Controversial American director Sam Peckinpah was at the vanguard of the Hollywood revolution in the 1960s, although he is most commonly remembered for his graphic depictions of violence in his Westerns and thrillers including The Wild Bunch, The Getaway and Straw Dogs.
Before his untimely death of heart failure in 1984, Sam Peckinpah explored the concept of the disappearing west and masculine identity through a series of striking films. His fascination lay in the notion of ‘men out of time’, who saw the world around them changing and feared their inability to adapt to its violence. This was arguably a product of his upbringing, where his happiest moments were spent on his grandfather’s ranch, learning to ride, hunt and heard cattle, listening to his elders talk about their memories of the Old West while the Great Depression hung over contemporary America.
Although romanticised, these stories have a certain authenticity; Peckinpah’s maternal and paternal grandparents had travelled across the Great Plains in covered wagons before making a new life in the mythical wilderness. They became wealthy, and Peckinpah was born into a comfortable lifestyle in February 1925, the son of one of the most successful attorneys in Fresno, California. Although his mother’s love could be obsessive, Peckinpah is said to have inherited her creativity and sentimentality, while visits to his grandfather’s ranch exposed him to an old fashioned masculinity; a time when ‘men were men’.
Peckinpah seemingly sought to prove himself to this generation when he joined the US Marines in 1943, but WWII drew to a close before his deployment against the Japanese. He was then stationed in China, essentially supporting the Capitalist government of Chiang Kai-shek against the communist forces at the dawn of the Cold War. He spent his down time navigating bars and brothels, instigating his addiction to alcohol; a demon that would henceforth possess him.
Critics of Peckinpah have complained of an inherent misogyny in his films, and his own multiple marriages and womanising would seem to confirm it. However, as the focus of his films is masculine identity, the female characters often act as reflections of this: Straw Dogs (1971), for instance, is an attack on the passive intellectual male and, in an infamous scene, his wife is raped. Eventually, he cracks and violently defends his home and his wife, gaining his alpha male status.
Violence is a key element of Peckinpah’s films. After gaining a History degree from California State University and an MA in drama (inspired by his first wife’s love of acting), his work directing theatre earned him a placement at KLAC-TV station in 1948. He also worked as an assistant to director Don Siegel on a number of projects, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), before Siegel encouraged him to move into directing. TV was still a relatively new medium, and Peckinpah gained experience writing and occasionally directing episodes of a number of long-running Western series, including Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Broken Arrow and Klondike, and his own series, The Westerner, which was critically-acclaimed but lost support because of its gritty realism.
His experience and connections won him the directorship of his debut feature, The Deadly Companions (1961), which he followed with other westerns that further developed his style and themes, including Ride the High Country (1962). However, he instigated the true revisionist western with 1969’s The Wild Bunch, which culminates in a horrifically violent ‘ballet of bullets’.
Peckinpah’s use of exploding squibs in slow-motion was partially inspired by a shooting he witnessed in China, remarking it was “one of the longest split-seconds…time slowed down.” He had discovered what biographer David Weddle describes as “the eternal instant.” It was also a reflection of the period in which he was making films; political assassinations, protests and the Vietnam War raged in life and on the news. Peckinpah’s slow motion violence begs us to look at the agony of death, but also the sickening beauty in the colour and shapes the body creates. Peckinpah’s powerful visualisation of violence would inspire generations of filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Nicholas Winding Refn.
His future works would both enamour and repel critics, from the Steve McQueen double-bill of The Getaway (1972) and Junior Bonner (1972), Straw Dogs, which critic Pauline Kael famously called a “fascist work of art”, and his most underrated masterpiece, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973). However, his unruly nature (pissing on the screen when running through dailies, shooting hotel room mirrors, losing days due to his paralytic states) and constant wars with executives made his output erratic. Although a cult classic, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is far-from perfect, while 1978’s Convoy may have been his most commercially successful film, but large portions were directed actor and friend James Coburn, as Peckinpah’s failing health and alcoholism held up filming. His final film, 1983’s The Osterman Weekend, was savaged by critics. His last truly great film was the brutal WWII classic Cross of Iron (1978); a film he made after turning down the directorship of Superman – one of the best films never made? Throughout, his use of slow motion, flash cuts, editorial ability to build tension, complex antiheroes and composition combine to mark him as a true great of cinema.
Essentially the Cormac McCarthy of his day, Sam Peckinpah used his medium to explore the themes of masculinity, violence and the changing West. Dogged by alcoholism, he nevertheless leaves us with a striking and thought-provoking body of work that has inspired many.
Top 5 Sam Peckinpah Films
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973): Focussing on the man who hunted down the outlaw, Peckinpah plays with the legend to deconstruct the romanticism of the Old West. Ruined by a studio edit, the 2005 DVD restoration shows this as the masterpiece it was meant to be.
The Wild Bunch (1969): A ground-breaking Western, the film follows a small group of aging outlaws caught up in the Mexican Revolution.
The Getaway (1972): Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw fight their way through a series of traps and doublecrosses in a violent, tense and stylish thriller.
Straw Dogs (1971): Using its Cornish setting to maximum effect, Peckinpah translates his ‘man out of time’ into a ‘man out of place’ drama that explores violence and masculinity in a tough, disturbing film.
Cross of Iron (1978): Peckinpah goes to war. James Coburn leads from the front in a bloody and harrowing portrayal of WWII.
Source: “If They Move…Kill ‘Em: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah” – David Weddle, 1994. –I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Peckinpah and his work.
What’s your favourite Peckinpah film? Where do you stand on his depiction of men/women? Let us know below…