(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah Critical Essays

Introduction

(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?"