[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
One plunges straight into unknown territory and action in A Boy and His Dog: Tatterdemalion figures dodging about in a wasteland, shooting at one another without apparent rhyme or reason. Some kind of reconnoitering dialogue—but no lips are seen to move and, visually, spatially, we find ourselves allied with … a boy and his dog? L.Q. Jones, writer and director of the film, gets down to business at once; before we know where we are, we have moved past the weird skirmish on desolate mudflats into the weirder realization that the conversation we have been puzzling over is a telepathic interchange between Vic—that’s the young man—and Blood, a shaggy mutt who has mutated light years beyond the Disneyesque canine to whom he bears some physical resemblance. Our suspension of disbelief about a dog who “talks” fast and dirty to his more-protégé-than-master is as immediate as our delight with Blood’s kinkily risqué sense of humor, his “doubletakes” and moués of disgust and exasperation with his sex-starved friend. Conversations between the two are shot with casual expertise and possess more bite and verve than most exchanges between humans in the film (witness the inane passages between Vic and the siren from “down under” he subsequently encounters), and Tim McIntire’s (Blood’s) delivery of irreverent repartee completes the visual identification of Blood as an authentically salty personality.
[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Most of what is at all worthwhile in Winterhawk has little to do with Winterhawk (Michael Dante), a mysterious Blackfoot leader who captures a white woman and boy and asks that he be given smallpox remedies in exchange for their return. No smallpox remedies are ever forthcoming; instead, a grizzled band of mountain men led by one (Leif Erickson) who’s had dealings with the Indians in the past sets out in pursuit of the captors and the captured. As it turns out, they prove to be a more interesting assortment of faces and personalities than the tight-lipped, elusive myth they chase through the mountains of Montana. Not that interesting, though: Pierce’s characters tend to resolve into thinly textured types reminiscent of the most simplistically portrayed Disney frontiersman. Still, the first scene indicating that something actually matters in the film—and resists absorption into Winterhawk‘s I’m-ready-to-be-inspired idealism—takes place when the mountain men sit at Guthrie’s (Erickson’s) table and hedge around one another’s motives for wanting or not wanting to go after the Indians.
A Boy and his Dog (1975), the directorial debut of longtime character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones, is not the first post-apocalyptic vision of America but it does offer a different approach to the empty streets and ghostly cities that previously stood in for the life after the end. Where films like Five (1951) and The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1959) gave us future where the cities and streets and detritus of urban life remains like a ghost to haunt the sole survivors, A Boy and his Dog offers a savage world where the past is rubble, nature has been blasted to a desolate desert, and the survivors are mercenary gangs and parasites picking through the pockets of ruins and preying upon the weak.
Jones establishes the sheer barbarity of the marauder culture with roving gangs dressed in mismatched (and often flamboyant) clothes travelling the wasteland like rogue platoons or feudal lords (one scruffy leader is pulled on a coach as if he were an Egyptian king). George Miller surely took a cue from Jones for The Road Warrior. There’s no future in sight, no new community trying to rebuild or even farm, and no women, at least not out in the open. This is not just a man’s world, it is male brutality and misogyny at its worst, and women are treated like salvage to be used and discarded.
Vic (Don Johnson), a dim, feral kid running on attitude and impulse, survives this world because he’s teamed up with Blood, an erudite telepathic dog (the voice of Tim McIntire out of a mutt that looks like Benji on the skids) bred for war. Johnson was in his mid-twenties at the time but looks younger and he plays Vic as an uncivilized creature of pure testosterone and adolescent impulse, an idiot child who has survival skills without the smarts or the instinct. He’d likely be dead without the cynical, sarcastic Blood, whose job is to sniff out females for Vic but is also the brains of the partnership. The wisecracking from Blood at times borders on arrogant and disdainful, which is what makes the relationship so vivid. They are a true bickering couple who, like it or not, need each other.
Sam Peckinpah’s much-messed-with 1965 film Major Dundee has just come out on Blu-ray from the boutique label Twilight Time. The two-disc set features both the 2005 reissue based on a preview version of the movie and the version released theatrically 48 years ago. Both are worth having, as the following Queen Anne & Magnolia News article from 2005 suggests. – RTJ
[Originally published in the Queen Anne News, April 11, 2005]
Sam Peckinpah was one of our great modern filmmakers, but for many his name summons up such a fearsome Hollywood legend, of blighted career, outrageous excess and epic self-destructiveness, that remembering the great films becomes secondary.
The legend began to lock into place with his third feature film, the 1965 Major Dundee—though it’s worth noting that even his universally admired second film, the elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), was nearly thrown away by its parent studio, only to be hailed as “the best American film of the year” by Newsweek magazine. Ride the High Country was a small film—a program picture, really—featuring two over-the-hill cowboy stars (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott). MajorDundee would be, by mid-’60s terms, an epic, with a $4.5-million budget, two recently Oscared or Oscar-nominated stars—Charlton Heston and Richard Harris—and an international cast with more color and flair than, perhaps, any one motion picture could accommodate. It was also to be a film of vast and complex thematic ambitions, a dual character study that sought to refract not only the historical tensions of the Civil War–era frontier but also the fractious America of a century later, astir with the civil-rights movement and the beginnings of what we would come to know as the Vietnam era.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Although the advertising works hard to suggest Mother, Jugs and Speedis “a black and blue comedy” in the tradition of M*A*S*H, the actual film bears little resemblance to Altman’s in the areas that count. It’s a cynical comedy and it deals with unsentimental souls on the periphery of the medical profession; there the resemblance ends. Peter Yates’ direction and the agreeable-enough performances come nowhere near the textural crossriffling of Altman’s movie, and the script’s gestures toward the acknowledgment of human pain in the world out there feel as if they’d been plotted on a graph, rather than simultaneously emerging from and validating the subterranean desperation of the characters’ lifestyle.
[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidvies with The Ballad of Cable Hogueas Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway,or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companionscould have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidis thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch;virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.
[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. Bonneran 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.
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 Arrowto 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.
[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 Hogueis 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‘sbeing a very funny movie.