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)

J.N. Williamson Biography and Appreciation

Author/editor J.N. “Jerry” Williamson died this past Thursday. He was a friend of mine, a kind man and an excellent writer whose work has largely fallen out of print. If you find the following books, I encourage you to look past the garish 80s horror covers and titles that he so often got stuck with and read them:

The following biography and appreciation were written by John Maclay; they may be freely reprinted/reposted.

J.N. Williamson Biographical Facts

J.N. Williamson was born April 17, 1932, Indianapolis, IN

Graduated Shortridge High School, where he co-edited the school’s daily paper with later writer Dan Simmons and later U.S. Senator Richard Lugar. Studied journalism at Butler University and served in the U.S. Army.

Sang in the style of Frank Sinatra professionally with his parents’ band and for Broadway-style musicals at Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, where he met his wife of many years, Mary

The father of two sons, Scott and John, stepfather of four children, and grandfather of many.

An avid I.U. and Indiana Pacers basketball and Indiana Colts’ football fan

A precocious Sherlockian, he published his first book, The Illustrious Client’s Case Book, while still in his teens

Worked in sales management and as an astrologer, and sold short stories intermittently

Published his first novel, The Ritual, in 1979 at the age of 47, and went on to sell 31 more in the next 15 years

Editor of the acclaimed Masques horror anthology series and other books

Recipient of the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003

Died December 8, 2005, Noblesville, IN

J. N. Williamson: An Appreciation

I first met Jerry Williamson in the fall of 1982. At that time, just since 1979, he’d sold 16 horror novels, and was to go on in the decade to double that total. He and Stephen King were the most prolific and excellent horror novelists of the 1980s, so it was only fitting that they received the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award together in 2003.

As a short story and nonfiction writer, and as an editor, Jerry also excelled. He edited and I published the first Masques horror anthology in 1984, to be followed by three more volumes (two of which I published) in 1987, 1989, and 1991. And Williamson’s encouragement of new writers in the genre is well known. In fact, he arranged my own first short story publication in 1983.

Jerry never let financial and physical ills deter him, and was still working on new projects when he passed on. He remained bright, and a writer’s writer, to the end. He was an inspiration to so many, including myself, not to mention a warm and dear friend.

There’s much more to say, of course, but I’ll conclude by quoting from Stephen Vincent Benet’s reaction to the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a writer Williamson loved): “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This . . . may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.”

So it is with you, Jerry. We love you, we honor you, and your presence on this earth will be sorely missed. Rest in the Lord.