Tuesday, March 24

The Directors: Sam Peckinpah

If you are one who hates violence on the screen, here is the man to whom you could direct some of your ire.  He wouldn't have cared what you thought and if given the chance, most likely would have told you so to your face.  He didn't much care what Hollywood thought either, except for those few times when he needed to eat and all the beer bottles had already been turned in.

Sam Peckinpah, or Bloody Sam as he was known, could be called irascible or we could dig deeper and simply call him an evil bastard.  Just know that Steve McQueen found him to be a challenge... that's saying a lot.  Studio moguls hated him because he rarely brought films in on time or budget, he fought with and often hung up the phone on the mogul who was exhaustively trying to bring him in line.  He could be the first to tell folks they were right on their assessments of him but they missed the point if they thought he cared.  Of course, he was often drunk or on drugs which was a lot easier than breathing in the criticism.  His vision of film-making would have eventually arrived on the scene through somebody else one day, but I will certainly dub Peckinpah the Father of Screen Violence.

I seem to know many people who are down on violence but I cannot count myself among them.  That's not to say I look forward to seeing it but I don't run from it either.  I will admit that seeing heads chopped off and rolling across the floor is not my favorite.  Any day I prefer attractive young people singing and dancing in the streets.  But when violence is called for, I want it.  Peckinpah has said that he got into the violence game, particularly in westerns, because he didn't like the candy-ass way they had been done before.  Yeah, me, too, Mr. P.   We know I love my films from the 1940s and 1950s but they certainly didn't have the flavor (read realism) that would come to them with Peckinpah at the reins.  I have never particularly been into gratuitous violence.  Admittedly Peckinpah has dabbled in that but I stand up to say I have been riveted by the opera of violence, the balletically-choreographed action sequences in some of his work.

He was born in Fresno, California, in 1925 but spent much time on his grandfather's ranch where he developed his love for anything and everything that involved cowboys in the Old West.  It has also been said that a stint in the Marines while stationed in China gave birth to his fascination with violence.  After the military he returned to Fresno and attended college studying history.  He met his first wife there who was a drama student and is responsible for Peckinpah's interest in film-making.

He began directing in college and in local theater while working toward his master's degree.  While working as a stagehand in local L.A. television, he began his reputation as being difficult.  Part of his interest in being a director is that he wanted to be the one to tell people what to do, not the other way around.  While this is true of most directors, Bloody Sam definitely took it to another level. 

In 1954 he started work as a dialogue coach and occasional writer for director Don Siegel.  A teleplay he wrote became the popular series The Rifleman with Chuck Connors.  He did a number of projects before graduating to movies in 1961 with an offbeat western, The Deadly Companions with Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith.  Peckinpah got into serious battling with the producer who was O'Hara's brother.  The film was not a success.

The following year he made a wonderful western, Ride the High Country, about two old-timers, former partners, who, while transporting a gold shipment, have a difference of opinion on whose hands the gold will be handled.  Legendary western stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were the leads.

While Peckinpah was lauded for this fine film, there was much whispering about how difficult he was.  His drinking and drug use had been the talk on film sets and the party circuit and many thought he was mentally ill.  It's surprising that he was able to continue working in films with this kind of reputation, especially given that he was just starting out in movie directing.

Three years later he made Major Dundee, a violent western that turned out to be more violent behind the scenes.  It was the story of a Union cavalry officer who gathers a group of Confederate prisoners to join him on a scouting expedition to find Apaches who stole some white children.  Star Charlton Heston had asked for Peckinpah to direct but soon regretted it as all they did was argue about everything.  (Heston also had a highly-publicized battle with costar Richard Harris.)  Peckinpah tended to terrorize his actors into giving highly-charged performances.  He also battled with the studio who wound up taking away editing privileges from the director and the released film was a mess.  On this film be began working with four character actors who would work for him in a number of films, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, R. G. Armstrong and L. Q. Jones.

His reputation was damaged further because of the Dundee mess but not as badly as with his next film, The Cincinnati Kid.  He worked only a few weeks when he was fired.  It was said his version was far different from what the producer imagined.  Norman Jewison replaced him and the Steve McQueen film was a big success.

In 1969 he made what many consider to be one of the finest westerns ever made and certainly the signature Peckinpah film, The Wild Bunch.  It was an orgy of violence, doing for the western what Bonnie and Clyde had done a couple of years earlier for the gangster film.  In some circles I'll bet they're still talking about the opening sequence featuring the bad guys in the street after a botched robbery attempt and the good guys shooting at them from rooftops.  Trying unsuccessfully to avoid the melee were the Temperance League marching down the street, children and scores of townsfolk.  (No horses were harmed during the making of this motion picture.  Oh, I'm sure.)  If this weren't enough, when the blood splattered or bullets pierced faces or horses trampled women, it was often done in slow-motion so you didn't miss a single gasping moment.  I loved it.  Please don't think less of me... I'm still your charming, ever-friendly blogger who occasionally has bouts of being adorable.  Remember, lest you judge me harshly, I did just see friggin' CinderellaThe Wild Bunch made Peckinpah an international sensation.  The American Film Institute would go on to list it as number 80 of America's 100 greatest films.

With William Holden on "The Wild Bunch"

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) was a little, too-quirky western with Jason Robards and Stella Stevens that was beautifully photographed but had little else to offer.  Peckinpah was greatly disappointed with its reception and at least at the time called it his favorite film.

The savagery displayed in 1971s Straw Dogs about a Casper Milquetoast mathematician and his wife being held captive in their house was gross... what can I say?  Like its director, the film went too far.  A rape scene left audiences running for their cars, critics claiming that Peckinpah was a male chauvinist of the first order and studio heads trying to forget what they'd allowed.

He fought like a madman with another certified crazy, Steve McQueen, in two 1972 flicks, Junior Bonner and The Getaway, neither of which was highly lauded by the critics, although the public couldn't be accused of staying away from the latter.  It was so rough on Peckinpah during the making of The Getaway that his drinking increased noticeably.  He had his own getaway when he went to Mexico and married his second wife.  After four months and some publicized abuse of her, she divorced him.

Peckinpah was certain that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) was going to be the definitive western while he attempted to demythologize the outlaw's legend.  It was all well-intentioned except that there was some serious miscasting with Kris Kristofferson as Billy and Bob Dylan appeared in a foolish cameo.  The director and the studio began serious fussing over the dailies and the costs including overtime.  They released a version that so appalled Peckinpah that he virtually disowned it.  Years later for video release some parts were restored and the film was re-evaluated as a minor western classic.

In 1974 Peckinpah elevated Warren Oates to star status in the western, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  It is an ultra-violent look at a remorseless bounty hunter... really, a thinly-disguised Peckinpah... a drunk, a misogynist, violent, uncaring.  It was dismissed by the public and critics alike but years later, after directors such as Tarantino and Scorsese praised it, now it seems to have attained some sort of weird cult status.  I quite disliked it.

His last four films (he only made 14) didn't fare too well.  They were The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977), Convoy (1978) and The Osterman Weekend (1983).  Maybe you saw one or more on television.  It seems few paid for tickets. 

His self-destructive streak was bound to catch up with him.  He was a major alcoholic and a druggie who would listen to no one.  The more people carped at him, the more he dug in.  He eviscerated so many, fired members of his crews and got down in the mud with more than a few of his actors that eventually Hollywood completely dried up on him.  As a fan of westerns, I think he made two of the very finest, Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, and I am beholden.

Peckinpah was returning from Mexico in 1984 when he died of a heart attack.  He was only 59 years old.

A good 60s movie

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