Sam Peckinpah

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Sam Peckinpah is the director who redefined screen violence; he is also one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

He was born in Fresno, California on February 21, 1925 and died of a heart attack in 1984. In between, he was married five times and directed over a dozen ground-breaking films, mainly in the 60s and 70s.

He grew up on a ranch in the California mountains. His father was a judge, and Peckinpah was a rowdy teenager who eventually enlisted in the Marines. He was never put into combat, though.

After his discharge, he discovered theater and eventually got his lucky break in the early 50s when respected Hollywood director Don Siegel hired him as an assistant at Allied Artists. Peckinpah began writing scripts (he helped rewrite and had a small role in 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) and got his first job directing in 1958 when he did an episode of the television series “Broken Arrow”. His feature-length directorial debut was 1961’s “The Deadly Companions”.

Peckinpah, with films such as “Major Dundee” and “Ride the High Country”, easily established himself as a great American director. Critics were quick (before “The Wild Bunch”, anyway) to mention his name alongside those of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Peckinpah hated it.

He hated it because in the “good old” Western the only characters an audience was asked to sympathize wih were, naturally, the good guys like Randolph Scott and Chuck Heston. When the so-called “bad guys” got blown away, it was supposed to make an audience cheer wildly.

Which, as Peckinpah was quick to point out, completely robbed the “Bad Guys” of any humanity whatsoever. Peckinpah was also quick to point out that the “bad guys” in “Shane” were given full identities, so why couldn’t this be a trend that could set itself firmly in the American Western?

Because no one is supposed to care about the bad guys.

Peckinpah then set out to make an “anti-Western.” A film that, while it might be set in the West, horses and posses intact, had nothing else in common with the type of films he’d been making — and despising.

That film was “The Wild Bunch”. In it audiences met the likes of Pike (William Holden in one of his finest hours) and his gang, a run-down, over-the-hill bunch of outlaws who time and progress has caught up with. They were old, tired, anachronistic, looking for a way out. Audiences learned to sympathize with these men as the film progressed, even side with them and, in the film’s historic finale — almost folklore now — watch them die in blood-drenched slow motion, every agonized twitch dwelt upon until their mangled bodies lay dead before the camera.

Here was Peckinpah’s genius with his bloody ballet of death: he’d made a Western, all right, but he’d shown it from the “bad guy’s” point of view, and no one cheered when they died. The black and white way of presenting right and wrong was forever destroyed, and the myth of the American Western was forever debunked.

Peckinpah was then asked why he chose to make the violence so bloody, and why he chose to film it in slow motion. His reply (which I cannot quote verbatim) was something along these lines: “I thought audiences should be given a good, clear look at what they’ve been cheering all these years.”

Peckinpah was accused throughout his career of glorifying violence, but he insisted he was doing the direct opposite: showing how repulsive it was by dwelling on it so much.

Partial Filmography:

“The Deadly Companions” (1961)
“Ride the High Country” (1962)
“Major Dundee” (1965)
“The Wild Bunch” (1969)
“Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970)
“Straw Dogs” (1971)
“The Getaway” (1972)
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973)
“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974)
“Killer Elite” (1975)
“Cross of Iron” (1977)
“Convoy” (1978)
“The Osterman Weekend” (1983)

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