A Few Words About Sam
by Tommy Burton

Bloody Sam.  Sam Peckinpah.  The Hemingway of film directors.  Many things have been said and discussed about the work of this American original.  His body of work has been analyzed and picked over by most anyone who has ever studied cinema.  I really don’t want to add to the crazy stories or to pick anything apart any more or less than has been done.  I would, however, like to provide a starting point for the Peckinpah novice.  So, you’ve seen The Wild Bunch and thought it was cool?  Well, here’s a little rundown of the Peckinpah films I’ve seen and what I think about each one.

1.       Ride The High Country (1962)—Sam was known for his work on Westerns.  He toiled as a writer and director of television shows such as Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and The Westerner.  He’d made his feature debut with a film called The Deadly Companions.  That film was more or less the producer’s work.  The real Peckinpah makes his film debut with Ride The High Country.  This is his Paths of Glory.  It’s a small film, but one with significant grace and beauty.  The film is about two aging cowboys doing one last job before they retire.  This is a theme that Sam was known to explore in many of his later films: men out of time.  Ride The High Country is an elegant film that is pleasant and pretty to look at, something that could be said of his later work. 

2.       Major Dundee (1965)—If Ride The High Country is Peckinpah’s Paths of Glory, then Major Dundee is certainly his Spartacus.  The earlier film garnered Sam enough respect and pull in the film industry that he was asked to helm a big budgeted, major starring (Charlton Heston) Hollywood film.  The results are pretty varied.  What we get is a filmmaker reaching for the stars and only getting to the sky.  The film is now available in a more complete and reedited version, which is certainly superior to the original, but the results are still a little sloppy and the film never quite delivers its full potential.

3.       The Wild Bunch (1969)—Sam goes to Mexico with William Holden, Earnest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and a cast of others to make what is now known as his masterpiece.  It may be his masterpiece as it is the most fully realized and delivers all the right punches of a truly classic film.  The movie is now cited as an early influence on later contemporary work by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. The movie is violent and it’s a sure enough shoot-em-up right from the bloody gun fight at the very beginning of the movie.  The thing that’s considered so remarkable about this film is that the violence is slow motion and almost made more confrontational than previous Westerns.  It’s an amazing work and certainly the best place to start exploring Peckinpah.  A film that actually lives up to its hype. 

4.       The Ballad Of Cable Hogue (1970)—With the success of The Wild Bunch, Sam was awarded more creative freedom and control over his pictures.  If The Wild Bunch was a bloody, violent gunfight, then Cable Hogue is its polar opposite.  Maybe Sam was trying to keep audiences second-guessing with this offering of down-home gentle humor.  Cable Hogue is a lyrical film with rich characters played by Jason Robards and Stella Stevens.  It’s a romantic, light work that manages to evoke a strong sense of home with the viewer.  For those that only know Sam Peckinpah as a woman-hating master of violence, take a look at this beautiful work and rethink your stance.

5.       Straw Dogs (1971)—In discussing the work of Peckinpah, everything seems to come down to two films, The Wild Bunch or Straw DogsStraw Dogs is unlike anything Sam had done.  I suppose this has something to do with the fact that it is set in rural England as opposed to the Old West.  The themes are certainly similar in that the films are both violent and they both have to do with honor and dignity.  Dustin Hoffman plays a pacifist who is faced with defending his home against some local hooligans.  It’s an unrelenting piece and certainly designed to make one think.  I personally think that a film like Cable Hogue plays better as a double feature with The Wild Bunch, but if Bloody Sam is your forte, this will certainly put you over the edge.  Straw Dogs is Sam’s exception to all of his other work. 

6.       Junior Bonner (1972)Sam followed a brilliant work of violent art with another elegiac story of an old rodeo cowboy coming home.  Steve McQueen is perfect as Sam’s leading man and it’s a little sad to note that they only got to do two films together.  This is a quiet, family tale void of all the violence that Sam was known for by this time.  Of course, the film was pretty much ignored upon release and Sam was known for saying that people complained of the violence in his movies, but when it was absent, no one came to see them.  It may be true, but time has been kind to Junior Bonner and people have come to respect the film’s legacy.

7.       The Getaway (1972)—Sam brings us back to action with this film about a couple pulling a bank robbery.  Steve McQueen is at his best with Ali McGraw playing the perfect female counterpoint.  The couple leaves a bloody trail in their wake as they make their escape.  This film is certainly a precursor to the great action films of the 70s and 80s.  It’s no wonder that it was even remade in the early 90s. 

8.       Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973)—Pat Garrett is one of those films that baffled viewers upon its initial release.  It’s an old tale of director/auteur versus the big studio.  The studio may have won, but Sam has the last laugh as this film has been revisited, reedited, and reevaluated since its initial release.  Time has been kind to this film.  It’s almost a buddy film.  Billy Bob Thorton has said that he preferred this to The Wild Bunch as it is unlike any other Western before, whereas The Wild Bunch is more conventional.  This is Sam’s rock and roll movie starring Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, and a great soundtrack by Bob Dylan.  Sure, Dylan’s role in the film may be ineffectual, but Bob Dylan stabs a dude with a knife.  This is a misunderstood work that holds up very well with each viewing.  While some of the scenes may not be as realized as the scenes are in The Wild Bunch, the film is still a giant in Peckinpah’s work.

9.       Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974)—This is where Sam just gets downright weird.  From the casting of longtime costar Warren Oates in a rare leading role, this film defies any and all logic previously set by Sam.  It’s at once a horror film, an action film, a Western, a comedy, and a revenge film.  It merely needs to be seen to be believed.  This film is always a little hard to stomach.  There’s just something about it that’s never quite right.  It may well be the last truly brilliant work by a great director. 

10.   The Killer Elite (1975)—This is where we begin the slippery slope.  Either Sam was too high or too drunk to fight any more with the studios.  This is a rather typical action film that only shadows of the former glory of Peckinpah’s greatness.  It’s an okay film, but one expects more.  Plus, it’s got some ninjas.

11.   Cross Of Iron (1977)—I haven’t seen it, but would love to.

12.   Convoy (1978)—This is a flawed but very commercial film about truckers riding across country from the law.  It has some worthy moments, but not enough to sustain any real interest.  It’s cool to see some the old Peckinpah regulars like Kristofferson and McGraw. 

13.   The Osterman Weekend (1983)—What a shame such a fine filmmaker had to leave us on such a convoluted note.  If you can weave through the complex plot of this dated work, you’re left with a limp story and varied mess.  One longs for the gritty and dusty West of Sam’s older work. 

14.   “Too Late For Goodbyes”—Sam Peckinpah directed the video by Julian Lennon.  Just thought I’d point it out.

Copyright 7 Jun 2008 We Like Media
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