NOTE: I wrote this for EInsiders.com 11 years ago. There have been some major restoration to several of the film since them. I have now seen all of the films directed by Sam Peckinpah. I have also changed my opinion concerning "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (I finally realized that it is a masterpiece!) but time constraints with my work and family prevent me from updating this work. Maybe someday I will get around to revising this work and include essays on the films not covered in this piece. For now, I'm using the Internet Wayback Machine to rescue some of my work from the now defunct Entertainment Insiders website. Hope you enjoy!
BLOODY SAM: THE FILMS OF SAM PECKINPAH
Sam Peckinpah was a man's man. What is "a man's man" you ask through your PC polluted, Phil Donohue/Alan Alda brainwashed minds? A man's man is a man who recognizes that men and women are different creatures and revels in those differences. He doesn't look down upon "the weaker sex" because he knows in his heart of hearts that she is probably a lot stronger and more emotionally evolved than he is. But he also realizes that a woman's woman loves and will stand by this type of male 1,000 times longer than the hundreds of PC, super sensitive guys that are living proof that the end of the world is not far away. "Bloody" Sam, along with Ernest Hemingway and Errol Flynn were three men who epitomized this truth. An examination of several of Mr. Peckinpah's films will reveal this truth, and hopefully put a few readers back on the path to recapturing their masculinity. Real women will love you for it.
There are a couple of Sam's (I call him Sam because a man's man, unlike Bobby Knight, is not bothered by familiarity) movies that I haven't seen in a long while but will recommend without going into an in-depth study. "Ride the High Country" (1962) starred Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea in their final performances as aging gunfighters. Also appearing in a small supporting role, Warren Oates. Sam explores the themes of alienation and time running out on older values. (This is not unlike what is going on today with the "political correctness" movement.) A beautifully shot western, "Ride the High Country" did not feature any of Sam's trademark "blood ballets," but it did feature what set his more violent films apart from a host of third rate imitators: it dealt in depth with the soul of its characters.
Sam's next movie was "Major Dundee" (1965) starring Charlton Heston. This film is for fans only as it was taken away from its director and butchered by the studios. Sam’s drug and alcohol use on location didn’t help matters. In fact things got so bad that Charlton Heston actually threatened to kill him with a sword! The film deals with a group of Union and Confederate soldiers thrown together south of the border and forced to work together against those darn foreigner. "Major Dundee" is a film in need of restoration. About 45 or so minutes were cut from the film, and it's story told in a linear fashion, instead of using the frequent flashbacks that Sam intended. Imagine if "Pulp Fiction" were taken away from Tarentino (another Man's man) and reedited in a linear fashion. God forbid. If only Ted Turner would do with "Major Dundee" what he did with "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid;" restore the director's cut and release it on video.
The one film of Sam's that I have only seen in bits and pieces is "The Ballad of Cable Hogue." (1970) Starring Jason Robards, David Warner and Stella Stevens, "Hogue" tells the story of an all around nice guy who interacts with numerous characters as he builds a good life for himself in a turn of the century western setting. I need to rent it and see it all the way through. According to Sam, Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) was the character most close to himself.
Characters were important to Sam. Several of his films were butchered by shortsighted producers who didn't get that point. Moneymen who look at their audience with disdain, who cut out the meat of the story and leave the violence. Sam knew that it was character that drove the story. So did his casts. Sam had some of the most interesting actors and actresses working with him. Like Altman, he had a regular stable of actors dying to work with him. Jason Robards, Earnest Borgnine, Ali MacGraw, David Warner, Slim Pickens, L.Q.Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Richard Bright, Strother Martin, Dub Taylor, Warren Oates, Emilio Fernandez, Ben Johnson, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Gig Young and Kris Kristofferson all made a number of appearances in his films.
Enough of the cursory glances at Sam's films. It's time to examine in depth (I hope) "The Wild Bunch," (1969) "Straw Dogs," (1971) "The Getaway," (1972) "Pat Garret and Billy the Kid," (1973) "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia," (1974) "The Killer Elite," (1975) "Cross of Iron," (1977) and his dismal swansong "The Osterman Weekend" (1983). These films paint a portrait of the director as a warrior poet. Sam's hard living and hard drinking and drug abuse took their toll and sadly he is no longer with us. He is, and always will be one of my favorite storytellers. I piss on those who raped his work and abbreviated his life. I hope that through this you will gain some insight into one of America's premiere filmmakers.
THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
A series of quick cuts show an outlaw band taking over a small town bank. The camera pulls into a tight close up of Pike Bishop's (William Holden) face as he says "If they move, kill 'em!" The frame freezes and the credit 'Directed by SAM PECKINPAH' appears. The year was 1969 and "The Wild Bunch" exploded on the screen as had no other film before it. Two years earlier, Arthur Penn raised the stakes on cinema violence in his masterpiece "Bonnie and Clyde." Sam Peckinpah set the bar higher in the opening scene of "The Wild Bunch" with one of the most violent bank robberies yet put on film. The beauty of his violence was enhanced by Lucien Ballard's brilliant cinematography. The slow-motion dance of death the characters underwent mesmerized and repulsed movie goers all over the world. Sam raised the bar even higher during the film's 20 minute final shoot out between the "Bunch" and a division of Mexican soldiers.
Pike leads a gang of outlaws along the Texas Mexican border circa 1913. Other members of the gang are Dutch Engstrom (Earnest Borgnine), Tector and Lyle Gorch (Warren Oates, Ben Johnson), Angelo (Jamie Sanchez), Sykes (Edmund O'Brien). There are six or seven other gang members, most notable being "Crazy" Lee (Bo Hopkins) but they don't survive the opening scene. The Bunch enters a small town to rob the bank of a large payroll shipment being temporarily stored by the Railroad. Unknown to the Bunch, the rumors of the large payroll were the bait put out by the Railroad to lure the Bunch to their doom. Mr. Harrigan (Albert Dekker) has assembled a rouge group of bounty hunters to track down and kill the Bunch. This motley crew is led by Deke Thorton (Robert Ryan), a former partner of Pike's who was captured and tortured in prison. Deke has to constantly choke back the bile which rises in his throat due to his decision to hunt down Pike, but he sees it as is a small price to pay incomparison to being returned to the torture he was subjected to at the Yuma prison. Peckinpah got great performances out of two of his frequent stars Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as Coffer and T.C. two amoral scum-sucking cads who ride in Deke's posse.
The Bunch seeks refuge south of the border. They come to the town of Aqua Verde which is the stronghold of General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). Mapache needs arms to lead his soldiers in battle against the forces of Pancho Villa. The Bunch first encounters Mapache in an open air plaza in Aqua Verde. Mapache and his aides are enjoying the company of several frisky senoritas, one of whom was Angelo's woman. Prompted by Warren Oates observation that "...she ain't your woman no more! Just look how she's lickin inside the general's ear..." Angelo shouts "Puta" and then shoots his ex. After a tense Mexican standoff, the Bunch is invited to join the general for business discussions. The Bunch agrees to rob an Army train of munitions in exchange for gold and a safe place to lay low. Once alone, Angelo only agrees to go along if he can take guns from the heist to give to rebels hiding in the mountains. The remainder of this classic film deal with this heist and the complications that result between the Bunch and Mapache's forces, not to mention that darn posse that continues to trail them.
Against this backdrop, Peckinpah weaves a tale of loyalty, betrayal and the end of an era. Pike, Dutch and the boys are dinosaurs on the eve of the ice age. Pike realizes that the West is rapidly being fenced in. "Those days are closing fast, we've got to begin thinking beyond our guns," Pike reflects. How does a 50 year old outlaw change when the world is shrinking and horses are being replaced by airplanes and cars? Pike is a natural leader who is not afraid of the weight that comes with command. He is also a flawed and very real human. Through flashback, Peckinpah tells of how Pike and Deke were once partners, and because of Pike's shortsightedness, Deke was captured by the law. The irony of this scene is that it follows Pike saying one of his favorite lines, "Being careful is my business." Pike lost his friend, and as related in another flashback, the only woman he ever loved due to his carelessness. These flaws aside, Pike is still worthy of the respect of his men. He is fearless and methodical. There are conflicts within the Bunch. The Gorch brothers are itching to take over the gang, but they fear Pike and his loyal henchman, Dutch. They take their frustration out on the nonwhite Angelo and the elderly Sykes. In he end, all the men agree that they are a dying breed and the only choice they have left is to pick the place to make their stand. There are numerous other nuances of character to be discovered in this classic film. I'll leave the rest to you to discover.
The performances are all excellent. William Holden's career was reborn in this film. Earnest Borgnine is also fine as the enigmatic Dutch. There have been many critics who have theorized that Dutch had a homosexual crush on Pike and that is why he remained so loyal. The main support for this argument is the fact that Dutch is the only character who refrains from partaking when the Bunch visits a brothel. I really have no thoughts on the matter other than to say that Peckinpah dealt with the issue of homosexuality in his only war film "Cross of Iron." From the way he handles the issue in that film, I'd say that the issue makes for an interesting discussion but I doubt that Peckinpah intended it that way. Warren Oates delivers a standout performance as Tecter Gorch, the dimwitted killer who is often the butt of the Bunch's jokes. Emilio Fernandez, and Jorge Russek are also excellent as Mapache and his chief aide.
Sam's original cut of the film was restored in the 1980s. If you rent of buy this film, be sure you get the 144 minute version. There are several scenes which flesh out the characters of Pike, Deke and most importantly General Mapache. There is an epic battle between Mapache and Villa's forces. In this scene Mapache is shown as a true warrior. A man of courage who instills respect and honor in his men. Without this scene, Mapache is little more than a cruel, drunken warlord being manipulated by the Germans.
Peckinpah was never to reach this level of excellence again. He did continue to produce controversial and though provoking films, but then again Orson Welles only made one "Citizen Kane." Ironically Peckinpah followed his most violent film with his most lyrical, the abovementioned "The Ballad of Cable Hogue." But Sam was to stir up a whole lot of controversy with his follow-up to "Cable Hogue."
STRAW DOGS (1971)
Sam tells it like he sees it. You may not agree with his point of view, but Sam does not pull punches. In "Straw Dogs" Sam examines the emasculated male. The man who has become a creature of intellect at the expense of losing touch with his primal nature. Dustin Hoffman is David Sumner, a math professor who has moved to his wife Amy's (Susan George) home town in England to work on his latest theory. David is a pacifist and more than a bit of a wimp. His lusty wife is the total opposite of him. She is very in touch with her primal side, but is nowhere near his intellectual equal. Don't take the fact that Amy has a lust for life to mean that she is a slut, on the contrary she is devoted to her man.
David hires several of the town's deadbeats to do some renovation work on the farm. David doesn't know one end of a hammer from the other. Tom Heden (Peter Vaughn) the leader of the workmen was an old flame of Amy's. After a bit of menacing flirtation, Tom rapes Amy in a very disturbing scene. Like the rape of Nicole Kidman in "Dead Calm" this scene is disturbing because of the fact that Amy moans, grunts and pants as if she is enjoying herself. I was uncomfortable with the way she reaches around and grabbed Tom's ass as if to pull him deeper inside. Rather than propounding the gross theory that women enjoy rape, Peckinpah is showing Amy's true strength. She knows that this could end up in death as Tom is brandishing a knife. She does her best to placate the situation and control her attacker the best she can. The fact that she is emotionally scarred and outraged once she has reached a safe place reveals the truth of this. I think the same thing is true of Nicole Kidman's character in "Dead Calm." These are strong women who will do what they have to survive. Critics and detractors who miss this point do Peckinpah, and more importantly real women who have survived rape a disservice. No rape is enjoyable.
Amy doesn't tell her husband about the attack. She tries to persuade him to hire others to finish the job. She also begins to resent the fact that her wimp of a husband is becoming the butt of several jokes by Tom and the townspeople. David is oblivious to all of this because he lives in the self contained world of his own intellect. The only person David seems to connect with is Henry Niles (David Warner) a gentle giant with the mind of a child. Both David and Henry are put upon by the townspeople, so David takes this to be a bond between them. The story reaches its climax when Henry is seduced by the town teen tramp. Being a simpleton who doesn't know his own strength, Henry accidentally kills the girl. As he flees into the foggy night, Henry is hit by the car of David and Amy. David takes Henry back to the farm and calls the doctor. By this time, Amy has revealed the rape to her husband. As they deal with that issue and the injured Henry, Tom and his thug cronies surround their farm to lynch Henry. Finally David must decide to make a stand. He refuses to give Henry over to the thugs and thus begins the harrowing climax of "Straw Dogs."
Dustin Hoffman is perfect in this film. He embues David with so much smarmy, condescending pomp that his return to the world of the living is a wonder to watch. While he redeems himself, and becomes a man, he also is to be scorned for the downfall of his woman. David and Amy were definitely not made for each other, but his condemnation of Amy at the end when she pleads with him to turn Henry over to the thugs is arrogant and cruel. He has given his wife no reason to believe that he can do battle with the forces laying siege to their farm. Amy is only trying to survive. She is an expert at that. It doesn't make her cruel, only a bit cowardly. I think she was smart, because, up to this point Barney Fife has shown more backbone than David. The most damning thing (in his wife's eyes) about his stand is that David didn't do this to defend the attack on Amy, but to protect a simple-minded killer. David trusts Henry but not his wife. A part of him believes that she probably was asking for what happened to her. David is not a man’s man. The ending is ambiguous in that you are glad that David has finally begun to return to harmony with his natural self, but he is still an arrogant prick. A note to the extremist reader who may think that I am saying the use of violence makes a man a man, you are missing the point. Sam's movies dealt with people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. David's change at the end of the film had more to do with inner change than his use of violence.
The sexy Susan George turned in the best performance of her career. She was one of the most sultry British actresses of the 60s and 70s. Mostly relegated to parts in B-movies (most notably "Crazy Mary, Dirty Larry"), she rose to the occasion and held her own against the heavyweight Hoffman. Long time Peckinpah collaborator David Warner also turns in one of his controlled and creepy performances.
Sam's next two movies starred Steve McQueen. The first was a gentle story of an aging rodeo cowboy called "Junior Bonner." Despite a great script and wonderful performances by Steve McQueen, Ida Lupino and Robert Preston, the film was a commercial failure. Audiences wanted more of "Bloody" Sam. He would give them what they wanted in his second film with Steve McQueen.
THE GETAWAY (1972)
"The Getaway" was the first Peckinpah movie I saw on the big screen. It was his biggest commercial success, and it was proof that Sam could take an ordinary action film and make it something more through rich characters. It wasn't a controversial movie, it was just great audience pleasing fun. Like Preston Sturgees said so humorously in "Sullivan's Travels" sometimes the audience just wants to be entertained. They get hit over the head by "messages" everyday in real life. How about a little escapism. Sam gave it to audiences in 1972 as Carter "Doc" McCoy (Steve McQueen) and his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) shot their way across the Southwest in search of a place they could call their own. Amidst this rousing action tale, Sam delivered his best essay on the relationship between men and women. The theory that a woman's woman will stand by a man's man also played out in real life on the set as Ali MacGraw left pretty boy producer Robert Evans for the motocross daredevil, Indy car driving, brooding Steve McQueen.
Doc is released early from a Texas penitentiary by Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson), a powerful banker, in order to pull off the robbery of a mob bank. Doc’s release was negotiated by his wife. The couple is teamed up with the psychotic Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri) and his simpleton sidekick Frank Jackson (Bo Hopkins). The robbery goes off fine until Frank kills a guard. A chase between the cops and robbers ensues with Doc and Carol in one car, Rudy and Frank in another. During the chase Rudy kills Frank (Bo Hopkins would have to wait until "The Killer Elite" to survive the opening robbery of a Peckinpah film). At the rendezvous between Doc, Carol and Rudy, Rudy attempts to kill Doc. Doc shoots him first. Doc and Carol leave to meet with Jack Beynon and split the money. Doc leaves Carol in the car and goes inside the corrupt banker's home. As the two men talk, Carol walks up behind her husband raises her gun to his head. At the last second she turns the gun on Jack and kills him instead. The rest of the film has Doc and Carol on the run from the banker's brother and his henchmen, their ex-psycho partner who was only wounded by Doc, and half the police in Texas. All the while they are trying to settle their marital troubles. Loads of fun.
Two common themes in Sam's movies are loyalty and survival. Doc and Carol must stick together to survive the forces arrayed against them. They are forced to do this even though their has been a betrayal on the part of Carol. In the sequel it was made very clear that Carol (Kim Bassinger) had sex with Jack (James Woods), and she was tempted to double cross her husband for the security that the flashy gangster could provide. In the original, the sexual betrayal is not as clear. As Doc slaps her on the side of a deserted Texas highway, Carol cries and tells Doc that anything she did was for him, that she never intended to kill Doc. Of course the tears that streamed down her face as she raised the gun to the back of Doc's head tell a different story. She loved him, but she seriously considered trading up to a more luxurious model. Love overcame greed and Carol shot the banker instead. Proving that a woman's woman will stick by a man's man. It takes Doc a while to wipe the images of unfaithfulness from his mind, but a real man can forgive choices made out of love. Unlike David and Amy in "Straw Dogs," the McCoys are made for each other. Carol can drive a getaway car or shot a pump shotgun to beat the band. She endures every hardship and challenge that Doc does and runs the same risks. They make such a nice couple!
There are several standout supporting performances. Notably Jack Dotson from Mayberry as Harold Clinton, a cuckolded Veterinarian who’s’ bimbo wife Fran (Sally Struthers, the only weak link) is seduced by the psychotic Rudy. Al Lettieri as Rudy brings his trademark menace to the film. With the exception of his performance as Virgil Solotso in "The Godfather" this is his finest work. Slim Pickens makes a great little cameo appearance at the end.
On the heels of his biggest commercial success, Sam began work on his version of the oft told story of Billy the Kid. His experience on this film would leave him an embittered man. Not since "Major Dundee" was he treated with such contempt by a studio head. The devotion of his cast and crew during the shooting is a testament to what a true artist and friend he was to those who collaborated with him. Someone ought to make a movie about SAM making the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973)
Pauline Kael wrote a glowing review of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" after seeing the only screening of the director's cut. When the film was finally released, most critics universally panned it. They did not see the same film that Ms. Kael did. Sam had it in his contract that he would have a screening of his cut of the film. MGM executives held the screening under tight security and kept the critics away. Sam snuck Ms. Kael into the projection booth where they watched it together. The unnamed producer (I refuse to soil this article with his name) who was behind the rape of this film fumed as the movie played across the screen. All of it was up there, all of the scenes which he a forbade Sam to film in a public humiliation of the director on location in Mexico. Ms. Kael was right about the movie, it was very good. It wasn't "The Wild Bunch" but it was a lyrical and poetic story. The evil MGM executive then took the film and recut it, releasing to the public the mediocre theatrical version that was a box office failure.
Sam was forced to shoot the film in Mexico using non-union labor. Almost two weeks of filming was lost because of a defect in the camera lenses. The defect wasn't discovered until the film was shipped to LA for processing the rushes. Sam was furious and told the producer that the problem could have been avoided if the producer had listened to him and filmed in America with union labor. The next day the producer flew in by helicopter and in front of cast and crew lambasted Sam. The producer took out the script and tore out numerous pages. He said not to film those scenes as they added nothing to the movie. What he left was a so-so narrative loosely tying together Sam's trademark violent action scenes. The producer had removed the character from the script. Just as quick, he hopped back in his helicopter and flew away. The cast and crew gathered around Sam and told him that they would work for free if necessary, but the film was going to be done the way Sam wanted it done. Sam filmed his movie and MGM performed a partial birth abortion on the end product. Sam went to his grave without his film being restored. Kudos to Ted Turner who finally had it put back together and released on video. It is very superior to the theatrical version. Kudos to the cast and crew who stood by Sam and worked for free for the sake of art and their gruff, gonzo director. Enough background, on to the movie.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were best friends. Pat (James Coburn) was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. As a favor to his old friend Billy (Kris Kristofferson), Pat gave Billy one weeks notice that he needed to clear out of the New Mexico territory. Billy turns down this advice. One week later, Pat comes a knocking. The rest of the movie involves Billy's capture, escape and eventual death at the hands of his old friend. There are many fine vignettes and set pieces as the movie shifts from one location to another. The film assumes that one is familiar with the legendary outlaw and the nomadic ways of the old West badmen. The film is populated by so many memorable characters, that one wishes the movie was longer so as to get to know these people better.
R.G. Armstrong is terrifying as Bob Olinger, the hard drinking Bible thumping deputy who tries to force Billy to find Jesus before his hanging. Bob keeps "ten thin dimes" in each of the barrels of his shotgun. He begs Billy to try and escape so he can "spread [him] out like a crazy woman's quilt." I don't think Bob heard the sermon where they said "God is love." Jack Elam also appears as Alamosa Bill, an old outlaw turned lawman who is forced into a unwanted confrontation with Billy. He and Billy had been friends, but Bill’s oath to do his duty prevents him from turning a blind eye and letting Billy ride away. He is a man of honor. He is also very stupid. There are fine cameos by Barry Sullivan as Chism and Elisha Cook Jr. One of the most disturbing images in the movie is the grotesquely over weight, topless Chill Wills as Lemuel, a profanity spouting bartender. He is a Jabba the Hutt type of guy without Jabba's charm. You can imagine how foul the old West must have smelled. Matt Clark, Charlie Martin Smith, a nude Rita Coolidge, Jason Robards, Richard Jaeckel, Richard Bright (Neary from The Godfather films), Luke Askew, John Beck and Harry Dean Stanton all add nice touches to this film.
My favorite scene involves Pat calling on sheriff Colin Baker (Slim Pickens) to help him flush out Harris (L.Q. Jones), a crony of Billy's. Colin is reluctant to go and his wife (Katy Jurardo) is down right insistent that he not go. Colin makes one excuse after another. He finally says he doesn't do anything unless there’s a piece of gold in it. Pat flips a $50.00 gold piece to him and calls his bluff. Mrs. Baker loads her double barreled shotgun, puts on a bandoleer and rides with her husband. The shoot-out is futile as Harris doesn't give Pat any information about Billy before he dies. The scene is most memorable for the performance of Slim Pickens and Katy Jurardo. As Pat tries to convince Colin to ride with him, Colin is working on a boat he is building. The boat symbolizes the hope for a future of relaxation on the ocean with his tough old loving wife. As the smoke from the shoot-out clears Pat sees Colin staggering toward a small stream clutching his gut. Mrs. Baker runs to her husband. She stands a few feet away as he sits on the edge of the stream. She sits near him. They smile at each other and tears stream down Mrs. Baker's face. They watch the sun set knowing that this is the only time they will look across the water together. Colin's death hits hard even though he is only in the movie for 5 minutes. It is a testament to the fine acting of Mr. Pickins and Ms. Jurardo. They have such chemistry that the audience can picture them 20 years earlier when they were young and in love. Their long life together is painted in their eyes during this brief poetic scene. Bob Dylan's ode "Knockin on Heaven's Door" plays on the soundtrack. Dylan's music adds immensely to this scene and to the rest of the movie. Unfortunately his acting is a real sore spot. Dylan plays "Alias." Alias is a small town newspaper man who leaves everything to follow Billy. The part is poorly written and seems to serve no purpose other than to draw Dylan fans to the theater.
The two leads are two sides of the same coin. Leonard Maltin complained that there was not enough difference between the two lead characters. So what. They are both outlaws with a moral compass that is always pointing to their own wants and desires. The only difference is that Pat has sold out for security. He is a little smarter than his young protégé. They are both selfish, amoral animals. Why should there be much difference between them. I enjoyed both performances. Kristofferson was born to play the part. He has the boyish charm which served Billy so well, and the dead eyes of a killer. While "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" is a flawed film, it still ranks toward the top. If you do rent this movie make sure it is the 122 minute director's cut. Avoid the 103 minute theatrical version.
Following the critical and commercial failure of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," Sam returned to Mexico to vent his anger at MGM. He made a strange little film and went crazy in the process. It has been said by people who knew Sam that if you wanted to know who Sam was just watch Warren Oates performance in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974)
For the hard-core Peckinpah fan, "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" is one of the most symbolically interesting of his movies. For the average movie-goer it is a poorly constructed mish-mash which will leave you wondering why you watched it. In "Garcia" Peckinpah tried to exorcise the ghosts of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." The story revolves around Bennie (Warren Oates), a down on his luck musician in Mexico who decides to cash in on a bounty placed on Alfredo Garcia by El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez. El Jefe is a rich Mexican crime lord who's daughter was knocked up by Garcia. Bennie finds out that Garcia is already dead and buried, but El Jefe doesn't know this. He finds the grave, digs it up and cuts off "Al's" head. With the head in a bag on the front seat beside him, Bennie sets off to collect his reward. Along the way he has a run in with a couple of Bikers led by Paco (Kris Kristofferson) who rape his woman Elita (Isela Vega). He is also hounded by two gay hitmen, Quill and Sappensly (Gig Young and Robert Webber) who want Al's head so they can collect the reward. Bennie is slowly driven crazy by the chaos that surrounds him, and the flies that surround the bag in which he keeps Al's head. Bennie has several long talks with "Al" as they drive through the Mexican dessert. It is not unlike Tom Hanks' discussions with "Wilson" in "Castaway." Eventually just about everyone in the movie gets killed. The violence and pacing is sub-par for Peckinpah.
Symbolically, look at the movie this way. Bennie the piano player is an artist. He is Sam. El Jefe the crime overlord is a business man. He is the producer of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Al's head is the vision that Sam had of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." At first it was a labor of love which would bring him fulfillment. It slowly began to stink and decay as others destroyed his work. If you rent the movie, keep this in mind as you watch it. It makes for an interesting evening. Otherwise, beware, as there is not much else to recommend it. In fact the only reason to watch it otherwise would be for the wonderful gonzo performance by Warren Oates. No one else could have pulled this off. It's ironic that one of his best performances would be in such a crazy mixed up film. Sam returned to his old self the next year with the modern day thriller The Killer Elite.
THE KILLER ELITE (1975)
Set in modern day San Francisco, "The Killer Elite" revolves around an elite team of CIA security specialists. There is a typically exciting credit sequence in which Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duval) blow up a building along with the enemy agents who are after the person they are protecting. Following their job, George shoots Mike in the knee and elbow officially retiring him. George doesn't kill Mike as they are old friends, however George has become a turn coat and doesn't want Mike coming after him. Their is a long, painful sequence in which Mike undergoes physical therapy in order to return to work. Beating the odds, Mike's hard work pays off and he is able to overcome his crippling injuries. James Caan's athletic background serves him well in this role. Sam's slow and methodical pacing in this sequence is out of sync with the rest of the film, however it works because the viewer gets to know Mike as a persistent and determined man.
Finally Mike is ready to return to work, and it turns out that he has a choice assignment. Mike is informed by his superiors Cap Collins (Arthur Hiller) and Laurence Weyburn (Gig Young) that Yuen Chung (Mako), a Chinese underground leader is arriving in San Francisco. Mike must assemble a team to protect Chung as the Communist Chinese have put a hit out on him. The icing on the cake for Mike is the fact that his old partner George is the leader of the rouge hit team. Mike enlists Mac (Burt Young), a cranky demolition’s expert and ace driver who's cover is as a cab driver and Jerome Miller (Bo Hopkins), a crazy country sniper as his backup crew. Upon his arrival at the airport, Chung and his entourage are attacked by a squad of Ninja assassins. It turns out that the ChiComs have sent a backup team. Chung's own security squad along with Mike fight off the Ninjas and are whisked away to a safe house. Chung's daughter Tommie (Tiana Alexander) proves herself to be a fierce warrior as she both fights off the assassins and puts Jerome in his place when he makes a sexist comment. The rest of the film deals with numerous attempts on Chung's life, Mike’s vendetta with George, and everything culminates in an exciting kung fu, Uzi powered climax on board the mothball fleet in San Francisco Bay.
Sam’s trademark, slow-motion action sequences are on vivid display in this film. His themes of loyalty, honor and the price of betrayal are all dealt with. Like "The Getaway" "The Killer Elite" was a non-controversial crowd pleaser. While it did not enjoy the success that "The Getaway" did it did seem that Sam had finally put the ghosts of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Behind Him." The plot of "The Killer Elite" was complex and convoluted as there are several secret government agencies playing with people’s lives. There are twists and turns coming from all directions. Sam handled this web quite well. Keeping "The Killer Elite" in mind, one wonders just what went wrong with Sam’s final movie, the Robert Ludlum spy thriller "The Osterman Weekend." Before Sam’s final film, he made two others (not counting an uncredited directing job on the forgettable "Jinxed"). "Convoy" based on the novelty CB song about truck drivers, which has never been a favorite of mine. Sam did have one last great movie left in him. In 1977 Sam made his only war movie.
CROSS OF IRON (1977)
Over-looked and under-rated, "Cross of Iron" is among Peckinpah’s best work. Dark and brutal in tone, Sam tells the story of a German unit fighting on the Russian front. Maybe it is hard for American audiences to warm up to a story where the Germans are the main characters. Maybe it is hard to keep the holocaust from popping into your mind as you watch. (Don’t get me wrong, I say never forget!) Maybe it was the fact that Sam was using the Germans to make a comment about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the reason, "Cross of Iron" did not find an audience. This is a true shame because Sam’s vision of hell on earth is one of the finest war movies ever made.
"Cross of Iron" is about character. Sergeant Steiner (James Coburn) has received the Iron Cross for courage and valor on the battle field. His new commander, Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell) is a pompous aristocrat who wants an Iron Cross. It puzzles him how a commoner like Steiner has received his nation’s highest honor while he, the blue blood has not been so honored. Steiner leads a rag tag band of dog soldiers. He is a man trapped by birth and circumstances in the worst place in the world. Steiner has no national or party loyalty. He sees those who are driven by such ideologies as a danger. They are the ones who keep sending he and his men on suicidal missions. Steiner just wants the war to be over. He is not lazy, far from it. Steiner does everything he can to insure that his men get home with him. He is a natural soldier. One of those to whom war comes easy. He is repulsed by this, but he also uses his talent to survive. The thing he hates more than his own ability to kill so easily is the deluded visions of grandeur that Captain Stransky subscribes to.
Roger Fritz portrays Triebig, a junior officer (a good nazi, if there is such a thing!) He is a degenerate who hates Steiner because he is not a good party member, and Stransky because he represents the elite class whom the Nazis can’t trust even though they use them. Except for Triebig and his adjutant/lover, the rest of the soldiers are just that, guys who want to go home. (Of course it was just this type of soldier which enabled Hitler to do what he did, but that’s a different story. See why this film had trouble finding an audience!)
The only protection Steiner has from a court-marshal by the vindictive Stransky is the respect of Colonel Brandt (James Mason) and Captain Kiesel (David Warner). These two have been in battle with Steiner, they know what kind of man he is. He is their most valuable asset. They will not let Stransky destroy Steiner out of vanity.
The film is more of a character study than anything else. There is no driving plot device other than survival. Like "Platoon" "Cross of Iron" is a study of survival amid the chaos of war. There are several exciting, large-scale battles. There is a lot of gritty hand to hand combat as Steiner leads his men on patrols into enemy territory. Several scenes stand out.
There is a tense scene of cat and mouse between Stransky, Triebig and his lover, Keppler. Stransky begins a friendly talk with the adjutant about what its like serving in the military surrounded by nothing but men. Triebig resents this because he thinks Stransky is flirting with his boyfriend. Stransky continues the charade until he has outted both soldiers and thus gained blackmail material on Triebig. Stransky has removed one threat to his becoming the king of the pond. Maximillian Schell is excellent in the role of Stransky with this scene as a standout. The subtlety and playfulness in which he draws his quarry into his trap is in sharp juxtaposition to his fierce stance once the trap is sprung.
The other standout set-piece revolves around Steiner’s men coming upon a group of female Russian soldiers. Steiner and his men engage in a fire fight with a platoon of female Russian soldiers. They quickly gain the upper hand. The men, who at first seem menacing to the women, fall prey to these enemy soldiers. The women defuse the situation by appearing to be sexually interested in the men. The leader of the Russians takes on the most volatile and aggressive of Steiner’s men. She sends looks to the others as she willfully submits to this brutality. The women know what to do. The youngest woman is told to seduce a young German who has barely reached puberty. With these two young people, Sam shows the horror of rape in a very ironic way. The young girl puts the young soldier at ease. She looks at him as if she loves him. She then clumsily thrusts a bayonet into his stomach as she covers his mouth. She sobs uncontrollably as the blade first penetrates her victim. She is overcome by the horror of the act as she watches the young man die. Sam shows what its like to be raped with both of the characters. The male is the one penetrated. He cries out in agony and dies with a bewildered look on his face. A look of betrayal. A look that has crossed the faces of many a rape victim. The female cries as she is forced to kill of be kill. She cries for her lost innocence. Another more experience Russian orally castrates one of Stiener's men as he forces her to perform fellatio on him. Steiner saves the rest of his men by leaving the castrated soldier to be tortured by the women. Ulysses saving his men from the sirens. War is hell.
"Cross of Iron" was Sam’s last great movie. He had six years left on this earth. Unlike Ted Williams, hitting a homerun at his last at bat, Sam left us with a chaotic, but muddled mess as his swansong. Considering the source material, the cast and the director, "The Osterman Weekend" should have been great. What it was, was a mess.
THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983)
I was a big fan of Robert Ludlum. As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Sam Peckinpah. I eagerly awaited the release of this movie. There was an incredible cast: Rutger Hauer, Dennis Hopper, Burt Lancaster, John Hurt, Chris Sarandon, Craig T. Nelson, Meg Foster (love her eyes), Helen Shaver and Cassie Yates. All good to great actors. Talk about a let down. Sam left us with a bad taste in our cinematic mouths. The final film is incoherent, confusing and a betrayal of the source material. Maybe he needed the money. Maybe he just didn’t have it in him anymore. He can be forgiven this final failure as he brought so many memorable characters to life is a string of great, good and average films.
Maverick director Sam Peckinpah's "The Osterman Weekend" was a sad but not unexpected end to a turbulent career and life. The drug-addicted director was given one last chance to direct by up-and-coming producers Peter Davis and William Panzer. Instead of becoming Bloody Sam's comeback film, "The Osterman Weekend" ended up as a disappointing swan song to Peckinpah's career. As misfire's go, "The Osterman Weekend" is better than most. Sadly, the few glimpses of Peckinpah's creativity as director remind the viewer how far Sam had fallen.
Based on the best selling novel by Robert Ludlum, "The Osterman Weekend" is a convoluted tale of paranoia, revenge and media manipulation. This was one book of Ludlum's that I could never get into. The film boasts one of the best casts ever assembled. It had a legendary director. What it didn't have was a coherent script. The film is proof enough that you should never begin filming without a finished script. The novel was adapted, and the script went through several rewrites by different parties. Peckinpah himself tried to whip it into shape. What is left is preposterous and at times, downright silly.
John Tanner (Rutger Hauer) is a crusading TV journalist. His specialty is interviewing men of power and decimating them on national TV. Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt) is a CIA field agent whose wife was murdered by the KGB. He uncovers a spy ring called Omega. Three Americans are selling secrets to the Soviets. The three Americans are all college friends of John Tanner. Bernie Osterman (Craig T. Nelson) is a TV writer. Richard Tremayne (Dennis Hopper) is a doctor with a coked out wife named Virginia (Helen Shaver). Joseph Cardone (Chris Sarandon) is a powerful lawyer. His wife Betty (Cassie Yates) doesn't mind the corners he cuts in order to provide the good life. Tanner and his friends have annual get-togethers to play hard. The reunions are called Ostermans in honor of the first host.
Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) is the head of the CIA. Fassett has convinced Danforth that the CIA should use Tanner to get close to his friends and possibly turn one of them. The politically ambitious Danforth agrees. Tanner is convinced and allows his home to be bugged in order to uncover the spies. Tanner's wife Ali (Meg Foster) is kept out of the loop until it is too late.
Peckinpah's best films featured complex characters. Whether the characters were dealing with violent situations (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) or not (The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner), Peckinpah was able to reveal poignant slices of life. In his violent films, Peckinpah made the viewer reexamine that violence by slowing down the images. In "The Osterman Weekend," Peckinpah is saddled with an inane script. This hamstrung Peckinpah. He tries to create interesting characters. There are two action scenes: a car chase, and the climactic nighttime shootout at Tanner's house. Both remind the viewer of Peckinpah's better days. Unfortunately, neither scene rises to the level of even "The Getaway." There are good performances throughout. John Hurt and Helen Shaver are standouts.
Sam died the next year. Before he died he directed two music videos for Julian Lennon. They were simple, gentle and poetic. Julian sitting in a studio with Sam behind the engineer’s board. The son of a man of peace who was murdered and a man who looked for the inner character of violent people. That was Sam, a wonderment and a puzzle.