Dec. 28, 1984—Sam Peckinpah, a writer-director-producer who revised notions of the American
West with films of beautiful landscapes, ugly violence and blurred moral lines,
died at age 59 of heart failure in Inglewood, Calif.
Writing about Peckinpah now is my way of
compensating for inability to write about The Wild Bunch, his
most famous and controversial film, on the 50th anniversary of its
release this past summer. While denying neither its importance to the cinema of
the Sixties nor the qualities that have led many critics to hail it as a
masterpiece, I find it deeply problematic for the way it immerses audiences in
This carnage—especially slow-motion action sequences
that bracket the film—has influenced the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Woo and
Quentin Tarantino. (An image from the film accompanies this post--the famous walk to the climactic shoot-out featuring, from left to right, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine.)
Roger Ebert, in a contemporary review
at the time of its 1969 release, defended the movie for presenting “death and
violence in such a definitive (indeed, even excessive) terms that it becomes,
paradoxically, a statement against violence, and a reaction to it.”
I am not so sure of this. In recent years,
psychologists have debated whether prolonged exposure to violence, rather than
acting as a prophylactic against killing (as Peckinpah said he intended),
instead desensitizes witnesses to it.
Just as Pike Bishop and his outlaws were using a machine
gun to kill soldiers and even civilians, U.S. forces were using the latest
destructive firepower in a foreign country where their options were limited and
poor at that. The fear that had gripped some observers of the frontier—that
Americans would, by crossing a border, “go native”—had come to pass.
Nicknamed “Bloody Sam” for his predeliction for
onscreen bloodshed, Peckinpah was also nicknamed “Mad Sam” for his volatile ways
on and off the set. He boozed and brawled from one set to another—and, as if
that were not enough, added cocaine to the mix—shortening his filmography and,
ultimately, his life.
Television work in the Fifties and early Sixties in
series such as The Rifleman and The Westerner gave Peckinpah a thorough
grounding in the genre he would come to revise, as well as give him the
reputation for being difficult that would dog him for most of the rest of his
His second full-length feature, Ride the High Country (1962), starring two western veterans, Joel
McCrea and Randolph Scott, demonstrated a mastery of the genre it eulogized. It
includes an unambiguous hero, McCrea’s Steve, who, with his strict moral code ("All
I want is to enter my house justified"), was likened by a number of
observers to Peckinpah’s own father.
In his following film, Major Dundee (1965), the director enraged the normally equable Charlton
Heston to such an extent that the star was sorely tempted to run him through
with his character’s cavalry saber.
Though the star eventually came around to support
him vigorously, Peckinpah’s disputes with Columbia Pictures over the final cut
were so tumultuous that they led to him being replaced on his follow-up, the
Steve McQueen film The Cincinnati Kid
(1965), by Norman Jewison.
A triumphant return to TV, an adaptation of Katherine
Anne Porter's 'Noon Wine" for ABC Stage 67 (1966), revived Peckinpah’s
big-screen career, and the critical acclaim and box-office success of The Wild Bunch afforded him more
But he continued to test the patience not only of studio bosses
but of his admirers. A scene in Straw
Dogs (1971) involving Susan George led the normally supportive critic
Pauline Kael to claim that he endorsed rape by depicting the protagonist's wife
seemingly enjoying an assault by her ex-boyfriend.
Dogs placed front and center another charge often made
against Peckinpah: misogyny. His films are filled with desirable women equally
dangerous to males—and frequently subject to their outbursts of violence. (In The Wild Bunch, a woman shoots Holden in
the back, whereupon he retaliates with a shot of his own and “Bitch!”)
John Patterson’s March 2016 Guardian retrospective of the director's work
noted the speculation that much of this animus may have derived from bitterness
toward his mother, who had sold the family ranch that he and his brothers
worked in their youth on the expectation that they would inherit it.
That same work in his youth also gave him a deep
appreciation of the beauty of the West, the folkways of men in constant
contact with it, and the agony of the passing of this way of life. All of these,
along with the formal artistry of his landscapes and the performances he coaxed
from actors, inform the best moments of the 14 films that Peckinpah managed to
complete before his death.
The question is the
extent to which the human values exhibited in his films compensate for their
unbelievable body counts or the nihilism that fueled these. Thirty-five years
after his death, the cinema of “Bloody Sam” continues to pose this troubling