dead already, and what’s significant and beautiful is how and when they will lie down. Both founded communities, highly divisive groups or partnerships of scarred and wounded outlanders who laugh, sing, talk and drink their way into precarious camaraderie. Hawks and Peckinpah made movies about making movies, often with a company of friends in whom they saw themselves wholly or in part. But in dissecting the anatomy of Hollywood filmmaking, Peckinpah cut (and was cut) more deeply. Hawks’ angels had wings, though broken, to get the mail over the mountains. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Benny, Peckinpah’s most dead-ended artist-avatar, delivers the mutilated head of a one-time friend to his backers, then, in righteous revulsion, cleanses the world in a baptism of blood.

John Huston must be included in this band of brothers. He and Peckinpah like to populate their movies with colorful dregs, down-and-outers with a penchant for taking off on dangerously absurd trips to nowhere, for love of money or the dreams it can buy. There are unmistakable Hustonian echoes in old Eddie Sykes’ laughter as the dust of Mexico blows over the Wild Bunch’s last stand and Deke Thornton enlists in yet another lost cause. And one of Peckinpah’s favorite misfits, Billy the Kid, sheers off from the Mexican sanctuary for fear he’ll end up like Huston’s spiritual bankrupt in Under the Volcano: “just another drunken gringo shittin’ out chili peppers and waitin’ for nothing.” It’s that “nothing,” lives stamped null and void, that so often galls Peckinpah’s superannuated questers into cataclysmic action. Pike Bishop’s eternally upraised arm, laid along the sky-pointing thrust of a machine gun, defies the outrage of erasure.

There are other, older friends in whose venerable company Sam Peckinpah should feel at home: Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner. These writers all fished dark waters, from Moby Dick’s domain to the Mississippi to the Big Two-Hearted River. Peckinpah found new life, baptisms where he could, in tacky hotel showers, in the free flow of wine and tequila, in momentarily Thoreauvian ponds, and always in the blood of his much fallen and fragmented heroes. But it’s all the same river. The American artist is most often a confidence man who plies his trade in dangerous, uncharted waterways rather than on the settled shorelines where the yea-sayers squat. Nothing he likes better than suckering a landlubber out of his element to con him by fictions into intolerable truths. He’s a man with the nasty habit of revealing the worm in the American Eden apple; he’s mostly got a worm, or a snake, eating away at his own conflicted heart.

Our most native sons—Ahab, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, Joe Christmas, Pike Bishop and his gang–are outlaws all, men obsessed by whatever dream or identity they imagine to be wholly their own. When violated or diminished, as they must always be—by a white whale or war, by unmanning bureaucracy or changing times—these fractured souls convulse in outrage. Such wars are waged inside us all, but American fiction itches to turn them out of doors, relocating them on whaling ships and river rafts, in Spanish bullrings and Southern Gothic mansions, on the Western frontier. But style is content. These books and films are voiced and visualized as hallucinatory dramas that could only be played out in that ultimate theater in the round, the artist’s mind and imagination.

Cable Hogue gets run down by a shiny, green horseless carriage sporting whitewalls, the car that, moments before, had brought Hildy, the whore he loves, back to him after a separation of years. “Just a means of transporation,” a machine the color of money, with tires as white as innocence or bone. Movies, risky vehicles that promise transports, did for Sam Peckinpah, hooked as he was on their power and beauty. They invited him to transubstantiate shit into gold, but he was an alchemist afflicted with hubris: He laid sole claim to the machinery of creation, especially right of final cut. Filmmaking, as much as Montana or Mexico, was Sam’s idea of Eden, his great, good place. As an artist, he was much in exile. Once, visiting him in Sausalito not long after the Convoy debacle, I was awakened a few hours before dawn by the eerie strains of The Wild Bunch‘s opening theme. For a moment, half asleep, I thought the music was coming in over the dark waters of the bay. But it was Sam, watching his movie on videotape, getting through a bad night with his machine-transmitted masterpiece.

The last time I saw him, Peckinpah was shooting The Osterman Weekend, his final film. He looked shockingly frail to me, his skull barely papered over by fine-drawn skin. Suddenly very small, he seemed to be holding himself together by sheer will. He made me remember that little bird he had bothered to close-up toward the end of The Wild Bunch: Panting, dying, it lies on the dirty floor of a brothel where a whore whines, like a broken record, “Dinero … dinero … dinero.” But Sam was also a showman, and more than half in love with his own martyrdom.

Late one evening at The Osterman Weekend location, I found myself cast as a witness to a showdown as tense as any in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Sam set it up in a kind of courtyard, between the ranch’s out-buildings. Somehow, the stark glare of a spotlight contrived to fall on his face as he aimed gunfighter eyes at the latest in a long line of producers whose money allowed him to practice his art—and shot the bastard down. Having created the mise en scene, having played (a little too old for the part) Billy the Kid facing down the moneyman, Sam cast his con-man’s gaze in my direction to snare understanding of the scene’s significance, my complicity as audience. I always met that laser-beam look with equal parts dread and desire: Peckinpah’s eyes were the warmest, most ruthless I’ve ever encountered. They were liar’s eyes, burning with an artist’s terrible innocence and clarity. They focused best, I think, on fictions. He was not a good man, not a bad man, but a man. Take him, Lord—but, knowing Sam, I suggest you do not take him lightly.

© 1985 Kathleen Murphy


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