Sam Peckinpah

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by e-mailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek Obsession: Sam Peckinpah

Why It’s Daunting: Sam Peckinpah was, in many ways, the prototype of what would later become known as a cult filmmaker. For a brief moment, it looked like he might become one of the greats, one of the vaunted maverick directors of the ’70s; but his difficult personality, disastrous personal life, legendary drug problems, and reputation for being hard to work with began to overshadow his prodigious skills as a filmmaker. His battles with studios over the ultimate form his movies should take—he maintained that only one of his movies had ever been released the way he intended—resulted in a muddle of botched releases, shortened theatrical runs, and sporadic post-theatrical availability. (The last of his major films wasn’t released on DVD until 2006, a nearly unheard-of delay for a director of his magnitude.)

So many of his movies were unavailable for so long in the U.S. that his reputation began to suffer an unfair decline. Critics had always been deeply divided over Peckinpah. While the consensus held that he made at least one indisputable masterpiece in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, many of his other movies didn’t inspire anything like a critical consensus. Pauline Kael famously called his controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs “a fascist work of art” (in a review that was, curiously, a rave). Though 1974’s Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia is now considered one of his better works, most contemporary critics judged it an utter disaster. While his films did mixed business at the box office, their widespread unavailability for much of the 1990s and 2000s meant that an entire generation of viewers knew little about Peckinpah beyond The Wild Bunch, his difficult reputation, and the hilarious “Salad Days” parody of his films in Monty Python’s Flying Circus that played off his reputation for then-extreme violence.

Peckinpah died a few months shy of his 60th birthday in 1984, succumbing to a heart attack exacerbated by his drinking and drug use. His death left him unable to defend himself against his critics, detractors, and biographers, but he showed little interest in doing so while he was alive. Nonetheless, he proved to be a fascinating figure to cinephiles. Thousands of pages have been written about him in the years since his death, many as concerned with his colorfully foul language, affairs, and hard-assed character as with anything he ever put on screen.

Possible Gateway: The Wild Bunch 

Why: Going with the consensus choice for a director’s best work isn’t always the right gateway, but in Sam Peckinpah’s case, there really is no better way to begin an appreciation for one of Hollywood’s most irascible and underrated directors. Part manifesto, part statement of purpose, part blockbuster, part independent film, and 100 percent savagely brilliant filmmaking, this 1969 Western is Peckinpah’s purest cinematic expression. From its casting to its structure to its camerawork, and from its philosophical worldview to its depiction of and attitude towards violence, it’s the quintessential Peckinpah movie. 

Peckinpah didn’t invent the revisionist Western, but he did give the world the best possible example of it with The Wild Bunch. The story is simplicity itself: an aging gang of Wild West outlaws (led by a laconic William Holden, and including the canny Ernest Borgnine, the wild brothers Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, and the hotheaded Jaime Sánchez) look to pull off one last big score south of the border, while being pursued by Holden’s ex-partner Robert Ryan, now a hired goon for a railroad. But The Wild Bunch is far more than that: It’s about the decline of the West, not only as a real part of American history, but as a cinematic setting. It’s about loyalty and who has a claim on it. It’s about principle and whether it should dictate one’s behavior. It’s about violence as a weapon of the poor, a tool of the rich, and an element of disruption in the lives of everyone it touches. It’s about war (both generally and specifically, as it was meant at least partially as a Vietnam allegory and still functions as an indictment of political terror), about age, and—perhaps most important to Peckinpah as a man and as a filmmaker—it’s about how people have to adapt to change, or change will brutally cut them down and leave them behind.

Working with a set of great actors, some of whom give the performances of a lifetime—Oates and Borgnine, in particular, have never been better—and giving them a great script from which to work, Peckinpah also never made a more visually striking film. He was always a director with a finely honed visual sensibility, but here, his use of multiple angles—many of which were constructed to draw the viewer even closer into the bloody mayhem, thus making it realer, more immediate, and impactful—as well as his use of extreme close-ups and innovative slow-motion tracking make it a true testament to his skill as a director. Thrilling, funny, beautifully constructed, well-acted, and containing meaning in layer after layer, The Wild Bunch isn’t just the greatest of all revisionist Westerns, it’s one of the great films of all time. If it doesn’t make you want more of Sam Peckinpah, nothing will.

Next Steps: As the old cliché has it, you have to know the rules before you can break the rules, and a good next step is visiting the more conventional Westerns that Sam Peckinpah made before exploding the genre with The Wild Bunch. His second film, 1962’s Ride The High Country, is a great place to start, a tragic story of betrayal, guilt, and redemption in a remote mining town. Buoyed by solid performances from Joel McCrea, L.Q. Jones, and Western icon Randolph Scott, Ride The High Country is also marked by Peckinpah’s tremendously confident direction, and is regarded by many critics as his best film after The Wild Bunch. 1970’s The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, released soon after The Wild Bunch, is in many ways its opposite: a small, quiet film with a poetic feel, a light, funny touch, and little violence. It’s proof of Peckinpah’s flexibility and versatility, and, with Wild Bunch and High Country, makes a trio of three of the greatest latter-day westerns. 

Other worthwhile Peckinpah efforts in the Western genre include 1973’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (another film widely reviled on its first release, but now celebrated by a new generation of critics) and 1965’s Civil War epic Major Dundee. Both have significant flaws. Pat Garrett has structural problems, and the non-director’s cut is sometimes incomprehensible. Major Dundee found the director feuding with his cast, and it frequently shows on screen. But they’re still key elements in the development of one of the genre’s greatest practitioners.

Peckinpah’s non-Western work is usually thought of as lesser material, which isn’t entirely fair. Straw Dogs, the polarizing 1971 film about a mild-mannered American professor (Dustin Hoffman) driven to a vengeful rage after the rape of his wife, is morally ugly by design, and few viewers will come away from it without strong reactions. But it’s a masterfully constructed film, tightly plotted and visually challenging. Its reputation for sexism and brutality are hard to dispute, but the debates it sparks are also a key reason why it shouldn’t be missed. Similarly, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, a hallucinatory crime drama with elements of black humor, is electrifying both for its qualities as a film—it features some shocking use of visual design and color, and another fantastic Warren Oates performance—and the way it divides audiences. Some critics, and a surprising number of filmmakers, cite it as one of his best, while others mark it as a total disaster. But it’s a singular work with qualities that reward close viewing, and further evidence that Peckinpah was more than a skilled genre director. 

The rodeo drama Junior Bonner and the World War II film Cross Of Iron are unusual entries in Peckinpah’s filmography, but they’re worthwhile, especially the latter. The final film Peckinpah directed, the 1983 spy thriller The Osterman Weekend, is still largely considered a failure, but it contains enough of his signature strengths—balletic violence, betrayal and paranoia, and friendship tried in the fires of crisis—to make it due for a reassessment. It’s not a great film, but calling it a failure means overlooking its many virtues. 

After going through his movies, newly minted Peckinpah fans might want to dip into one of the many biographies of the man. He truly was one of Hollywood’s most memorable characters, and reading about him is as enjoyable as seeing one of his movies Marshall Fine’s Bloody Sam warrants special consideration.

Where Not To Start: Not all of Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns are essential. His directorial debut, 1961’s The Deadly Companions, is pretty forgettable; Noon Wine, made in 1966 for ABC Television, has an excellent reputation, but has never seen any kind of video release, and can only been seen at the Library Of Congress or the Museum Of Broadcasting. The Getaway, a 1972 heist film, is based on a well-known Jim Thompson novel and features a lively Walter Hill script, but Peckinpah made it with little personal involvement as a career move, and while it has its high points, it’s not nearly as good as it should be. Released in 1975, The Killer Elite was made at the height of Peckinpah’s drug mania, and really is the incoherent mess that The Osterman Weekend is often claimed to be. Although it made more money than anything else he’d ever done, 1978’s Convoy was plagued with production problems and made worse by Peckinpah’s personal disintegration. It ended up as a big, expensive mess, though one that happened to catch the public imagination at the time. Even Peckinpah’s lesser films have elements of beauty and power in them, but it’s hard to watch them without wondering what he might have accomplished if he hadn’t self-destructed.