Peckinpah, (David) Sam(uel)
(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah 1925–
American director, screenwriter, and actor.
Peckinpah is regarded by some as the most innovative director of Westerns since John Ford. His films are noted for seemingly gratuitous bloodshed, often filmed in slow motion. This is balanced by Peckinpah's strong personal vision: his work is often concerned with the plight of the loner and the instinct for survival. His best films are honest, lyrical evocations of the Western myth at odds with the aging of the hero and the progress of technology.
Peckinpah first gained prominence in the fifties as a television writer and director. Among other series, he worked on Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and The Westerner. His first films, The Deadly Companions and Ride the High Country (also known as Guns in the Afternoon), were released in 1961 and created excitement in the film industry because of their strong moralizing and beautiful cinematography. These films helped Peckinpah gain the director's position for Major Dundee, which was substantially cut and re-edited by the producers.
Studio interference has played a major part in Peckinpah's career. Ride the High Country was released as a second feature for drive-in fare despite the fine reviews it received. Peckinpah tried to have his name removed from the credits of Major Dundee because of the studio's editing. Norman Jewison replaced him as director of The Cincinnati Kid after a few days of shooting because of disagreements between Peckinpah and the producers. These difficulties have continued in some of Peckinpah's more recent films, most notably Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Problems such as these forced Peckinpah to abandon filmmaking in the mid-sixties and to write and direct for television.
Peckinpah returned to films in 1969 with The Wild Bunch. The film has generated a great deal of controversy because of its graphic violence, but many critics believe that the violence expresses a moral viewpoint that audiences have misunderstood. These critics feel that Peckinpah wants his audience to become nauseated by human brutality and the consequences of uncontrollable rage. Despite this defense, Peckinpah's later films have come under heavy criticism. Films such as Straw Dogs, The Getaway, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and The Killer Elite all contain murder and gunplay, and it is widely felt that the violence in these films is not as integral to their themes and plots as it is to The Wild Bunch.
Peckinpah's most recent films have not been well received. Although critics praise the filmmaking mastery still evident in the visual splendor of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Cross of Iron, The Killer Elite, and Convoy, the consensus is that style overcomes substance in these films. According to Stanley Kauffmann, "Peckinpah knows everything about film-making—past the point where it is knowledge. But his recent work is like hearing a virtuoso pianist at practice, doing double octaves and runs and trills. Dazzling, but where's the music?"
William Faulkner made macabre comedy from the situation of a wagon transporting a coffin across miles of arduous terrain. "The Deadly Companions" … covers the same ground as "As I Lay Dying" and manages to make the plot look almost routine….
The burden of this [film's] tasteless plot is partly relieved by scenic color photography and a capable cast….
Their resourceful efforts would be more effective if the drama, as directed by Sam Peckinpah, did not move at the pace of a hearse.
Eugene Archer, "The Screen: 'Deadly Companions'," in The New York Times (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1962, p. 41.
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From [an] unlikely source comes an almost perfectly realised little film called Guns in the Afternoon [released in the United States as Ride the High Country] …, directed by Sam Peckinpah…. Sentimental moviegoers … are going to get quite a lot more than they bargained for: a movie full of intelligence, quiet charm, and thorough understanding of its materials….
[What is so attractive about the film] is the intelligent way in which the direction and dialogue handle and exploit [the] nostalgia, developing it into a touching and significant tribute to the best elements of the Western myth….
With this film Peckinpah displays not mere competence, but imagination and promise. Under his direction, [the lead actors] play with extraordinary ease and charm; his heavies—simultaneously funny and menacing—achieve the chilly balance which Ford tries for and often misses…. And certain individual touches are magnificent: a moronic gunman, frustrated at missing his human quarry, begins firing in wild fury at a flock of chickens.
DuPre Jones, "Film Reviews: 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' and 'Guns in the Afternoon'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1962 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer 1962, p. 146.∗
(The entire section is 190 words.)
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[The last quarter of Major Dundee] may be cut to ribbons, but the first ninety minutes are magnificient.
The theme takes up and elaborates the conflict of Guns in the Afternoon, where two old comrades find themselves in a situation which revives and tests old loyalties….
Despite the cuts which thin out the final stages of the story,… the film is a fascinating study in the swing of a pendulum. For all his air of authority and decision, everything Dundee touches goes subtly wrong…. As Dundee sinks lower and lower into self-distrust, so Tyreen rises; not because of a change of character—he remains perfectly consistent from his first sullen arrogance in prison to the final absurd gallantry of his single-handed charge against a French cavalry troop—but because he gains a kind of moral ascendancy….
This theme is developed with a sweeping subtlety—broad strokes concealing the delicacy underneath—which recalls Ford at his best. Visually the film is magnificent, and its parched landscapes of dry brush and crumbling villages, its sculptural compositions, and proud cavalry movements across river and plain. Scene after scene might have come straight out of Wagonmaster or My Darling Clementine, but linking them all is a touch of the bizarre which is specifically Peckinpah's….
At the same time there is a relaxed control, an unerring eye for...
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"The Wild Bunch is simply," says director Sam Peckinpah, "what happens when killers go to Mexico." And in the beleaguered career of Sam Peckinpah Mexico has become increasingly the place to go. It is a land perhaps more savage, simple, or desolate, but definitely more expressive. Sam Peckinpah's Mexico is a spiritual country similar to Ernest Hemingway's Spain, John London's Alaska, and Robert Louis Stevenson's South Seas. It is a place where you go "to get yourself straightened out." (p. 19)
Peckinpah carefully manages his violence [in The Wild Bunch], bargaining between the violence the audience wants and the violence he is prepared to give. Peckinpah uses violence the way every dramatist has, to make the plot turn. Then he applies vicarious violence to the plot mechanism. We don't really care whether it's logical if so-and-so is killed; we need more blood to satiate our appetite…. At the final level, the most difficult, Peckinpah goes beyond vicariousness to superfluity. We no longer want the violence, but it's still coming. Violence then can either become gratuitous or transcend itself. Peckinpah enjoys walking the thin line between destructive and constructive violence….
Robert Warshow wrote that the Western was popular because it created a milieu in which violence was acceptable. After years of simplistic Westerns, Peckinpah wants to more precisely define that milieu. Violence, Peckinpah seems...
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[The Wild Bunch is] an important bad film, avoidable by people who want genuine art, but recommended to all those interested in the faltering steps by which the American cinema might titubate into maturity.
There is no doubt that Peckinpah has a nice sense of time and place; that his locations and groupings, as well as the faces and peripheral activites that fill a shot have the right look and feel about them. But he is much less sure about the staging of the main action in a scene, except where seedy debauchery or sudden flare-ups of violence are concerned. (p. 173)
Despite an inventive twist or two, the plot settles all too comfortably into the usual western groove with all the beloved mythic commonplaces. But there are differences. The world of Peckinpah and his co-scenarist Walon Green is predominantly evil; there are no really good people anywhere, only the less bad and the much worse ones. (pp. 173-74)
Women are represented as particularly untrustworthy, and, next to women, children. Throughout the film we see kids enjoying the bloodshed and brutality around them and, whenever possible, joining in the fun, if only by torturing animals…. [It] may be the example of the adults that is to blame, but corrupt they are, and this is something new in a western. Except for Angel's concern for his villagers (he sacrifices his share of the loot for them), and the dignity of some of these folk,...
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Ride the High Country was a sensitive, modest film, but Peckinpah has aimed much higher this time. The Wild Bunch is not a minor film; it's a sprawling, spectacular, ambitious, wilfully controversial picture, an assault on [an] audience's senses and emotions, an aggressive bid for the spotlight. Fortunately, the film deserves the spotlight. Its first impression is literally over-powering; The Wild Bunch is much more dazzling than Ride the High Country, but it loses some of the reflective qualities that made Peckinpah's early film so quietly memorable. There were stark images of violence in Ride the High Country too, but violence is the subject and the controlling passing of The Wild Bunch. Let me say right away that the violence does not offend me, even though this is the goriest film I have ever seen. But the gore is not gratuitous; the film is intelligent about the significance of violence in America, and in addition, the images of violence are quite simply beautiful. (p. 2)
I do object to some of the film's equivocations, and its tendency to sacrifice characterization to action and spectacle. The individual characters are just distinct enough to be believable, but none of them are really very interesting. The only way to accept the characters at all is to see them as one conglomerate character, the Wild Bunch. Peckinpah is interested in these men as a group, and he uses them to...
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Kenneth R. Brown
After viewing Ride the High Country, Jean Renoir remarked that "Mr. Peckinpah knows much about the music of the soul." But this could have been said even more accurately about The Ballad of Cable Hogue, because "the music of the soul" is really what it's all about. What Sam Peckinpah tried to do in this film was illuminate the essence, the soul of his characters—not through the realistic rendering of character and event, but by "objectifying" their various states of inner reality. This is indicated not merely by Peckinpah's "artifice,"… but by the film's entire style and content, which are more closely unified than in almost any movie one could mention….
It's as if Peckinpah turned his characters—indeed, the universe—inside-out, in order to expose the reality more fully. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Winter's Tale, in which Shakespeare seems to have burned his own tragedies inside-out … in order to discover how Nature really functions. (p. 1)
It becomes obvious to anyone toward the end of The Ballad of Cable Hogue that it is not supposed to be a "realistic" movie …, yet the fact of the matter is that one ought to notice it from the very beginning. One of the most striking moments in the film occurs during the titles, when Hogue has spent his fourth day in the desert and is lying in the sand begging God to send him some water. Suddenly...
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Peckinpah's funny and elegiac new film, "Junior Bonner,"… continues Peckinpah's preoccupation with what might be called reluctant past-primeness, that quality of being about to find oneself over-the-hill (and not liking it a bit)….
["Junior Bonner"] is Peckinpah in the benignly comic mood that, I suspect, is much more the natural fashion of this fine director than is the gross, intellectualized mayhem of his recent "Straw Dogs." "Junior Bonner" is about a man at a critical point in his life—will Junior be able successfully to ride a mean old black bull named Sunshine? Yet there is something as essentially comic as serious about the nature of the challenges Junior faces….
The thing that distinguishes "Junior Bonner," however, is not necessarily its broad streak of romanticism, but its affection for all of the Bonners….
The movie seems to amble through its narrative with no great purpose until a moment, towards the end, when all of the Bonners—father, mother, sons, daughter-in-law and grand-children—find themselves holding an odd reunion in an extremely crowded barroom. Like a lot of families, the Bonners love one another, and find it completely impossible to live together. The scene's climax: an uproarious barroom brawl in which absolutely no one is hurt….
"Junior Bonner," which looks like a rodeo film and sounds like a rodeo film, is a superior family comedy in...
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[There] are films that are simply lost in confusion—aimless enterprises that run on and on, sometimes with the sort of dazed looks you might expect, but often with expressions of deceptively intense purpose.
The last pretty well describes Sam Peckinpah's new film, "The Getaway."… More or less.
That qualification is necessary because if you take the characters at face value—which is what one usually does in this kind of film—then certain key decisions they make reflect on their sanity, which is otherwise unquestioned. From where any critic sits, it's impossible to tell whether this confusion is the result of the writing, the direction or the editing….
For all his reputation as a director of action and violence …, Peckinpah is most effective and most eloquent when dealing with themes of love and loss, which are as apparent in the super-bloody "The Wild Bunch" as in the quieter "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" and this year's ruefully comic "Junior Bonner." The action and the violence of "The Getaway" are supported by no particular themes whatsoever. The movie just unravels.
Vincent Canby, "'The Getaway'," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 20, 1972 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1973, p. 349)....
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One of the ideas Peckinpah constantly illustrates in his films is that a moral code produced by one age or society is not necessarily valid in another. Thus the morality of a conventionally 'good' character—Steve Judd, let us say, in Guns in the Afternoon—may be implicitly criticised by Peckinpah as impractical in a contemporary context, derived as it is from old, received ethics rather than created out of the individual's own experience in his own age. Morality, Peckinpah suggests, should not be dependent on tradition, or on legislation, or on political or social ideologies. Once morality is made the province of a collective decision, or of a collective acquiescence in a pre-existing set of beliefs, the way has been opened for the suppression of individual choice.
The synthesis of individualism and survival, therefore, in Peckinpah's recent protagonists is not necessarily a moral fall from grace. Rather, it indicates the capacity of the characters, while remaining true to a central core of values, to adjust their life styles in order to maintain their equilibrium in an uncertain and treacherous age. This concept of 'equilibrium' I intend to discuss later in terms of Peckinpah's style, since most of the director's cinematic trademarks—slow motion, accelerated cutting, flashbacks and flashes forward—are placed in the films to create a deliberate and disorienting conflict of style with the orthodox narrative...
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Sam Peckinpah thinks the Old West offered men the last unambiguous set of values and is fascinated by attempts to hold fast to them in a world where they no longer mean anything. In his disjointed, confused and generally inept Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he makes just two choices available to a pair of old friends: go down before the encroaching new order, or go to work for it at the cost of those unambiguous values. He sympathizes with Pat Garrett's instinct for survival in throwing in with the government, becoming a sheriff, and hunting down Billy the Kid; he admires Billy's refusal to run to Mexico and abandon his only true identity, that of an outlaw, but he believes in the inevitable spiritual death of the former and physical death of the latter….
Peckinpah is interested only in the reverberations of the past: He disdains the details of storytelling, characterization and acting style. He photographs every frame in a luscious way that cries out for consideration as visual mythology, but his inattention to anything that might make it such leaves his movie looking more like a lavish, coffee-table edition of a Classics Illustrated comic book.
He has occasionally tried to expand the parameters of his point of view through the folktale style of The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, but his excesses in this genre are just as great as in his macho tributes to men of action. His idea of...
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It has been clear for some time to all but the most dogged of cultists that Sam Peckinpah's reputation, based on the undeniable merits of Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, and The Wild Bunch, but inflated beyond all recognition by his auteurist admirers, had to be scaled down in the light of his last four films. From Ballad of Cable Hogue to The Getaway, from bad to worse, Peckinpah's talent seemed to have faltered, to have wandered from the material that engaged it most centrally, into a marsh of mushy masculine sentimentality. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid changes all that. It is a brilliant and perverse film. Part of its brilliance lies in its very perversity: its lack of plot; its collection of aimless, static scenes; its mumbled, whimsical, raunchy dialogue; its refusal to be coherent or conside. The remainder lies in the world of loss and limitation it evokes.
The landscape of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is familiar. It is one of male friendship and conflict, of casual and sudden violence, of slow motion shoot-outs, of children cavorting on the hangman's scaffold. Most familiar is the story itself, the story of the West growing old, of the passing of the western hero, a story that Peckinpah has told many times. It boils down to an exchange between Garrett and Billy. Garrett says, "The West is growing old, and I want to grow old with it." Billy replies, "Times change, not...
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Mark Crispin Miller
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is at once the subtlest and strangest of Sam Peckinpah's films. It is what we must call his "most mature," because it presents what he sees less compromisingly than ever before, and because he relies on his last spectacular abilities to deliver its tremendous impact. It is not anywhere near as bloody as his most commercial pictures, yet it has died a swift and violent death [at the hands of the critics]….
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia subsumes the director's dilemma into wider, more important conflicts, the ones dramatized in earlier films but with an unprecedented directness. Rather than rub the audience's collective nose in spectacular gore, Peckinpah has used the powers of his craft to make this film deliberately unprepossessing, but without, even here, abandoning the context of heroism that he knows so well.
It seems necessary to point out … that Peckinpah understands every aspect of heroism: its rarity, its loneliness, its tenuousness, its superficial attractiveness, the ease with which it's commonly misinterpreted or overlooked or mistaken for something else. He knows the difference between heroism and mere heroics, and he knows that his audience is generally not sensitive to this difference…. His is a complex, highly moral intelligence. (p. 2)
Not once since the too quiet release of Ride the High Country has a Peckinpah film...
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Arthur G. Pettit
If Peckinpah's sinister outlook is not confined to his Westerns, nevertheless his mordant philosophy has darkened the Western as no one else's has. His violent characters are compelling contributions to the genre. They are also nagging reminders of the pitfalls as well as the profits awaiting those who try to stand the traditional Western on its head. There is a strong current of ambivalence running through Peckinpah's work, a feeling that he remains trapped in his own uncertainties about the exact properties and consequences of the New West he has created. For all the blood, dirt and obscenity that mark Peckinpah's films, his Westerns contain large doses of romanticism mixed with the realism. By self-admission he is both drawn to and repelled by the American West, whether old or new.
Peckinpah's split-level approach to the West is rooted in doubts about what the Old West was really like, and what the New West is supposed to be like. More than any of his competitors, he sees the West as a vast theatre of metaphorical possibilities centered about the theme of Changing Times, with outmoded men walking a thin line between past and present, the old and the new…. Few film-makers have so densely peopled their work with characters who are emotionally or physically crippled. Peckinpah's West is a catalogue of washed-out male eccentrics stretching out beyond their reach, desperate men struggling to achieve mastery over self-annihilating...
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Sam Peckinpah is a great "personal" filmmaker; he's an artist who can work as an artist only on his own terms. When he does a job for hire, he must transform the script and make it his own or it turns into convictionless self-parody (like The Getaway). Peckinpah likes to say that he's a good whore who goes where he's kicked. The truth is he's a very bad whore: he can't turn out a routine piece of craftsmanship—he can't use his skills to improve somebody else's conception. That's why he has always had trouble. And trouble, plus that most difficult to define of all gifts—a film sense—is the basis of his legend.
Most movie directors have short wings; few of them are driven to realize their own vision. But Peckinpah's vision has become so scabrous, theatrical, and obsessive that it is now controlling him. His new film, The Killer Elite, is set so far inside his fantasy-morality world that it goes beyond personal filmmaking into private filmmaking. The story, which is about killers employed by a company with C.I.A. connections, is used as a mere framework for a compressed, almost abstract fantasy on the subject of selling yourself yet trying to hang on to a piece of yourself. Peckinpah turned fifty while he was preparing this picture, and, what with booze, illness, and a mean, self-destructive streak, in recent years he has looked as if his body were giving out. This picture is about survival.
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W. S. Di PIERO
Cross of Iron is a polemic against war, more specifically against war-as-necessity, and it tries to define the role of male virtue in such vicious circumstances. Honor is always defined by circumstance. The huge irony upon which the film turns, however, is that while men may excel in combat, their personal excellence never justifies the context. Here, as in Ride the High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Peckinpah is openly curious about the stern wisdom that underpins male vanity. (p. 7)
Cross of Iron is no closet drama. Peckinpah avoids the convenient black comedy and intellectual pieties of a [Lina] Wertmüller. The film is punctuated, often unexpectedly, with images of ruined anonymous bodies, humans made meat by the indifferent mechanics of war, a profanation of old values of human dignity. His critics notwithstanding, I don't think Peckinpah is interested in kineticism for its own sake. The violence in this film at every point serves his argument against the moral indifference of war. The polemic is relentless….
Peckinpah also returns to an old obsession: the legacies of violence passed on from father to son…. [He] knows that we are bound to pass on to our children not only our animal instincts but also our monstrous inclination towards atrocity…. Cross of Iron is cogent and powerful, and its unembarrassed rawness persuades where the over-educated black humor of...
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Sam Peckinpah's Convoy is not merely a bad movie but a terrible movie. Anyone can make a bad movie—only a misguided talent can manage to be terrible. And there is visible talent, even in Convoy—particularly when men and machines are set into motion and smashed with an exquisite exuberance, as if visible matter were being transported to a realm beyond good and evil for the eternal edification of the naked eye.
But, then, the cardboard characterizations and comic-strip contrivances bring Convoy back down to earth with all the other infantile junk flicks of the late '70s. There is now no doubt that its director is scrambling for survival, taking whatever the traffic will bear. Never before has a Peckinpah film been so devoid of death and pain and even stress….
[Never before] has Peckinpah seemed so nakedly Russian as a visual rhetorician. This is where the controversy may arise. Even his erstwhile admirers may be forced to admit that Convoy is lacking in content above the moronic level. But the "look" and "rhythm" of the film are something else again. Are we back in the magically auteurist regions of Raoul Walsh and Samuel Fuller, regions in which visual forms allegedly transcended genre conventions? I think not. The films of Walsh and Fuller and all the other controversial "action" or "genre" directors stand or fall on the integration of style and subject matter. The rationale for...
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[The true theme Peckinpah discovered in The Deadly Companions] has little to do with any ironic treatment of the western as a genre. The true theme is so central to much of his own work, to a good many westerns (Stagecoach is a classic expression of it), and to a sizable chunk of American literature (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and "The Bear" are two outstanding examples) that he couldn't help feeling the shocks of recognition. That theme is a trek into the wilderness where, away from society, a person may be reborn or in some sense reconstituted, often through an ordeal of physical crisis or a trial of violence. Much of this journey finds Yellowleg and Kit tearing at each other with a savagery that is partly mirrored, partly exacerbated by the savagery of the landscape. "You don't know me well enough to hate me!" Yellowleg shouts. Yet Kit knows him clearly enough. He teamed up with Billy and Turk to rob the bank, so he finds himself in a doubly ironic position. He accidentally shoots the child while attempting to halt a crime he himself was planning to commit. The polarities in his psychological makeup are thus externalized in those with whom he associates and in what he does—the "accidental" killing revealing more truth about him than any of his good intentions does. The journey through the wilderness is necessary so that he can reveal to Kit those aspects of his character that she doesn't know (and, by extension, that he...
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