Nationality: US, but lived in Mexico for much of his later life.
Years Active: 1961 - 1983 (22 years)
Feature Length Films Directed: 14
Sam Peckinpah is one the most influential and important directors of the Hollywood New Wave. He is recognised by many Film buffs as one of the most influential or even the most influential director when it comes to violence and action scenes in film.
But in my opinion he has not been getting enough recognition these days, he is gradually being forgotten and although all film buffs have heard of him and have maybe seen one or two of his more well known films (Straw Dogs or the Wild Bunch maybe...) the majority of his work seems to be ignored. He is nowhere near as famous as his contemporaries, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and even Lucas. And yet he has had an undeniable impact of film making and has influenced directors such a Martin Scorsese, Q.T., John Woo...
So I have decided to watch as many of his films as I can get my hands on and consequently write this post designed to celebrate his directional talent and the quality of his films but also to offer criticism on the downsides of his style and body of work.
Before deciding this, I wasn't entirely unfamiliar with his work but I had only seen The Wild Bunch which is perhaps his most celebrated film, as well as Cross of Iron and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.
So in this Peckinpah Marathon I'll be offering my thoughts on every single film he directed from 1961 to 1983 with the exception of any TV work or music video's:
(These aren't really proper reviews, just a few thoughts on each films)
The Deadly Companions - 1961
Definitely his most traditional Western, it was rather slow and as a whole unexciting, and despite the fact that it is a solid first film, it still doesn't hold up very well and is not worth the bother of finding it for all but die hard Peckinpah fans or those like me that are interested in seeing a whole directors filmography.
Ride The High Country - 1962
Thus in a way this can be seen as one of the first new Westerns, those that departed from the traditional and vastly overdone formula's of their predecessors and moved into something new, and that something is the Hollywood New Wave, of which Sam Peckinpah played a major part with his revising of the Western Genre.
Major Dundee - 1965
But this is also the film that sowed the seeds of Peckinpah's reputation and a terrifying and overbearing director who was continuously drunk on set.
This led to many problems with the studio and the film had an overall troubled production and post-production, indeed many cuts of the film exist, although I would recommend seeing the longest available one.
Sadly though the film bombed badly at the box office, thus gaining Peckinpah an even worse reputation.
This films has an impressive cast and is on a far larger scale than Peckinpah's previous works, I definitely think this was instrumental in changing the Western genre, it is fairly violent (although it cannot be compared to the next film, The Wild Bunch), fantastically acted by a terrific cast that includes Richard Harris, James Coburn (A Peckinpah regular and personal friend), Slim Pickens (mainly known for having ridden an atomic bomb in Dr Strangelove), Senta Berger (who married Paul Verhoeven), and two more Peckipah regulars, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson. But the star of the film is without a doubt Charlton Heston, he gives one of his finest performance, you may think what you like about his politics and private life but you can't deny he is a fantastic actor, one of the greatest leading men of Hollywood in my opinion.
The Wild Bunch - 1969
The Wild Bunch is also one of his best works, or possible even his best.
Of all his films, I think this one has the most powerful and important message and puts it across in the best possible way. Again it deals with themes Peckinpah fans will recognise, the main theme being that of the end of an age, the end of the Old West and the arrival, of industries, automatic weapons, cars, and the general end of the cowboy era.
This is in my opinion, Peckinpah's best film. It is interesting, contains a level of violence and a way of depicting violence that is revolutionary and challenging, all Peckinpah's favourite themes are present and well fleshed out. And of course it is very well shot, with some highly innovative techniques that are still used to this day.
The Balland Of Cable Hogue - 1970
I think this is one of Peckinpah's most overlooked films, and one of the most overlooked films in general. But then again, it really isn't anything particularly amazing, it is an odd blend of slapstick comedy, tragedy and romance set in the West. Although Jason Robards and Stella Stevens were good, as was the rest of the cast, the film itself was far to uneven and at times quite cheesy. It's far from tedious and is quite enjoyable at times but overall it seems unsure of itself and is ultimately one of Peckinpah's weaker works. Not a bad film, but very average that fails to leave any significant trace in film history or on Peckinpah's filmography.
Straw Dogs - 1971
This is easily one of his most famous works and is even being remade this year. It is notorious for it's rape sequence, it's portrayal of redneck Englishmen and it's violence. I found it to be terribly disappointing though, in many ways. I thought the performances were quite average, Dustin Hoffman has done much better many times, before (Midnight Cowboy) and since (Wag The Dog). I felt the rape sequence was unnecessary to the narrative as a whole and slightly to ambiguous. I thought the themes of masculinity and being forced into violence to protect one's home and wife were underdeveloped. The atmosphere was very good though, very tense and a great build up to the climatic confrontation. But it feels to close to a simple Horror film, of course a much better than average Horror film but one nonetheless. It lacked any real depth and relied mostly of it's creepy and tense atmosphere and some shock scares. That does not mean I didn't like it, I still think it's a good film, just far from the masterpiece some make it out to be. But I also do not agree with some of the films detractors, most notably Roger Ebert, for this is far from being one of Peckinpah's worst films.
Junior Bonner - 1972
It's a slow film, with little action yet it is a very good film. Telling the simple story of a rodeo rider, who returns to ride in his home town and to confront a bull who threw him violently last rodeo. It's mainly a character study of Junior Bonner, who at first seems uninteresting and shallow but who the viewer will surely grow to like towards the end.
Films like these, with excellent narrative progression and character arcs are rare today, which is another reason to appreciate this one all the more.
The techniques used mirror the films content, they are simple but never tedious or boring. This is definitely one of Peckinpah's best, and was apparently his personal favourite, which just goes to show he could direct a film with little violence and a moving story, which hadn't been an obvious fact before he made this film.
The Getaway - 1972
It is very dated and has some rather strange elements, such as the thug who takes a couple hostage and ends up having an affair with the wife.
But Steve McQueen was very good, and his character was most interesting and to be honest, very refreshing. I liked seeing a male lead in an action film, that was at times vulnerable and sensitive but without becoming all morally ambiguous. He was the hero and that was it, he wasn't always particularly admirable in his conduct, but you rooted for him right through the film, there were no silly twists or morality issues.
Well, as I said, it's an entertaining action films, not one of Peckinpah's most thought provoking but still good fun, especially if like me you enjoy these kind of "couple on the run" type films.
Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid - 1973
This film has received quite a lot of criticism, and while I think some of it is well deserved, on the whole I think this is a good film. The main problem is the pacing and narrative structure, it is all over the place and very uneven. but this was due to the constant conflicts between Peckinpah and the studio's which led to this film being released in several different forms (like Major Dundee) and ultimately not being successful.
I don't really understand why though, even if it's messy and not as Peckinpah intended it, one can't deny that James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson are very good, Bob Dylan's music is excellent particularly well suited to the film, story was interesting as well as being entertaining. Just because the films is rather poorly put together does not mean the scenes of themselves are bad though, in fact there are quite a few really excellent scenes that have stayed in my mind since seeing this film. Despite it's flaws I think this is one of Peckinpah's best.
Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia - 1974
This is a view I share, I believe this film to be one of Peckinpah's absolute best, it is very depressing yet it's nihilism mixed with elements of the darkest kind of comedy and some bloody violence make this a captivating film.
Peckinpah was well known for disregarding any sort of Hollywood conventions and any sort of expectations the audience may have had based on these conventions. Yet this is surely his most shocking adn disrespectful film, in a good way though of course, it's nihilism is a welcome change from Hollywood's happy endings and Warren Oates's portrayal of the main character is very different from the usual Hollywood hero's.
The Killer Elite - 1975
James Caan stars in the lead role and is unconvincing to say the least. The rest of the cast are just as unremarkable. The script is incredibly bland, it's rare that I see a film that completely fails to spark my interest, even in the slightest.
The direction was rather stale and very disappointing, basically there was little indication that the man behind such films as The Wild Bunch and Major Dundee was directing this, it could have been any second rate B-movie director.
Cross Of Iron - 1977
I enjoyed many things about this film, but was ultimately let down by the final result, the choice to make the film more of an internal conflict between German soldiers wasn't a good one in my opinion. It took away from the fact that this was one of the only films to focus of the Germans, and I would have much preferred a straightforward War film dealing with the Eastern Front.
Convoy - 1978
It's a fun but very cheesy film, that doesn't even try to be a great film or even a particularly good one, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
It's one of those films where stuff is trashed, cars crash and things blow up with little or no consequences and basically just for the viewers enjoyment, and it succeeds in that.
Yet it is not all cheesy B-movie quality, Kris Kristofferson gives a good performance and Ernst Borgnine is great as the villainous sheriff. Ali Larter was pretty bad though.
The main problem I had with the film, was the obvious glorification of the truckers and their way of life, the kind of "open road" culture the US seems to love, but which I find quite puzzling.
It had some good elements, such as the representation of the corrupt police and the officials, as well as the race issues.But these felt slightly out of place in what was mainly a stupid yet entertaining film filled with fist fights, shirtless men, big trucks and car crashes.
The Osterman Weekend - 1983
It's good cast, comprised of such great actors as John Hurt, Burt Lancaster and Dennis Hopper was enough to keep me interested and to be honest, they really elevated the source material. Rutger Hauer was also pretty convincing but far from remarkable.
The main problem was the script, it contained nothing to elevate it from the many similar thriller of the 80's. Sam Peckinpah's influence is also barely noticeable, of course the violence is distinctively shot, with great us of slow motion, but overall his presence is sorely missed, for maybe it could have saved this film from being so average and run of the mill.
There is not much to mention about this film as it is very uninteresting, the twists are not affecting in the slightest and the emotional scenes just feel out of place. In the end of the day, this is a typical Hollywood Thriller of it's time, which is a sad way to end such a rebellious and independent career.
As I worked my way through these films I decided that, despite the bad films, it is useful and often very insightful to watch a directors complete filmography, one can really see how there style and techniques evolved over time and how their work got better or worse at different parts of their career.
Peckinpah was born in 1925, in Fresno California. He joined the Marine Corps during the War and was sent to China, were he reportedly witnessed acts of violence which had a profound effect on him. Upon returning to the US he started his career in Cinema, doing various jobs here and here before directing his first film in 1961.
During his ensuing career that spanned 22 years, he developed a reputation for being one of the most difficult directors to work with in Hollywood, his manic depressive frame of mind, his alcohol problem, his violent outbursts, his self exile to Mexico, all these caused significant problems with the studios and producers he worked with, often resulting in his films being either put together in a way unsatisfactory for him, as is the case of Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, or co-directed unofficially by some one else due to Peckinpah's inefficiency, such as Major Dundee, which Charlotn Heston claims to have had a part in directing, and The Osterman Weekend, which James Coburn has to finish directing due to Peckinpah's declining health.
Ultimately these constant clashes couldn't have had a positive effect on Peckinpah's career, as he eventually became forgotten and ended up directed mediocre films which made little money, nor on his personal life or health, as he died at the age of 59, worn out by years of alcoholism and cocaine taking and work induced stress.
Now I'll write a bit about the main aspects and themes of Peckinpah's work:
I'll try and keep out any possible spoilers, but feel free not to read my ramblings, I mainly write these for myself, to help me understand this directors work, I find writing a post like this helps.
Sam Peckinpah is mostly famous for his violence in films which could be said to have revolutionised the way violence was portrayed in Hollywood film.
"Bloody Sam" was his nickname, and when speaking about him the topic of the violence in his films will invariably come up at some point for that is what he his most remembered for. Breaking the taboo's in Hollywood about bloody violence or realistic violence, if you prefer.
Yet the reasons for this brutal portrayal of violence are often forgotten, and despite his notorious temperament brought on my his various alcoholic excesses he was hardly a bloodhound baying for gore.
He has stated many times in various interviews that his aim was to bring a touch of reality to violence which before his arrival had been very unrealistic, all throughout the 50's and early 60's. He wanted to show what it was really like when someone got shot and how horrific it was, sadly though the public misunderstood him and this lead to a sort of glorification of the violence portrayed in the films, which was the very opposite of what he had intended.
So his portrayal of violence meant to horrify and repel the viewer and disperse and misconceptions about violence people may have had from watching earlier films, backfired and ended up being seen as glorified violence and became the main selling point of his films.
But I think he should be remember for so much more, for after all it would be insulting to say that his greatest achievement was portraying violent acts. One must give credit to his unique directional approach and his ability to craft some truly powerful scenes.
For example, I think he was one of the best directors to capture male friendship and camaraderie in his films. Of course many have called his work "macho" and while this is true to some extent due to the lack of important female roles in many of his films, I still think he portrayed his male characters in a different light other so called macho characters, take Steve McQueen's characer in The Getaway for example, he is not "hard" enough to remain in prison, he breaks down and admits he can't take it any more, thus he is freed on some conditions that will set the plot for the rest of the film.
While he did a great job depicting male friendship, he also dealt with betrayal quite often, in fact it is present in practically all of his films in varying degrees. Often the main character will be confronted with a former friend/partner/accomplice/colleague/employer and this will form the core of the film, the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist is often complex and based of past friendships broken by money or changes of allegiance, such is the case in Ride The High Country, Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch in which it forms a most important of the films story. It also forms a large part of The Killer Elite, The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, The Osterman Weekend, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Cross of Iron and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. So you can see it is one of the most widely present aspects of Peckinpah's work.
But with this theme of betrayal often comes the theme of revenge, this leads the violence he is most known for and also allows for some interesting reflections on the nature of revenge.
I've mentioned the male characters he created but sadly there is little to say about his female characters, they are often poorly written and feel like an afterthought, of course there presence is necessary, for masculinity could not exist without femininity and thus he could not properly portray the former without also including the latter, but his female characters are often there only as plot points or as a companion for the main male character. Some of his films include no important female characters at all such as The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Some such as The Getaway, The Ballad Of Cable Hogue and Ride The High Country, but they do little apart from being the love interests. All the action and basically all the attention is left to the male. Peckinpah has them shoot a gun occasionally but the fashion in which they do it generally comes off as silly.
This lack of interesting female characters is surely one of Peckinpah's films biggest flaws, but then again, maybe it's just something he couldn't write and he knew it, after all it's better to have underdeveloped and relatively unimportant feminine characters because of the directors unfamiliarity with that aspect then to have a director make a complete mess trying to "empower" his female characters and end up making them look ridiculous dressed in revealing clothes, fighting many villains expertly with massive weapons despite their obvious small build and lack of brute strength, this is far from empowering for these female characters and often it would be better just left alone, a recent culprit of this would reportedly be Sucker Punch, a film which I haven't seen but has been almost universally criticised and contains the exact type of female characters I was mentioning.
Anyway, on to some of the other aspects I've noticed about this directors career.
Death is ever present in his films, especially the unpredictable nature of Death. It is not a dignified Death either, it is pitiful, often pointless and always gritty. This nihilism is not always to found in his films, for example, in Convoy not one person dies and it ends happily for all involved. But then we have Bring Me The Head of Alredo Garcia, in which everyone, and I mean literally every character dies by the end of the film.
I've mentioned that I find this quite admirable, although not always pleasant to watch, but I'm glad he portrayed violence the way he did, in way it was better than hiscontemporary, fellow Western reviosionist Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone.
Leone's films are of course excellent, but his depictions of violence are generally very stylised and bloodless. He also has a more romantic version of the West than Peckinpah, with his heroes being able to shoot perfectly, accomplishing superhuman feats of precision with a crappy revolver. They are both great directors, but I think Peckinpah was better in his portrayal of violence.
He also raised several moral issues in a few of his films, sometimes more efficiently than others, but he often questions the viewers beliefs when it comes to violence and who "deserves" to die in the film and who doesn't. His films are far from being easy and entertainign viewing experiences, they are often challenging and sometimes disturbing. Straw Dogs in particular, causes the viewer to question the justification of the violence, is Hoffman's character really in the right when he takes up arms against' these men invading his home, doesn't that lower himself down to their level, wasn't that the only course of action remaining to him?
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia raises many interesting questions as well, but most of them are rendered meaningless by the films strong nihilism. Peckinpah seems to say, there is no point trying to understand violence, we live in a violent and depressing world and that is just a part of life, not to be comprehended nor ignored but accepted and understood. Of course his way of going about saying such things is overly dramatic and depressing, but I'm not complaining, I enjoyed the aforementioned film greatly.
Like any directors with long running careers, he often used the same actors, I like it when a director does this as it adds a sense of continuity to his work and we get to see the actors age and change throughout the films. Notable examples of this would be James Coburn, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens, who appeared in many of his films in supporting roles. He also worked with leading actors (and actresses for that matter) such as Steve McQueen, Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw twice over his career.
I think he popularised the use of slow motion is action scenes, he also was a deft editor, I particularly enjoy his rapid cut death sequences which he is famous for.
But he wasn't only skilled at filming action scenes, he could also capture landscapes beautifully, and he was a competent director of dialogue, this makes his films excellent, not just in the action scenes, but in what comes between as well.
I also admire the keen eye he had for recreating the settings of his films, particularly his Westerns, the locations are always very dirty and shabby, and his character sweaty and unkempt. This I think, revolutionised Westerns just as much as his take on violence.
Ultimately, Sam Peckinpah is one of the US's best directors, his influence on Cinema is so massive and widespread that I could not begin to describe it. He acheived a rare combination of artistic elements and action orientated stories, his films were certainly avant garde and a few of them are still shocking today and will probably remain shocking forever. He is one of my favourite directors for many of the reasons I've stated above even if he has directed some bad films and even if his great films have all been slightly flawed.
Yet his reputation has often overshadowed the quality of his films, many of which have become forgotten classics.
I would urge you to seek out some of the films mentioned in this post, maybe not all though, and watch them.
If I had to rank his films in order of my personal preference it would look something like this:
- The Wild Bunch
- Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia
- Major Dundee
- Junior Bonner
- The Getaway
- Pat Garret and Billy The Kid
- Ride The High Country
- Straw Dogs
- Cross of Iron
- The Ballad Of Cable Hogue
- The Deadly Companions
- The Osterman Weekend
- The Killer Elite
Don't hesitate to post any thoughts you might have on this subject in the comments!
This was a pretty tough post to put together, it took me about a month to watch all his work and write this post, I don't think I'll be doing a director orientated post for a while now, but the next couple of posts will deal with Westerns though!