[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]
“Ah know you. You’re the guy in the hole.”
—Gold Hat to Fred C. Dobbs, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Toward the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just before his self-shattering execution of Kris Kristofferson’s Billy, James Coburn as Pat Garrett stops to exchange a few words with a coffinmaker, mysteriously at work in the gathering dusk. Addressed as Will, this artisan declines the offer of a comradely drink, then leans over his handiwork and says, “So you finally figured it out?” The speaker is Sam Peckinpah, and he seems to have something more in mind than Garrett’s determining that his quarry can be found within the adobe walls of Fort Sumner.
The effect of this apparition and query is disorienting, to say the least. Scarcely the artist off paring his nails in the wings, Peckinpah, instigator of this and so many other desperate quests for self-definition, materializes in the midst of mythic action as if to ascertain the degree of enlightenment his own imaginative creation has achieved. He even provides his principal player with a last rueful cue for action: “Ya better get it over with. “
That’s all one hears in the theatrical release prints of the film: this dark, broody, heartbreakingly beautiful movie was to become, at the hands of MGM president James Aubrey, one of the most mangled works in Peckinpah’s much-mangled oeuvre. For whatever reason, network-TV prints of the picture include some reinstated scenes and parts of scenes (while lacking, of course, much of the R-rated material on Panavision view in theaters). On TV, the two foregoing remarks form part of a longer speech. Over the child’s coffin he is working on, the grizzled framer of death-as-apotheosis announces his own projected itinerary even as his latest stellar surrogate approaches the end of his particular road: “Know what I’m gonna do? Put everything I own right here [in the coffin], bury it, and leave the territory.” And then: “When are you gonna learn you can’t trust anybodyâ€”not even yourself, Garrett?”
In less constricting time and space, Huck Finn, quintessential American drifter and misfit, planned to escape the taint and corruption of “civilization” by “lighting out for the territory.” Peckinpah, resembling nothing so much as that boyish quester grown old, embittered, and out of territory, metacinematically anneals the saga of Billy the Kid, a romantic anachronism whom American big business wants to send into Mexican exile, and his own troubled history as Peck’s bad boy of the film industry. Peckinpah would leave the territory (the United States) with a vengeance, fetching up in Mexico, the country in which he had come to seem most at home, to make his next film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Most certainly, he “puts everything,” or at least a good deal of what he can aesthetically call his, into this film about a coffinâ€”a coffin and its sacred-profane contents. These become the macabre catalysts for Peckinpah’s most personally styled protagonist “finding out what it’s all about,” so that he—and, more ringingly than ever before, his director—might cry NO! in thunder to the system whose terms Pat Garrett had tragically assented to.
* * *
It is impossible to place, immediately, just what is the period of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. To the easeful strumming of Mexican music on a guitar, a duck unfreezes from black-and-white stasis and coasts along a lake surface, warm color seeping into the image. The bird leads the camera to a swan, and the swan to a young girl (Janine Maldonado), just past adolescence, who lies along the bank, clad in simple yet ceremonial white. Her body, gently swollen with pregnancy, gracefully complements the gardenlike setting; she strokes her belly while the ducks coast past and the camera alternates between the landward perspective and a suffused, backlighted view of the water. A servant girl comes to say, “Your father is waiting,” and a moment later two men in Latin American costume appear to escort her, a group of armed horsemen passing across the background. Even then, there is no telling whether this is to be a contemporary film or a more classical Western.
As the servant drapes a shawl about the girl, murmuring consolation, we begin to hear some sort of incantation, half Spanish, half Latin. Dark-toned portraits of bygone patriarchs hang behind a great desk at which a bearded man, El Jefe (Emilio FernÃ¡ndez), sits reading. Off to the side an audience attends, a cluster of black-clad women conspicuous among them. The ring of spurs and clatter of boot heels on cobblestones seems to become part of the litany—apparently of genealogy—as the pregnant girl is led up to the manor house. We watch from outside as the doors close heavily behind her.
The reading done, the girl standing before him, El Jefe bestows a faintly encouraging smile. “Who is the father?” The question is repeated without answer. El Jefe gestures curtly with his cigar and the escort jerks the girl’s shift from her shoulders. She moves her hands instinctively to cover her breasts, then abandons the attempt and thrusts back her shoulders defiantly. Another gesture, and one of the men seizes her arm and twists it behind her, bearing her down till she is scarcely able to see her father across the desk. One of the women, magnificent, hieratic, visibly represses the desire to commiserate with the girl. “Who is the father?” Cut to a long-distance view of the hacienda an instant before we hear the snap of bone, the woman’s cry of “No!”, and then the girl’s tearful “Alfredo Garcia!”
Back in the shadowed interior, an elegant man of Nordic visage (Helmut Dantine) steps from the sidelines and goes to the girl. He reaches down to her and tips her chin up with courtly delicacy. They exchange a look, then he brusquely breaks the thin chain about her neck and collects the locket she is wearing. He registers the older woman’s fierce gaze, hesitates with something suggesting embarrassment, then straightens and turns away with his prize. The locket contains a color snapshot of a sunny, mustachioed young male, crookedly cut off below the collar line. El Jefe studies the face and says sadly, “He was like a son to me.” Then his face darkens and he speaks in a voice of absolute command: “I will give one million dollars to the man who brings me the head of Alfredo Garcia. Bring it to me!”
At his words, an army clicks into action. Rifle-toting attendants begin to troop from the hall. The Nordic gentleman and his pronouncedly Semitic-looking companion (Don Levy) collect their attache cases and follow. Out of the insulated mausoleum of old honors and customs roar the most modern American and European cars, mechanized bats escaping from hell, while horsemen thunder across the foreground. A jet plane lifts screaming into the sky, then sets down in Mexico City with explosions of smoke from its tires. The search is onâ€”though not, quite yet, the quest.
* * *
It must be apparent already that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a highly charged film, even by the standards of a superkinetic filmmaker like Peckinpah. The bold imagery is there, the turbulent montages (the marshaling of El Jefe’s forces built to a feverish pitch). But even more, the very conceptualization of the film is violently elemental. One has the sense of an artist loosing his personal demons in the most absolute terms he can devise. Loosing them, but not losing perspective on them.
Peckinpah describes Mexico as a country where people “don’t forget to kiss each other and water the flowers.” In Alfredo Garcia, he sees it—makes us see, feel, smell it—as a womb-tomb where sex and death, fecundity and decomposition, are not discrete but simultaneous processes. The film recalls GrÃ¼newald’s sixteenth-century engraving “The Lovers,” in which a naked man and woman are food for worms and insects even as they caress each other. (Which evokes in turn Peckinpah’s remark about the “mediocrities, jackals, hangers-on, and just plain killers” that inhabit his version of the film industry: ”I’ve had them eating on me while I was still walking around.”) Like the engraving, the film is often profoundly medieval in its attitude toward mundane as well as moral realities, and, moreover, resonates with religious iconography and reference.
The intriguing thing about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is that such issues are sprung against a compellingly rough, almost funky texture of characterization, action, and setting. To an extent, this can be attributed to production circumstances: No multimillion-dollar epic like The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, with lustrous cinematography by Lucien Ballard or John Coquillon, and the stellar eminence of a William Holden or James Coburn to supply heroic analogue, Alfredo Garcia is by comparison almost a Third World enterprise, with raw visuals by Alex Phillips Jr. (including some eerily poor day-for-night effects), and the surreal character work of Warren Oates in the catbird seat. But like that literary chronicler of burnt-out cases, Graham Greene, Peckinpah deftly makes a virtue of seediness, while Oates, in the phrase of David Thomson, “effortlessly rais[es] a scruffy little adventurer to the [level of] legend.”
Oates is Benny, a chronically down-on-his-luck gringo who’s been knocking around Mexico for six years—once upon a time playing piano in The Black Cat, “a classy place” in Tijuana where Paulette Goddard walked in one night”; now part owner and chief gladhander of a “pit stop for tourists” up a Mexico City side street. Here Paulette Goddard doesn’t walk in one night—two of the Nordic gent’s subcontractors do, inquiring whether anyone can put them in touch with “an old compadre of ours … a stud named Al Garcia.”
These nattily tailored bounty hunters (identified as Quill and Sappensly in some filmographies, but never addressed by name in the film—hence to be known here as Gig Young and Robert Webber) function as more than messenger figures connecting the various loci of the action. They are a discreet homosexual couple—modern-dress, low-keyed echoes of the L.Q. Jones – Strother Martin couples in The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue—and as such they participate in the film’s running program of sexual gamesmanship.
Their first sequence with Benny, which is also Benny’s introduction in the film, is densely written (by Peckinpah and Gordon Dawson) and directed to bring out a full, suggestive spectrum of ritual behavior. Young and Webber strive to maintain macho fellowship with the man’s-man across the piano bar—Webber going so far as to endure the attentions to his thigh by a local working girl, until Young’s visible distress cues him to chalk her down with one expert snap of his elbow. Benny submerges his anger in quiet baiting (“How do you guys like baseball?”), but the game gets changed on him. He’s the whore they’re there to buyâ€”the parties’ mutual contempt has found expression throughout the scene in the way tips are passed and received across the piano—and once they’ve told him where to find them if he has any information, they prepare to leave. “What did ya like ta hear?” Benny snarls companionably, as if the last five minutes hadn’t happened. “Guantanamera,” Young replies—the song Benny was pitching to the tourists with wonderfully insincere gusto when they entered.
Every detail of the piano-bar scene is worth quoting, but one of Peckinpah’s and Oates’ finest moments demands to be mentioned. Webber draws out a black-and-white copy of the locket photo and holds it up for Benny’s inspection. Peckinpah cuts to a medium-closeup shot of Benny that effectively truncates him just like Garcia in the chopped-off picture. Benny knows the face (it has been obvious that all the staff at the bar, whom Webber and Young had first approached, also knew the man they denied knowing), but, behind the dark glasses that complete his hipster image, he gives no sign. As he stares at the picture—that is, into the camera—we hear faintly a crump of metal and the tinkling of automobile glass. “Son of a bitch!” Benny speaks through a shit-eating grin. “You got me!”
That car accident on the soundtrack may or may not have been taking place on the street outside Benny’s bar. We prefer to consider that it does not. For presently Benny discovers that Alfredo Garcia is beyond betrayal, having perished a few days earlier in an auto wreck in the countryside. And the subjective sound of his death—a death Benny does not yet know about—not only chillingly enhances the moment but also presages the increasingly hallucinatory quality of the narrative to come, and prefigures the bizarre rapport—almost a symbiosis—Benny will develop with a dead man.
* * *
Benny learns of Garcia’s demise from a singer-prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), whose favors they had unknowingly shared. She is introduced with an insinuating indirection that hints at her kinship with the offscreen Garciaâ€”and with the powers of life and death for which Benny, at this point, has scant feeling. Benny enters a high-class brothel (which appears also to serve as barber shop, shoeshine parlor, elegant dining room, and friendly social center) and spies Elita, her back to him and the camera, singing to a tuxedoed chamber orchestra. Her posture in the easy chair—casually sprawled, arms disposed along the back- and side-rests—recalls the fluid commingling of gravid body and the lines of the landscape in the lake scene. Her singing has nothing to do with her “commercials,” but seems rather a free and generous interaction with the musicians as friends and colleagues—a gift of love.
If Warren Oates’ Benny is necessarily the point-of-view figure for our (and Peckinpah’s) journey into enlightment, Vega’s Elita is the film’s heart. In his book Crucified Heroes: The Films of Sam Peckinpah, Terence Butler has suggested that Vega gives “a strange non-performance … [but nevertheless] seems to work for the movie.” Certainly the performance (non- or otherwise) that Peckinpah draws from her is utterly singular among the female characterizations in his work. And Vega’s extraordinary malleability—looking one moment bruised and middle-aged, the next radiant and clear-skinned as a child—does seem the sort of phenomenon that hasn’t so much been shaped and refined as it has been caught and accorded an aesthetic context that both illuminates it and is illuminated by it.
Benny is angry with Elita because she had been “spending time together” with Garcia while he, Benny, understood her to be recuperating from a cold. His anger is also inextricably connected with his humiliation, moments before, at the practiced hands of Webber and Young. (Besides upbraiding Elita, Benny bewilders their Mexican friends in the immediate vicinity by coming on like a strutting gringo—a clumsy attempt to shore up his sense of his own eminence.) He promises to kill his rival, but Elita says, “I’m afraid it’s too late. When he left here he was very drunk. Near Santillo, the car left the road and the rocks killed him.” “Jesus!” Benny answers. Her “Amen” is a response in a different key, though Benny does not detect it.
The moral tension of the central section of the film derives largely from Benny’s and Elita’s different understandings of the quest on which they embark. She knows only that she is to take him to Alfredo’s grave. Benny evades the grisly reality as long as possible: that the men in expensive suits on the top floor of the Camino Real Hotel expect him to return, not merely with the news of Garcia’s death, but with his head. Elita is horrified: Benny has promised her that their big score ($10,000 is the price that has filtered down to them) will enable them to start afresh, as man and wife, “someplace new”; but she cannot accept the terms. Benny seeks to quell her objections, though his delivery of his pragmatic arguments verges on the hysterical: “There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or the man that’s in it, or you or me. The Church cuts off the feet, fingers, any other goddam thing from the saints, don’t they. What the hell. Well, Alfredo’s our saint. He’s the saint of our money. And I’m gonna borrow a piece of him.”
* * *
The impetus for this confession is one of the most harrowing scenes in the movieâ€”and also its most infamous: an off-the-road night encounter with two gringo motorcyclists (Kris Kristofferson, Donnie Fritts) who pull guns on Benny and separate him from Elita. Peckinpah conveys the building menace of the situation superbly, of course: the insidious transfer of a guitar from Benny, who does not play well, to Elita, who is asked to sing “Cielito Lindo,” and finally to Fritts, who taunts Benny with a song about sexual frenzy driving a man insane, while Kristofferson leads Elita off into the long grass. But Peckinpah also imparts something else to the scene—a peculiar sense of complicity between rapist and victim—that, stated in those terms merely, would appear to justify the most outraged charges against the director as a male chauvinist pig.
It isn’t that simplified in great movies. Whatever Peckinpah’s overall notion of men, women, and sexuality may be, this is a particular event with specific participants and a specific dramatic meaning within the film (as with the much-fumed-over double rape of Amy Sumner in Straw Dogs, a multivalenced transaction that cannot be accommodated by generalizations about violence against women). Rape may be a political act but this rape is eerily transmuted into an act of love—”love” being understood here as the distillation of human relatedness, of corporeal and spiritual connection.
This is one of the main themes of Peckinpah’s film—indeed of his film work in toto. Earlier, he had been at pains to communicate the rapport between Benny and Elita as they made their way through the Mexican countryside in a top-down convertible; the editing elided time and space as the car passed through various locales, Elita moved from half-embracing Benny to embracing him with a song about “Benny bang-bang,” and Benny implicitly apologized for his macho behavior of the previous evening by firing some random pistol shots at a cluster of roadside fowl, missing the lot by a mile, and then drawling, “Hell, I wasn’t tryin’ to hit ’em, ya know.” Moreover, the bumptiously comic connection was extended to the occupants of another car: two low-on-the-totem-pole agents of the criminal organization (Jorge Russek, Chalo GonzÃ¡lez) who had been assigned to tail Benny.
Hunters and hunted perform rhyming actions. As Elita takes a swig from their shared bottle of tequila, Peckinpah cuts to Gonzalez doing the same, then breaking into a song of his own while the exasperated Russek urges him to watch his driving. These semicomic observers at the periphery of Benny’s experience will eventually prove lethal, but for the moment they are part of the same spectrum of life and exuberance with Benny and Elita. As Benny, leaning over to kiss Elita, had nearly run his car into an approaching bus, so Gonzalez and Russek narrowly escape catastrophe in a lyric, slow-motion swing around another bus, that results in their running off the road. Such a movement killed Al Garcia; here it produces a comic slide up a dirt bank, with Gonzalez using the recoil to tip an extra swallow of liquor down his throat.
So, in its own good time, a blown-out tire forces Elita and Benny off the road at twilight, and now a stranger is leading Elita away. “Someday I’m gonna kill you, you gringo son-of-a-bitch!” Benny shouts; but Elita quickly looks back at him and says, “No you won’t, Benny. I’ve been here before and you don’t know the way.”
The way, in this case, is oddly ceremonial. Kristofferson pauses just out of sight of the campfire and uses a switchblade to cut Elita’s sweater at the neck; he then strips it from her (a movement recalling the torture of El Jefe’s daughter). She looks at him, delivers a hard slap to his face, then another. Kristofferson stands still for both, then returns one slap as deliberately as it was given. They walk on—and Kristofferson goes to sit at the base of a dark rock and study a blade of grass. There is no further violence. Elita asks softly, “Please don’t”; he says nothing, waits, suddenly seeming the more vulnerable of the two; he reaches for a strand of her hair and she goes to him in an embrace that is almost maternal. A high-angle camera observes from afar—far enough that the two figures bending together are assimilated into the curving texture of grasses and terrain.
Peckinpah has been cutting back and forth between these two and Benny at the campfire. At his first opportunity Benny slugs his own captor, seizes his gun, and runs to find Elita. When he comes upon the pair in the grass, he breathes, “Hey—you’re dead!” and then shoots Kristofferson as he tries to sit up. Elita leaps up and rushes to Benny’s side. She is tearful with shock, relief, not shame. As she is led away, she looks back at the man, now stilled in an attitude of boyish surprise, with whom she’d been about to make love. To her, if the rape had been carried through, it would have been making love: two people coming together on the earth has that meaning for Elita, inescapably.
* * *
If coming together on the earth has a near-sacred meaning for Elita, then coming together in the earth carries the film deep into mysticism. After delaying Benny with pleas and false leads, Elita at last brings him to the rural cemetery where the body of Alfredo Garcia lies. A child’s funeral is in progress as they arrive; and at Alfredo’s grave, some half-dozen members of his family are gathered. Benny and Elita withdraw to wait for nightfall in an abysmal rented room that, viewed from another high angle looking down through a rupture in the adobe, seems like an underground chamber.
Benny makes one last effort to justify his intended actions to Elita: “Alfred’s been trying to beat this rap all his life. So have I. So have you. He loved you—but I love you now. Think he’d give a damn if his head could buy you what you’ve always been looking for—a way out?” Elita remains unpersuaded; and when they go to the cemetery, not only her movements but also the editing and the directional logic of the compositions segregate her from Benny. By the time he has uncovered Alfredo’s coffin and broken through the lid, Benny is alone.
Peckinpah once challenged an admirer to answer, with regard to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “Where does the film turn around?” That moment comes with the slow-motion swing of a shovel out of the gray nightâ€”a disembodied movement accompanied by a sound like the protracted screeching of a rusty hinge, that ends by thudding against Benny’s skull and spilling him into the grave he has just excavated.
He carries the film into darkness with him. After a dismaying pause, the black screen is broken by a ghost of gray: a hand forcing its way out of the earth, dirt crumbling away from the flesh. Suddenly we can clearly perceive the grave, separated from us by the bladelike leaves of the agave plant which had earlier stood between Benny and Elita; among these blades an entire arm now thrusts itself upward. Benny sits up into the air with a cry of sweet and painful life renewed. Realizing that Elita has been lying in the ground beside him, he exhorts her to get up: “Hey, we’re alive!” But the glorious woman who has spent time with him through many days and nights is not alive; and as she settles slowly back into the earth, Benny scrabbles away from her in horror.
They have been lying atop Alfredo’s coffin, which still contains his corpse but now sports a black vacancy where the head should be. In his anguish Benny returns to extricate Elita’s body; his movements grotesquely suggest a sexual dalliance. He abandons the attempt and his grief gives way to anger: he will turn Elita over so that she will be in the proper position to keep her “primer amor” company. Benny abandons this effort too, weeping as he crumples over her. His head disappears behind a mound of earth. He has become a shuddering, decapitated form.
* * *
All the events of the movie up to this point have been stirred, as it were, by the shockwave emanating from El Jefe’s stronghold somewhere in the South. Henceforward, Benny, who had been content to scramble for whatever share of the game stakes he could get, will be an obsessive seeker after other goals. Revenge, certainly; but also knowledge. “I coulda died in Mexico City or T.J. [Tijuana] and never known what it was all about,” he told Elita. Now he has died in the backcountry, and postponed his rest as part of that unholy trinity in the grave long enough to find out.
The closing third of Alfredo Garcia is a ferocious dying fall during which Benny retraces the journey he (and the film) has made. Two locals are able to put him on the track of a battered green station wagon—Russek and Gonzalez’s car—which he catches up to shortly. By the ironic logic of the film, they have been detained by a flat tire; and in accordance with the black humor that grins out of the movie with increasing frequency, Russek steps into the roadway to flag down a fellow motoristâ€”the man whoÂ·will kill him.
From the moment he becomes a lone quester, Benny’s adventures turn more and more subjective: He talks to himself, he talks to Elita whose singing he again hears, talks to the shrouded head of Alfredo Garcia once it is resting in her place of privilege upon the car seat beside him. There is a sense, too, of the film itself abandoning the conventional aesthetically decorous limits of third-person fiction. Warren Oates’ playing of Benny’s encounter with the two local men at the cemetery gate escalates in emotional frenzy until he seems to have been carried beyond the dialogue; the suddenly dried-up voice in which he orders the men to “just goddam move and don’t look at me with your fuckin’ eyes” suggests (whether or not this was the case) an actor veering into improvisation in desperate effort to sustain an ecstatic moment.
That Benny signally stands in for his creator has been evident throughout the film, in those emblematic, impenetrable glasses, in many mannerisms of behavior and delivery, and even in the tipping of such autobiographical incunabula as Benny’s remark about the quality of his and Elita’s last hotel room: “You oughta be drunk in Fresno, California—this place is a palace!” Now Peckinpah launches himself in overt assault upon the audience—that portion of the audience at least that by now he knows has come to loathe him.
Benny fires several gratuitous shots into the dead body of Russek, and then looks at us out of those dark glasses: “Why? Because it feels so goddam good!” Then he turns and chucks the reclaimed head of Alfredo Garcia onto the car seat—right into the camera. It’s as though the director were saying, “This is what you think I am; this is what you came for. Well, here it is!”
This is, at any rate, what Benny is. He forms an absolute partnership with the head, his alternate slapping around and cosseting of the bundle in its soiled grave clothes a lunatic evocation of his torturous relationship with the late Elita; he even pours tequila over the ruin (“Have, a drink, Al”) in parody of both personal and sacramental rites of communion. Gradually, Benny is delivered of all the animosity toward his rival that has dogged him: “Hell, it wasn’t your fault. I know that. But we’re gonna find out. You and me.”
Find out he does—they do. Benny’s hard road carries him back to the Camino Real penthouse where the Nordic gentleman sits reading the Nixon-impeachment issue of Time and having his feet bathed, in a mock-pietÃ , by two Magdalenes. Benny, bearing both Al’s head and a concealed gun in Elita’s picnic basket, refuses to be bought off for the ten thousand. He looses a barrage against the executive-suite men (Helmut Dantine doubled as executive producer of the film—what wish-fantasies are indulged here!) and their attendant gunmen, and escapes unscathed.
The business card in Dantine’s hand leads him where we know he must go, where the atrocity began: El Jefe’s. The steaming head of Alfredo, packed round with dry ice, is juxtaposed against the damp pate of El Jefe’s newly baptized grandson. “The merchandise you’ve bought,” Benny explains—and then rejects Godfather’s million, drawing a bead on the ultimate target with a triumphant “NO!” “Kill him,” the mother of Garcia’s child orders, and it is done. Benny returns to her the locket, like the holiest of medals: “You take care of the boyâ€”I’ll take care of the father.” And to his honorable burden: “Come on, Al. We’re going home.”
Home will be the coffin—the well-earned house that Peckinpah’s unlikely elect enter justified. Benny’s two-man wild bunch comes to a dead halt just past El Jefe’s main gate, in a rental car slammed by hundreds of bullets from that army of guards. The last image of the film proper is the smoking bore of a machine gun: One final hole—in the ground, in a woman, in the end of a gun. The defiant credit falls here: “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.”
© 1981 Kathleen Murphy and Richard T. Jameson