Sunday, July 11, 2010

#10: Sam Peckinpah

- “I loved Westerns as a kid, and I wanted to see if they held up.”

Like #14 in this series, this is another of my more recent interests. If this countdown had been done just a year ago, Sam Peckinpah would not have been included. My initial reaction to the man known as Bloody Sam, which came from watching his most acclaimed film The Wild Bunch a few years ago, was not as positive as I expected it to be. Perhaps I was still too much in a Howard Hawks frame of mind, as the opinionated director was on record as declaring that he didn’t think too much of the violent and frenzied action sequences that Peckinpah sprinkled throughout The Wild Bunch. Something just didn’t completely click – I liked it, but wondered what all the fuss was about. It’s amazing the transformation that one positive experience can bring about. All it took was one viewing of his notorious Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to make me a believer. Going into it considering myself at best lukewarm toward Peckinpah, I came away from it completely floored. It still holds the power to transfix me ever time I watch it. That film showed me that the main criticism of Peckinpah’s work – that of it being little more than gunfights and bloodbaths – is completely off the mark. His admitted preoccupation with violence serves a purpose. But even more important, Peckinpah rarely gets the credit he deserves for the subtle, intimate touches he so masterfully intersperses with the violence. There are particular scenes in Pat Garrett and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia that are achingly beautiful in both their visual poetry and content. And these sequences deserve just as much praise as Peckinpah’s chops as a director and editor of action.

This key realization made me not only reassess what little Peckinpah I had seen before PG&BtK, but also to immediately go through the rest of his films. What I discovered was a director that has had me under his spell for months now. Many of his best films are not easy to love, requiring me to watch them multiple times before I felt comfortable with them. Peckinpah has emerged for me as a director with a unique worldview, using almost every filmmaking opportunity to deal with a specific set of ideals. Ideas of fearing death and violence, yet constantly courting it; of the ending of eras; the closing of the Old West; dealing with living past your usefulness. These obsessions constantly return in Peckinpah’s greatest works. Outside of Howard Hawks, no one ever dealt with the strong bonds of friendship between male comrades as did Peckinpah. You will rarely see me use the chic “auteur” label in my writings, but it feels so fitting when discussing Bloody Sam (sorry, I just love that nickname too much not to use it again!).

As you’ll see from the rankings, I’ve come quite a long way from my original assessment of The Wild Bunch. I still don’t rank it at the top of my list as most Peckinpah fans do, but my appreciation of it continues to grow. I wonder how many other people (and would love to hear thoughts on this) change their mind about a film(s) when revisiting it after having delved deeper into a director’s other work? This is precisely what happened with me and Peckinpah’s most famous western. The other thing about Peckinpah’s entire filmography that never ceases to amaze me is that despite how many financial disasters he made, his Top 10 films are consistently outstanding. Ordering may vary, but my guess is that most people will agree with the top ten, and there is not a subpar film in the group. I can’t go so far as to say that he never made a bad film, because later in his career he mailed it on a few duds. But those first ten are all outstanding. A number of them are ridiculously underrated – Major Dundee, even its butchered form, is near great; Cross of Iron is an overlooked war epic; The Ballad of Cable Hogue is irresistible. If I had to the guts to do it, I could easily place Cable Hogue all the way at #3. Before I saw Straw Dogs for the first time, I was led to believe that I might have the same problems I experienced with A Clockwork Orange. I didn’t – in Straw Dogs I actually cared to contemplate why the violence is taking place. The Getaway is sitting at #10, which might come across as a putdown, but it really isn’t. All ten are very good, some flat out great. A few of them I really struggled and went back and forth on while trying to place them. For instance – there were times when I felt both Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Cross of Iron should definitely have been Top 5, but I still don’t feel like I have a complete read on either film, Alfredo Garcia in particular. It is such a beguiling movie, one that left me unsure whether I loved or it hated it after watching it.

So as you can see, the Peckinpah bug has really bitten me. These are movies that reward multiple viewings and that show him to be a much more complex director than he is often given credit for. And I’d give almost anything to be able to seen Noon Wine! Is it even available anywhere?

1. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
2. The Wild Bunch (1969)
3. Ride the High Country (1962)
4. Straw Dogs (1971)
5. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
6. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
7. Cross of Iron (1977)
8. Major Dundee (1965)
9. Junior Bonner (1972)
10. The Getaway (1972)
11. The Deadly Companions (1961)
12. The Killer Elite (1975)
13. Convoy (1978)


  1. Dave, while I don't think as highly of Pat Garrett as you do I appreciate your high ranking of Peckinpah's work as a whole. He strikes me not so much as something new but as a continuation or culmination of the American "adult" western that Mann, Boetticher and others practised in the 1950s, with a more sensual appreciation of everyday life that served him well outside westerns. Here goes:

    1. The Wild Bunch
    2. Ride the High Country
    3. Junior Bonner
    4. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    5. The Getaway
    6. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
    7. Cross of Iron
    8. Major Dundee
    9. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
    10. The Killer Elite
    11. Convoy

    I last saw Straw Dogs on TV back in the 80s, and I don't remember it well enough to rank it.

  2. Nice selection Dave. Peckinpah is such a great director. I'm 100% with you on Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. I recently finished reading the biography by Michael Wallis called "Billy The Kid The Endless Ride". Its amazing how little they actually know about his life. If you take out all the unsubstantiated stories of his exploits there is very little that is factual and concrete.

    1. Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid
    2. Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
    3. The Ballad Of Cable Hogue
    4. Ride The High Country
    5. Straw Dogs
    6. The Wild Bunch (overrated)
    7. The Getaway
    8. Junior Bonner (have only seen parts)

    The top two are favorites of mine. Kristofferson makes me think the movie should of been retitled Pat Garrett and Billy The Middle Aged Man. A small flaw in a great film. Which cut do you like better the 88 or 2005 version? Peckinpah was such a contradiction. He was a walking, talking violent loving hippie.....M.Roca

  3. Wow, you seem to be exhausting the whole filmography off late.

    And give me your email id. I'll tell you where you can get Noon Wine.

  4. My ranking is based on my memory as I have not seen many of these films in years that is except for the top two. I have Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the Getaway, and Major Dundee in my pile of films to be rewatched. I think Samuel hits it right on the nose by saying that Peckinpah follows in the tradition of the "adult" westerns of Mann and Co. As much as I like John Ford and Hawks, their films are fairy tale versions of the west...not that there is anything wrong with that, "The Searchers" remains for me a masterpiece and arguably the greatest western ever made.

    The Wild Bunch
    The Ballad of Cable Hogue
    Straw Dogs
    Ride The High Country
    Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid
    Major Dundee
    The Getaway
    Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    The Deadly Companions

  5. One of the tragedies of Peckinpah's dissipation and early death is that we'll never know how he would've fared in the blockbuster-minded and synthetic 1980s. Would he have become a champion of indie filmmakers and focused on more character-driven stories? Actually, every single Peckinpah movie is a character-driven story--every durned one of 'em--so I guess I answered my own question. I'd love to have been able to see Peckinpah's perspective on film after the Vietnam era had finally been put behind us and see what kind of stories he might've told...I tend to dismiss his final effort, The Osterman Weekend.

    I hold Junior Bonner in the same high esteem as Mr. Wilson does; brilliant film, though not unlike two other 1972 rodeo-themed films: The Honkers and CW Coop.

    Another aspect of Sam's work I absolutely love are the films scored by composer Jerry Fielding, whose music has been famously described as "a man in a green suit walking in a forest." It's said that that refers to the music's inconspicuousness but I also interpret that as Fielding's ability to bring out the human element in its surroundings, as Fielding's music excelled at highlighting a character's psychology and inner feelings. Pat Garrett, flawed gem that it is, needed Fielding's music, not Bob Dylan folk songs.

  6. Dave:

    I dislike, nor can I handle, excessive violence in film. But for some reason – perhaps plot inherent justification – it does not bother me in Peckinpah. I first saw The Wild Bunch in a large New York theatre. I was shattered by its power and I still am. But it was a very different film (not to say experience) on that immense screen than in my living room. I remember admiring and discussing Straw Dogs, but it has been ages since I have seen it. And Ride the High Country is often with us. I have a high regard for that swan song of two of our western giants. I have not seen Peckinpah’s other films in recent enough times to venture a listing.

    A thought on “revisiting … after having delved deeper into a director’s other work.” Given your hestitancy to use the French word I will not repeat it. But I have to attribute much of my proclivity to look at the totality of a director’s work to Andrew Sarris. In so doing, revisits and reassessments became the norm. By the 1960s, I estimate that I had seen at least 5000 films (granted most as a young person). Yet I lacked a method of organizing those I had remembered. Sarris suggested a way to categorize: directors. And from that, also came a guide to assessing. Look at the totality of the director’s work, particularly recurring themes, and determine his place in the hierarchy of your personal tastes. (I think this series of yours has roots in that soil.) Thank you.



  7. Samuel - Good point and one that I agree with. Interesting rankings as, excluding Straw Dogs, our top 9 consist of the same films... those top 10 Peckinpahs are probably universal, with the others falling in behind.

    Maurizio - I have been fascinated with Billy the Kid since I was a kid and have read the book that you just finished. It is definitely a fun read. The best book I have ever read on the Kid is Frederick Nolan's "The West of Billy the Kid." Kristofferson's age never really bothered me in the film, mainly because the age difference between Pat and Billy was at least maintained to where it felt right (even though in real life, they were less than ten years apart). I'll disagree on The Wild Bunch being overrated, but as I say, it is one that took me a little while to warm to.

    JAFB - Awesome... you can drop me a line at dave.hicks03 @

    C.K. - I haven't seen The Osterman Weekend, but it sounds like I'm not missing a whole lot. I don't know that Peckinpah would have done much of meaning in the 80s, as from what I gleaned from the Peckinpah bio that I finished last week, is that he was very much played out. Drugs, fights with against producers and the system, drugs again, alcohol... they had all really taken their toll. I love the work of Fielding as well, but I'll have to disagree on Dylan's music being wrong for the film. I love that soundtrack. Perhaps a melding of the two could have been accomplished?

    Gerald - Straw Dogs is one that I still grappled with after multiple viewings, as is one of his other ultra-violent films Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The fact that it is not so easy to simply cast aside as yet more senseless violence I think attests to the skill and interest with which Peckinpah manages to frame it. You can use "auteur," I just sometimes feel like it gets a bit overused or that I'm not completely understanding its meaning. The way you frame the issue though, it definitely works better for me as a term when considering a director's career in totality rather than on a film by film basis.

  8. John - Yes, a clear progression can be seen from the work of Mann's "psychological westerns" of the 50s straight through to Peckinpah, no doubt.

  9. My ten favorites:

    Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
    The Wild Bunch
    Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid
    Ride The High Country
    Cross Of Iron
    Straw Dogs
    The Ballad Of Cable Hogue
    Junior Bonner
    The Getaway
    Major Dundee

    Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia is the best movie Warren Oates, my favorite actor, ever starred in, and it may be his best performance too. Along with Days Of Heaven it's one of my favorite American films of the seventies. Love so much of Peckinpah's stuff though; I've said it before and I'll say it again, there have been times in my life when the only things I've had are Peckinpah and Malick.

  10. Doniphon -

    "...there have been times in my life when the only things I've had are Peckinpah and Malick."

    I've been there too (recently) with my movie watching, although I sense that you are saying that this in a much more expansive way than me. But I understand and appreciate the sentiment and can understand how someone could turn to those two masters. I have watched Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia twice and still can't make complete sense of it in my own mind. Sometimes I think I love it, others I think I just kind of like it. But, I am always attracted to movies that give that kind of reaction, that call me to return to them. So that is actually a compliment coming from me.

  11. Once again, I messed up the dates of this series. Ha! Well, this is a bit of a surprise, but there's little question that this is a major American director, even though I have never been a fan of THE WILD BUNCH. Yet, so many do revere this film.

    1 Straw Dogs
    2 Ride the High Country
    3 Cross of Iron
    4 Battle of Cable Hogue
    5 Major Dundee
    6 The Getaway
    7 Pat Garrett and Billy the kid
    8 Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    9 Junior Bonner
    10 The Wild Bunch
    11 The Getaway

  12. Love Peckinpah and he certainly was a true original and helped redefine the western. I also appreciate his uncompromising worldview which certainly defined his unique take on cinema. My faves:

    1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
    2. The Wild Bunch
    3. The Getaway
    4. Junior Bonner
    5. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
    6. The Killer Elite
    7. Straw Dogs
    8. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
    9. Major Dundee
    10. Cross of Iron

  13. I've tried thrice to post this, but my Internet connection kept getting all weird on me. Anyway, I've only watched one Peckinpah, The Gateway, and I loved it, definitively makes me want to check out more. Oh, and is it just me or the opening sequence for that movie is just perfect?

    And as for Noon Wine, well, I do know where to get it, but it involves an obscure torrent-tracker and some more-or-less legal downloading (I say more-or-less, since the film doesn't have any official release, which is "more" legal, or at least less immoral, than downloading one who has one).

  14. I always believed that Sam was an honest filmmaker. In Hawks' or almost any other film before, death was quick. Like ticker tape at the bottom of the news cast. Just cannon fodder. I believed Sam realized that violence and death should never be glorified nor have no second thought. That's someone's life being taken away, regardless if it's a Nazi or a heroic Cowboy, violence is violence...and it's ugly. Doing it any other way, and criticizing him for it, speaks volumes on the value of life in society.

  15. Mon classement:

    1°) La horde sauvage.
    2°) Les chiens de paille.
    3°) Croix de fer.
    4°) Guet-apens.
    5°) Coups de feu dans la Sierra.
    6°) Apportez-moi la tête d'Alfredo Garcia.
    7°) Osterman Week-end.
    8°) Un nommé Cable Hogue.