Sam Peckinpah – The Nihilistic Poet.
In 1969, a movie called ‘The Wild Bunch’ was released. Adapted from a novel by Walon Green, the movie tells a dramatic story of a group outlaws in 1913 when the famous or notorious – depending on which side of the field glasses one was looking through – Pancho villa was fighting in Mexico. This film was not just yet another he-went-that-way-and-meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch-type western.
Violence – stark, blood-red violence permeates the movie. ‘The Wild Bunch’ shoot to kill and kill violently. Blood – red and warm, sticky and human, splashes all over on the dirty earth, grimy floor boards and age-old walls. Bits of human brain, bloody grey, fly in all directions from the shot man’s head and sticks to walls in modern arty compositions!
Too sickening? Blood curdling! But that’s violence, part of life where might is right and the one who is quick on the draw survives to wake to the dawn of another day.
And all that violence is shown in slow motion. The moment of death impersonally forces the man in the movie theatre to a ‘sensate experience, in all its grotesque variations,’ as film critic William Pechter put it. To quote him again, ‘We watch excitedly while the film remains morally neutral.’
Indeed the use of slow motion to depict violence on the screen had been done earlier as an innovation by another serious film-maker Arthur Penn in his cult classic ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’
But the violence in ‘The Wild Bunch’ surpasses all limits. Here screen violence was raised to the level of sheer visual poetry, even something of an art form. And the movie-maker who did it all was Sam Peckinpah, the ’blood poet’, as a critic called him.
Peckinpah has indeed been called many names: ‘The Nihilistic Poet’, ‘The Genius’, ‘The Unkindly Whore’, ‘The Bedeviled bastard’ and many more, some of which originating from studio front offices are unprintable even in this permissive age. Yes, Peckinpah proved himself to be a hot director to handle. As Andrew Sarris said, ‘Peckinpah has suffered excessively from producer interference. Peckinpah’s trouble suggests that a director with a very personal vision still has problems functioning in Hollywood.’
Andrew Sarris said this in the early Sixties and of course things changed over the years. Peckinpah rose in status and stature and he succeeded in propagating the Western as a movie art form at a time when it was being decried as the great American myth created by the dream factories and celluloid mills of Hollywood. Thanks to the creative efforts of serious film makers like Peckinpah, the Western is still alive and well today.
Sam Peckinpah was born on 21 Feb, 1925 in Fresno, California. He came of a well-to-do ranching family. His family ranch, built up by his grandparents was on the side of a mountain which bears his family name. Indeed, Peckinpah was born into the wild west and like the legendary western movie hero W. S. Hart, it was his experience of the west which kept the Hollywood tradition of that area.
Peckinpah attended a military school and after training he joined the US Marines. In 1949 he went to Los Angeles and joined the famous University of Southern California (USC). Here he studied drama and passed out with an M.A. degree. After U.S.C. he worked in theatre, now as an actor, now as a director and then inevitably moved into the new medium of television.
His entry was no earth-shaking event. Recalling those days Peckinpah said, “When my second daughter was born, I had to make a living and went to work at KLA – as a stage hand at 22.50 dollars a week. After sweeping stages for two and a half years, I got a job as a dialogue director with Don Siegel (who later became a serious filmmaker with films like Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz).
When Don Siegel made ‘lnvasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956), a chiller which attracted attention, Peckinpah not only played a small role, but he did something more Important and significant. Don Siegel and producer Walter Wanger gave him the chance to write some of the scenes. In short he became a screen writer too.
Then Peckinpah wrote a TV series called ‘Gunsmoke’ which turned out be a big success. He did 13 episodes, and soon he was writing, producing, and directing more TV series like ‘The Westerner’, ‘The Rifle Man’, ‘Winchester’, all successful.
In 1961 Peckinpah made the transition to movies when he completed ‘The Deadly Companions’. Not surprisingly it’s a western about two men of the Wild West. Peckinpah made good use of the sprawling open spaces and the awe-inspiring desert terrain. Though well-directed with the film maker showing promise, the film failed to cause any patterns in the desert sand. Later, after Peckinpah had made the grade, this film was re-issued under a different title and studied with interest by students of cinema.
His second film ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962) hit the bull’s-eye as a western of merit and Peckinpah began to attract attention as a filmmaker of rich promise. With the success of the above movie Peckinpah could do what he wanted to do. He began work on ‘Major Dundee’ (1964) based on a story by Harry Julien Fink.
Then, after a period of struggle, he came with a bang in The Wild Bunch, perhaps the most controversial western ever made. It became a sensation and hit the headlines. It shocked people, smacked them across the eyes, curdled their blood and inflamed their nerves. It made people think about themselves. ‘Ballet of blood’ said one critic. And Peckinpah was now a ‘name’ director. Some compared him to Orson Welles. Both have many things in common – genius, seething anger against the establishment and an inborn love for intellectual rebellion.
The following year Peckinpah showed his amazing range of talent when he made a different kind of western – ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ (1970). In sharp contrast to ‘The Blood Ballet’ this movie was almost a folk tale about a man of the west (played superbly by Jason Robards), his love for land and his fears of the changing conditions. At the first sight of a car, he exclaims “What’s that? How does that run? No horses!”
There are Flashes of ribald randy humour like the off-screen noises, sounds, and exclamations when a tent over a religious meeting of men and women collapses over them, releasing the suppressed inner desires of both. There are the tender touches at the bordello. The movie is indeed a ballet, a delightful saga of a man. It showed the other side of the coin of Peckinpah’s creative talent.
‘Straw Dogs’ (1972) was again a violent orgy of rape and bloodbath. A domesticated city couple are confronted by a gang of bullies when they move house. All their calls to maintain peace like law abiding citizens comes to nought with an absolutely graphic and gut wrenching climax. The film was a reminder that the existence of imagined idyllic America was just a media myth. The film also features one of the most explicit and realistic rape scenes ever committed to film.
Peckinpah followed with films like “Junior Bonner” and ‘The Getaway’ (1973). The first one was a story about a rodeo done in a rather slow-paced manner and The Getaway is more in the fashion of Straw Dogs with a couple pitched against a violent hostile gang with Steve McQueen in an iconic role. The Getaway and Bullit were two films which firmly established the iconic cool as a cucumber persona of McQueen in the audience psyche.
In 1974 Peckinpah went back to the western legend when he made ‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.’ The well known story of Pat Garrett shooting down the famous outlaw Billy The Kid has been filmed at least five times. Billy was said to have gunned his first victim when he was a mere kid of twelve!
Peckinpah’s version has a certain tinge of sadness. Maybe those far off days were violent, but the manly valour, the breath-taking open spaces, the pure air, the unspoilt land – all these factors so lovingly used by a film maker with a feeling for the west make the movie a likeable one, a sheer piece of yummy nostalgia.
His next movie that got considerable critical attention was ‘The Killer Elite’ (1976), a movie of a different kind. The story is about killers employed by a company with CIA connections and the movie, in Pauline Kael’s words, “is intensely claustrophobically exciting… the film is airless and involuted cork-screw vision of a tight modern world, it is about CIA sponsored assassinations, it’s about the blood of a poet.”
‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia’ was another violent ballet with the tag line, “Why is his head worth one million dollars and the lives of 21 people?” About the pursuits of bounty hunters and their compulsions, this psychological drama starred Warren Oates in the definitive role of his career.
‘Cross of Iron’ was a saga set on the Russian Front in 1943. In a clash of officer cowardice versus a soldier’s courage, it raised pertinent issues about the chain of commands in organisations. Hard edged, gritty and shot in inhuman conditions, it is an underrated and almost forgotten gem of a war film starring James Coburn and Maximillian Schell.
Despite of his patrician background, (his father was a judge and mother, the daughter of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives), Peckinpah was a down to earth, plebeian at heart. ln his famous interview with the Playboy Magazine he said, “We all intellectualise about why we should do things but it is our purely animal instincts that are driving us to do them all the time I love the color, life and warmth of Mexico more than the ‘dead’ society of U.5.A. I can’t always make the pictures I want to make. When you are dealing in millions, you are dealing with people at their meanest. Christ, a show down in the old west is nothing compared with the infighting that goes on over money in movies!”
In 1978 came ‘Convoy’ about truck drivers and their action-packed lives. Ali MacGraw plays a chic photo journalist who falls in love in with driver Kris Kristofferson. As a filmmaker Peckinpah was always alert. He took advantage of even accidents and mishaps not in the script. During the making of “Convoy” a truck overturned on the set. A stunt man whose car was supposed to fly into the air through the roof of the barn went about a mile too high and landed in a distant field! And the camera caught them all – “Great, we will use them, this is a million dollar stunt we could never afford,” said a grinning Peckinpah.
Peckinpah’s drug and alcohol abuse was well documented and led to his early death on 28 Dec, 1984 at age 59. At a standing-room-only gathering that held at the Directors Guild the following month, Coburn remembered the director as a man “who pushed me over the abyss and then jumped in after me. He took me on some great adventures”. To which Robert Culp added that what is surprising is not that Sam only made fourteen pictures, but that given the way he went about it, he managed to make any at all.
In spite of front office interference, censor problems, arguments with those around him, personal problems, (ex-wives and alimonies) Sam Peckinpah went on creating movies, lifting blood, carnage and violence to the lofty realms of visual poetry and choreography. Critics and film historians like Basil Wright paid a great compliment by saying Sam Peckinpah was the successor to legendary Howard Hawks!