Sam Peckinpah, arguably the foremost American director to emerge during the sixties, developedâ€”not to say cultivatedâ€”a persona that made his name virtually synonymous with â€œexcessive screen violence.â€ While the accent was often placed on the noun, the first adjective also fit: Peckinpah was a man of appetitesâ€”the Randolph Scott character in Ride The High Country (1962) humorously cites â€œAppetiteâ€ as a book of the Bibleâ€”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 â€œtransgressiveâ€ might almost fit if it didnâ€™t sound so self-conscious and his sensibility hadnâ€™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 couldnâ€™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-bakedâ€”and more than half-daftâ€”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 characterâ€™s statement of the Peckinpah moral code circa 1962: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”