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Sam Peckinpah

The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Jr. Bonner: Another Side of Sam Peckinpah

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

At a basic level, Peckinpah’s is a cinema of oppositions. When one thinks of Westerns, a genre whose configurations and conventions Peckinpah has done a lot to redefine, one tends to reduce moral tensions to a simple antagonism between forces good and evil—something Peckinpah’s films emphatically don’t do. In Jr. Bonner, the kind of moral tension that operates between Buck Roan (Ben Johnson), a onetime cowboy who has become a notably successful businessman and smalltown icon, and Jr. (Steve McQueen), a middleaged cowboy who is having trouble winning, indexes the complexity of Peckinpah’s ideas about heroism and morality. There is a scene early in the film in which Jr.* goes into a saloon in his hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for a drink, and discovers Buck sitting in a corner booth. Jr. sits down and makes a pitch to Buck to fix things so that he’ll ride the bull Sunshine in the rodeo and hopefully win back some of his flagging self-esteem. (Sunshine is a bad bull who has thrown Jr. before; the cowboy is absolutely not seeking an easy ride.) Buck says, “I ain’t goin’ to make a living off somebody else’s pride,” and in the near-mythic uprightness of those few words lurks an inherent set of values that, on the one hand, stands opposed to the waywardness of Jr.’s pragmatic individualism, but that, on the other hand, suggests the same kind of dauntless adherence to archaic codes that lends the doomed Romanticism of Jr. Bonner an almost celebratory force. Buck and Jr. are two of a kind, cut from the same mythic block, even though they seem to be at odds about the means of maintaining their ways of life.

Junior Bonner
Junior Bonner

Peckinpah’s characters do not readily yield to neat moral dichotomizing. Identity is the main positive force in Peckinpah’s films, but equally crucial is the moral attitude it embodies, or from which it derives. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, we tend to forget that Hogue’s persevering out in the desert has as much to do with a somewhat nasty urge to avenge his having been cast out as it does with more enduringly admirable qualities like his love for Hildy and his societally utilitarian, and quite affable, capitalistic tendencies. Hogue (Jason Robards) is sustained in equal parts by forces which are destructive as well as those which are constructive, life-giving. Inherent in Peckinpah’s Westerns is the same dissociation of heroism from simplistic moral attitudes which figures as an essential premise in earlier Westerns by directors like Ford, Hawks, Mann, and Fuller. One has only to think of The Searchers, Red River, The Naked Spur, and Run of the Arrow to realize that the informing qualities of the modern Western protagonist include a sense of alienation, crippling flaws, blind spots, and weaknesses proportionate to the potentially tragic stature of the characters.

In Peckinpah’s Westerns from Ride the High Country through Jr. Bonner, identity clings to lives and lifestyles that seem perennially on the road to extinction. But the plight of the Peckinpah “hero,” residing in a world where even the notion of heroism is ambiguous, is more complicated than the simple fact of his propensity to vanish from the historical scene. Peckinpah’s films ultimately seek to reconcile the necessity and the futility of a Romantic worldview, a dialectic which is important in evaluating Peckinpavian morality and, subsequently, in understanding Peckinpah’s characters within that context. The two sides of that dialectic are often manifested in different characters within a given film: Jr. and Buck here, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Ride the High Country‘s Steve Judd and Gil Westrum. All these pairs in some way suggest unities; they are seen not as separate entities inherently antagonistic, but as outgrowths of the same passing world who have been unnaturally wrenched into positions of fatal contravention.

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The Ballad Of David Sumner: A Peckinpah Psychodrama

[Originally published in Movietone News 10, January 1972]

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs reminds us that in our rush to civilization, we too often deny the violent origins of our favorite myths and rituals—and pretend that the primal power of our lizard brains never was. Who wants to recall that Christian Communion is a sanitized version of the actual sacrifice—sometimes involving dismemberment and cannibalism—at the heart of innumerable pagan religions? In the time of Sophocles, it was considered beneficial to communally cathect archetypal fantasies. Now we believe that if we just aren’t reminded too often (via the movies, for instance) of the dark underside of human experience, the unpleasantness will all go away, and we’ll all be polite and peaceful together. Isn’t evil all out there, not stubbornly in residence within us? Or if within us, it’s just a matter of biochemical misfires. Retro filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah should chill out, instead of unreeling incendiary words and images.

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner
Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner

In Straw Dogs, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), in Cornwall to do mathematical research, ignores the possibility of forces and emotions which cannot be contained in neat theorems or controlled by the rational mind. The Cornwall locals question him about what he’s seen of the “troubles” in America—”Did you take part, sir?”—and he quips, “Just between commercials.” For him, the reality of disorder and violence is a made-for-TV movie safely sandwiched between the plasticized fantasy-worlds of Madison Avenue. The irrational is closer to the surface in David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), who deliberately changes the pluses to minuses in David’s neat little equations, trying to tell him that his mathematical framework fails to include certain realities. (For a screwball comedy take on Peckinpah’s psychodrama, check out Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s scientist, unmanned and paralyzed by living too much in the head, and Katharine Hepburn, a bundle of impulse, irrationality and energy, survive by finding a point of balance between creative chaos and rigid order.)

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Sam Peckinpah by Sam Fuller

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

When he was in Koln, Germany scouting locations for his 1972 film Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstrasse, lifelong newsman Samuel Fuller was invited by a local journal to review any recent picture that had caught his fancy. We are delighted to reprint the result of that invitation here, with the auteur’s permission.

“Water is where you find it, and you won’t find it there! ”

With that simple springboard, Sam Peckinpah’s superb film of man versus men (in this case the contradictory strands of weakness and determination within Cable Hogue) is a must-see movie from WB now playing at the EI Dorado, a new moviehouse in Koln named after Howard Hawks’ sagebrush success. Unlike the lusty Hawks film or any other Western, Peckinpah’s Ballad of Cable Hogue is a sensitive, emotional, surgical job on an American desert hermit without familiar sagebrush stuffing. At times Cable Hogue’s story gnaws at one’s memory from Von Stroheim’s Greed to Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre—but the gnawing is short-lived because of Peckinpah’s reconstruction of the West with fiendish authenticity.

Cable Hogue is a classic because in his passion for the counter-make-believe West, its humans and inhumans, Peckinpah never varies from his obsessive desire to show you how it really was and yet never lose that cinematic touch that makes a movie a really entertaining movie. The animal behavior of Cable Hogue, brought to primate heights by Jason Robards, is quiet claw and unbared teeth—a difficult role sensitively conquered by one of the finest actors around these days.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

“If I cannot rouse heaven,” says the Reverend Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, “I intend to raising hell.” It’s the hell-raising in the cinema of Sam Peckinpah that has most claimed the attention of both the director’s adverse critics and the contingent of the audience Pauline Kael has termed “the thugs”; heaven has rarely entered the discussion. Yet when Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) states, in Ride the High Country, “All I want is to enter my house justified,” the spiritual authenticity is unmistakable. And it doesn’t spring from institutionalized virtue, even if the rhetoric sounds vaguely churchified. (Peckinpah borrowed the line from his father.) Elsewhere in Ride the High Country, Judd trades Biblical quotations with a pathological fire-and-brimstone type (R.G. Armstrong), each of them footnoting chapter and verse; but the last word belongs to Judd’s partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), who cuts across their dialogue to compliment Fire-and-Brimstone’s daughter, “Miss Knudsen, you cook a lovely ham hock,” then glances at Judd: “Appetite, Chapter One.”

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most joyously earthy movies ever made. It’s also quite heavenly. That both qualities are valid in the film traces from their inextricability. And the inextricability has a lot to do with Cable Hogue‘s being a very funny movie.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Plantin’ and readin’, plantin’ and readin’. Fill a man fulla lead, stick ’im in the ground, then read words at him. Why when you’ve killed a man do you then try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?

—Simms Reeves (Hank Worden), Red River

The Ballad of Cable Hogue is tough on the Lord. He gets all of the blame and none of the credit. Abandoned in a wasteland by his gold-prospecting partners, Cable calls on the Lord, albeit with untrusting upward glances. Job-like, he offers to repent for whatever the hell it was he did—mistaking his ordeal for punishment for some unspecified wrong, rather than the trial of endurance, the rite of passage that it is. When he does indeed survive, it becomes his own doing, and none of the Lord’s.

David Warner and Jason Robard as Rev. Sloane and Cable Hogue
David Warner and Jason Robard as Rev. Sloane and Cable Hogue

Conversations with God—who does not answer—bookend the film; and religion, or whatever passes for it, is never far away during the interim. The appearance of the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane establishes The Ballad of Cable Hogue as a movie about two men who talk to God—or who perhaps have their own way with life and write the Lord in as a partner on the deal.

For the Rev. Sloane, religion is a handy vehicle of seduction—and when, after all, was it not? And why is winning someone’s body any less honorable than winning someone’s soul? When he tells Cable he has to ride into Dead Dog for the evening because “the calling is upon him,” Cable responds: “The Lord’s work? That’s a helluva thing to call it.” Then, after a pause, he recognizes the truth: “I reckon you’re right.”

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Short Notice: “The Marshal”

[Originally published as a “Short Notice” in Film Quarterly, Summer 1974]

“The Marshal” (episode No. 6211 of The Rifleman TV series). I recently had the extraordinary experience of showing Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to a University of Washington film class and then going home to discover an ancestor of sorts on television. Knowing that Peckinpah had worked on The Rifleman, among other shows, and noticing that Warren Oates and James Drury were listed in the cast of that evening’s rerun, I tuned in. The episode indeed proved to be a Peckinpah: teleplay, direction, and a co-credit for story. A crucial installment in the development of the series, it introduced regular-to-be Paul Fix as Micah Torrance, a once-renowned lawman who had managed to live long enough to take off his badge—but only by losing his nerve and taking to the bottle. Torrance comes to the attention of Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) and the town marshal, played by R.G. Armstrong (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett), and McCain sets about rehabilitating him by putting him to work on his ranch. About that time, Oates and brother Robert J. Wilke appear, hot on Torrance’s trail and determined to repay him for shooting them up in the line of duty some years previous. Drury, who played the least depraved of the Hammond boys in Ride the High Country, rides into town with them but pretends to only a loose affiliation; he affects a mellifluous manner and mocks their illiteracy—they are clearly akin to such “damn drygulchin’ Southern trash” as the Hammonds and the Strother Martin–L.Q. Jones types in later Peckinpah—while targeting Marshal Armstrong’s niece for seduction. If Drury’s motivation is ever declared, I missed it; but at any rate he has soon shot and killed Armstrong, then enticed McCain into town with the news that Oates and Wilke did it. There is a concluding fight, McCain falls wounded after downing Wilke, and Torrance—effectively if not actually one-armed like James Coburn’s Sam Potts in Major Dundee—manages to do for the others with a shotgun. The episode ends with McCain recuperating and Micah Torrance sporting the marshal’s badge he will wear throughout the rest of the series.

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Ride the High Country

This was written in 1990 for a film series called “Myth of the West” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. As a program note, it’s a brief introduction to Ride the High Country; its references to Peckinpah beginning to fade from film history are even keener now that it’s been over a quarter-century since his death. – Robert Horton

John Ford made something like 125 films in his fifty-year career in Hollywood, and in that time he created a cohesive, wholecloth world, especially in films of the American West. Sam Peckinpah worked in feature films from The Deadly Companions (1961) to The Osterman Weekend (1983); a dozen or so films, as well as television beginning in the late 1950s—a little over twenty years of work. Yet Peckinpah’s legacy is as rich as any modern director’s, and as unmistakable; you always know when you’re watching a Peckinpah movie. And Peckinpah did his most important work in the Western.

But it may be more appropriate to say that Peckinpah made end-of-the-Westerns. His Western films are poised at the moment of death, the passing of one life, one era, to another (maybe that’s why he used slow-motion to show his characters getting killed—he was saving, examining that final moment). The Wild Bunch (1969) is one long last gasp; the American West is disappearing, to the extent that the outlaw heroes must go to Mexico, where they find a brief glimpse of Eden. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is explicitly constructed as an American folk ballad (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan are among the actors), the stanzas of which describe two old friends who used to live a wild, wide-open life. Now, one of them has joined the side of the law, and has betrayed the other for the sake of employment and civilization. In The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the hero, a man who has a waterhole in the middle of nowhere, is killed by… a motorcar.

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Sam Peckinpah: Introduction to Film Comment Midsection (1981)

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 17 Number 1, January/February 1981]

Where is Sam Peckinpah these days? Surrounded by family in Sausalito, or perhaps Mexico? Chumming it with the Montana Bloomsbury Group? Holed up in the cabin he built four or five miles from Warren Oates’ place, putting the final polish on the final draft of the screenplay that may become The Texan with Lee Marvin? All of the above are good bets, but I hope something like the last one is true, at least part of the time. There hasn’t been a new Sam Peckinpah movie in going-on-three-years, and that’s far too long to suit me.

Sam Peckinpah watches on
Sam Peckinpah with Steve McQueen

There are, to be sure, people it would suit right down to the ground if Peckinpah never made another film. Some of them are critics and columnists who have written him off as an irrelevance, a failed prodigy whose intransigent individuality ultimately proved unproductive (“out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time”). Some are feminists, Marxists, people who get so mad about movie violence that they want to break something, others who have taken aesthetic, political, or philosophical objection to Peckinpah’s work. And some, unfortunately, are people who have the power to decide who is or is not bankable—the kind of people whose company Peckinpah has had to avoid since acquiring a pacemaker a year or so back.

For all of these, and for an undeterminable but probably hefty portion of the potential movie audience, Sam Peckinpah and his films have less meaningfully operative reality than “Sam Peckinpah,” a pop socioaesthetic entity that can be bandied about as casually and as destructively as, say, “Walt Disney” or “John Wayne.” “Sam Peckinpah” is cinematic bloodbaths, brute machismo, violence and destruction lovingly prolonged by slow motion, women as sex objects (preferably for raping and punching out), and, for brevity and all-purpose inclusiveness, fascism. These form a template that can be applied to any forthcoming Peckinpah movie (by Peckinpah-baiters and, sadly, by some Peckinpah admirers, who figure bloodbaths, machismo, violence, rape, etc. are perfectly groovy): what comes through is only what’s allowed to come through. Even worse, “Sam Peckinpah” makes the actual experience of Sam Peckinpah movies superfluous. More than a few times, I’ve challenged users of the label only to learn that they’d never seen many, or any, of the films—just heard about “Sam Peckinpah” and bought the concept for conversational convenience. It sees them through most of the best parties.

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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.

a1965-sam-peckinpah
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.

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“A privilege to work in films”: Sam Peckinpah among friends

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Sam Peckinpah visited Seattle for several days in July, 1978, under the joint auspices of the Seattle Film Society and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On the evening of July 19 he appeared at the Seattle Concert Theatre to talk with an audience that had just seen, and warmly responded to, his comedy-western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The following is a slightly edited transcript (from a tape made by Ray Pierre) of that dialogue. For fluency of reading we have kept the [Laughter] notations to a minimum, but the fact is that laughter punctuated the discussion with considerable frequency. -Ed.

[Questions, in italics, were mostly from members of the audience. Richard T. Jameson was moderator.]

Cable Hogue, even though Cable died at the end, was a very upbeat film, which is different from all the other [Peckinpah] films that I’ve seen. Was there a reason that in 1970 or ’69 you made a movie that does not—to me, at any rate—fit very easily with all the rest of your work?

I think it fits very well. I should mention one thing that seems to confuse people: I’ve made three, or maybe I could say four, films that were my own projects; the rest I have done because that was the job that was offered. I don’t really pick and choose. On Cable, Warren [Oates] had given me the property to read, I liked it, I bought it on time, I tried to get together with Van Heflin to make for around $700,000, could not do it. And Ken Hyman was the president of Warner Brothers at that time, loved The Wild Bunch, and I conned him into tying Cable Hogue into it because I wanted to make the film. And that’s it.

I have a question about The Wild Bunch. The first print that was shown in Seattle lasted about seven days. Then it was changed, another print was substituted. Some things were cut, deleted, mainly to conform with some criticisms that Time had about the movie. Who was responsible for the cuts?

Well, Time magazine was not responsible. It was … I was cutting Cable at the time. I got a call from [producer Phil] Feldman; he said they wanted to try it out in one theater—a shorter version. I said “Fine—in one theater.” Next thing I knew, it had been cut to pieces all over the country. So you can thank Mr. Feldman for doing it. And a man named Weintraub, who also was very active at Warner Brothers at the time.

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Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

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