Arthur G. Pettit

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966

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.

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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 impulses and forces outside their control. In all Peckinpah Westerns the message is the same: the frontier is vanishing, the land is being bulldozed beyond recognition, the West is closing in on itself, progress is snuffing out the old ways. Horses, six-guns and open spaces are giving way to cars, machine-guns and mobile homes…. The breathtakingly lovely hues of sun-drenched landscape clash harshly with the stink of urban decay, the numerous artifacts of destruction—scorpions, ants, vultures, bulldozers—offset by the wild beauty of the few ungutted spots of the West. (pp. 106-07)

No longer the spearhead of Manifest Destiny, the modern West has become the retreat for ritual, its urban landscape strewn with visual motifs advertising Peckinpah's disaffection with citified life: dark glasses (anonymity), mod-cowboy outfits (drugstore degradation of the old West), transistor radios (instant electronic entertainment), booster parades (collective celebrations of euphoria). The cinematic result is at once stunning realism and paralyzing chaos, a hodgepodge of colliding images of alienation and reverence, anger and affection—the theme of superannuation anchored in the need for Peckinpah's aging heroes to resolve their dilemma in haste, before time runs out. (pp. 107-08)

While trying to cope with a West gone mad and rotten beyond repair, Peckinpah pines for a West that never was, but should have been. While trying to rid his films of the message-mongering self-righteousness and one-dimensional hero-villain structure of the oldtime Western, he has moved both closer and farther from reality, unwittingly giving rise to a new set of legendary trappings of his own making. Foremost among these is Peckinpah's replacement of the saintly cowboy and the all-good badman as embarrassing aberrations with the supposedly all-bad badman as a hero in his own right…. Whatever its origins, the immediate significance of the removal of the all-good badman and the rise of the all-bad badman is the elimination of any need to explain how or why badmen went bad in the first place. Their present behavior is our only guide to their past. (p. 109)

Peckinpah's distinction in this field is that he can get away with it more successfully than most of his imitators, in part because he is a good artist often enough to appease the critics and a bad artist often enough to satisfy the public craving for blood and sex. Yet the tiresomely repetitious quality of his films since The Wild Bunch, reaching a new low in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, opens the suspicion that Peckinpah may be joining lesser film-makers in turning out modish criminals who whore and slaughter with little moderation or mercy precisely because that is what is expected of him…. [However], we find on closer inspection that Peckinpah's badmen are not really that bad. Clearly warped, they are still far from the assortment of gargoyles that clutter the "gothic" films adapted from the works of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner or Carson McCullers. Peckinpah keeps insisting that his badmen are not heroes, but either he deceives the public or himself. Heroes, after all, are men or women with whom we identify because we see ourselves in them, or more likely because we wish we did. In either case Peckinpah's badmen qualify as heroes; heroes of a peculiar stripe to be sure, peeled of the cumbersome layers of goodness that suffocated their forebears, but heroes nonetheless. (pp. 110-11)

Whether we like it or not, violence is central to most of Peckinpah's films. It is the source of their symmetry and moral complexity. There is a sense of tragic inevitability about Peckinpah's violence, a sense of the failure of men to own up to their beastly instincts until it is too late, until life or choice are eliminated through the neutralizing device of violence. The great power of Peckinpah's "dirty Westerns" flows from the merciless and unrelenting attack on the full spectrum of our senses. In viewing them we are forced to experience the most painful confusion of feelings, alternately uplifted and downgraded, exalted and violated. If the dialectics of tragedy through violence are not wholly realized in Peckinpah's better Westerns, especially The Wild Bunch; if we do not emerge from the blood-letting having experienced revulsion, powerlessness and shame, it may not be Peckinpah's fault. (p. 122)

Arthur G. Pettit, "Nightmare and Nostalgia: The Cinema West of Sam Peckinpah," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1975, University of Utah), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 105-22.

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