(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah Essay - Critical Essays

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?"

Eugene Archer

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.


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.∗

Tom Milne

[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 juxtapositions, which reminds one that Peckinpah is one of those rare directors with an ability to keep his action racing swiftly, and yet leave one with the impression that there is all the time in the world for pleasurable contemplation. (p. 144)

Tom Milne, "Film Reviews: 'Major Dundee' and 'Invitation to a Gunfighter'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 144-45.∗

Paul Schrader

"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 to say, is acceptable and edifiable primarily for the spectator. It may also be edifiable for the participant, but only to the extent that it is suicidal. Like the Western code, it succeeds most when it is self-destructive. To be of any value violence must move from vicariousness to artifice. The spectator must be left "disinterested" in the Arnoldian sense, evaluating what he had previously reveled in.

In the post-slaughter epilogue of The Wild Bunch Peckinpah rubs the spectator's nose in the killing he had so recently enjoyed. New killers arrive to replace the old. A way of life has died, but the dying continues….

The film is not about an...

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John Simon

[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...

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Stephen Farber

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...

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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….


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Vincent Canby

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….


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Vincent Canby

[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….


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Nigel Andrews

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...

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Jon Landau

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...

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Peter Biskind

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...

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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,...

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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...

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Pauline Kael

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...

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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...

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Andrew Sarris

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....

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Paul Seydor

[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...

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