Posted in: by David Coursen, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Sam Peckinpah

Peckinpah Doesn’t Sing Along

Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah, arguably the foremost American director to emerge during the sixties, developed—not to say cultivated—a persona that made his name virtually synonymous with “excessive screen violence.” While the accent was often placed on the noun, the first adjective also fit: Peckinpah was a man of appetites—the Randolph Scott character in Ride The High Country (1962) humorously cites “Appetite” as a book of the Bible—and excess was something that, when Peckinpah thought it called for, he embraced. He was capable of subtlety and emotional precision (as in the lyrically evocative Ballad Of Cable Hogue, 1970) and his excesses were purposeful; his blue-nosed detractors showed how badly they were missing the point when they claimed his violence was gratuitous. Still, from both choice and instinct, the place we now call over the top was one he often visited. Altogether an ornery cuss: combative and so confrontational the highfalutin term “transgressive” might almost fit if it didn’t sound so self-conscious and his sensibility hadn’t been, at bottom, so old school. And he willfully, almost wantonly worked without a net, and not always in a good way: given the chance recently, I couldn’t bring myself to revisit Straw Dogs (1971), which I recall all too vividly as having little to sustain the gothically creepy violence beyond pretentiously half-baked—and more than half-daft—pop anthropology, leavened with misogyny.

At his best, he could examine the moral and dramatic dimensions of masculine codes of conduct, loyalty, and integrity in a shifting and shifty western landscape with enormous force and power, orchestrating them to a sublimely resonant and cathartic culmination in the baroquely apocalyptic final shootout in The Wild Bunch (1969). High Country has a final shootout, with some of its resonance flowing from the Joel McCrea character’s statement of the Peckinpah moral code circa 1962: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”

For Peckinpah, no less than for his characters, intransigence was something between a point of honor and a fetish, and part of his persona was a man of uncompromising, but doomed resistance to studio interference. The fights for creative control began with his first film, The Deadly Companions (1961). He was fired from The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and saw his work on Major Dundee (1965) mutilated, both by how the scenes were edited and by the insertion of a jauntily cheerful soundtrack from Mitch Miller and the “sing-along gang,” ferchrissake. The struggles for control recurred so regularly they almost seem now like part of a shtick. But lord they must have gotten tiresome and draining. That makes it hard to see it as a coincidence that his orneriest film, Bring Me The Head Of Alredo Garcia (1974), immediately followed Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973), the source of so many editing battles it now exists in nearly as many versions as Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955).

Garcia is the work of a man who was fed up and feisty, hell-bound to get his vision on screen: straight up, hundred proof, no ice, no chaser, and certainly no Mitch and the sing-along gang. Even the title is a provocation: imagine how the words Bring Me The Head Of Alredo Garcia would have struck the conventionally tasteful reviewers of 1974, much less casual readers browsing the film listings of the Times or New Yorker. He must have known he had made his last western, and he heaps almost as much abuse on the cars that replaced horses with the passing of the Old West here as in The Getaway (1972); the endless string of oil-smoking no-account wrecks too sorry even to remind you of your rickety first jalopy becomes a running sight gag. The vehicles define the ambience: this may not be Peckinpah’s most violent film, but it is certainly his seediest and trashiest. The central character is Benny, a U.S. expatriate down-and-outer in Mexico (the stubble-chinned Warren Oates in his greatest role), eking out a living playing piano in a seedy dive and leading tourists in [sing-along] choruses of—so help me—“Guantanamera.” The story and characters, like the gorier sequences, have a sublimely trashy comic book surrealism.

The stark and ugly world of Alfredo Garcia counterpoints–and exposes the moral sleight of hand behind–the glamorized and romanticized criminal milieu in films like The Godfather (1972). The opening, with lush, pastoral, gold sepia in the deceptively tranquil setting of crime boss El Jefe’s hacienda, seems almost like an inverted parody of the wedding that opens The Godfather. Garcia, though, doesn’t start out with a wedding, but with El Jefe’s daughter conspicuously unwed and in the family way. This leaves El Jefe in no mood for doing favors, as he orders his men to brutalize and humiliate the daughter, ripping her clothes and baring a breast for all to see—making it clear just whose “honor” does and doesn’t count—until she names Alfredo Garcia as the father. El Jefe, expressing the outraged moral decency of the “man of honor” he fancies himself to be, makes the grisly offer—possibly an inverted reference to the famous horse’s head scene in The Godfather—of a million dollars for Garcia’s head. The rest of the film, tracing the hunt for this prize, explores the demi-monde that supports El Jefe/Godfather’s plush lifestyle and honorable family life.

Peckinpah takes a grimly perverse pleasure in showcasing the seediness of Benny’s netherworld. By the time the offer trickles down from the hacienda to the foot soldiers, the million-dollar payoff has shrunk to $10,000, giving the middle-men a transaction fee generous enough to satisfy even a present-day investment bank like Goldman Lansky—er, Goldman Sachs. Benny takes up the quest with his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega, another in a long line of Peckinpah hookers, albeit one of his more compelling female characters), a former lover of Garcia’s. They live in a world of perpetual hangovers, flea-bitten hotels, along with the aforementioned procession of dirty, dented and demolished cars, most of them either broken down or flat-tired. The film includes an attempted rape, countless murders, and a grave robbery and corpse decapitation. Elita is killed in the graveyard and Benny soon takes on the putrid, rotting head as his travel companion, talking to it, swatting away flies, getting ice to keep it cool. There are some extraordinary moments of deadpan black humor as the film explores the logistics of transporting a human head from place to place: too grisly to laugh at, too funny not to.

The film ends with a series of shootouts as Benny ostensibly tries to find out why the head was worth such a cost, in money and carnage; he probably comes closer to giving the real reason for all the gunplay when he says “it feels so goddam good,” a restatement of the Peckinphah code a decade after High Country. When he finally gets El Jefe in his sights, the daughter, by now a mother, proves herself a worthy offspring, urging Benny: “Kill him!” Benny is long past needing the encouragement, and still more shooting, car abuse, and general mayhem follows until the film’s final, definitively confrontational image: a freeze frame close-up looking down the barrel of a gun. The film, like its characters, gives no quarter. But the savage clarity of its moral vision is deeply compelling and profoundly unsettling. Peckinpah was a major American film-maker, and this was his last masterwork.

© 2010 David Coursen