(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah

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Mark Crispin Miller

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083

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 repeated so even a moral and dramatic balance. Goodness and the good things of life have diminished, not in importance, but in accessibility; the bad things have proliferated, the destructive impulse burgeoning everywhere. Peckinpah's films still imply what is worthwhile, what must be preserved, even if what we see much more vividly than goodness is the multifarious complex of hateful urges which menaces that goodness. (p. 3)

The "outdated code" of "all the simple virtues that have become clichés," which Peckinpah might call the code of true manliness, comprises only a part of what he believes in. There is a complementary code of "feminine" values, virtues exemplified and propagated by women…. The feminine quality animates the furtive good of Peckinpah's world, and it is no less threatened than the old code of authentic manhood. (p. 4)

The knightly code and its complementary idyll of domesticity combine into a set of values that is not easily categorized. It contains something of the solid belief in family and place that informs such films as John Ford's My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, but celebrates sexual union and freedom in a way that the conventional Western never has. Yet it is defensive and fatalistic because it is predicated on the assumption that whoever adheres to its tenets will not survive. We might say, in this sense, that Sam Peckinpah suggests Ford in a black mood, reading a lot of Blake. (pp. 4-5)

[Peckinpah] thinks of himself as a story-teller first and foremost, and even his bitterest detractors would have to admit that his narratives … move quickly and grippingly, that his protagonists are complex, credible, unusual people, that he has a sophisticated sense of irony and always demonstrates masterful facility with all the elements of crisis. But beyond this, Peckinpah understands the large persuasiveness of his medium, and so is adept at grappling with the largely anachronistic issue of heroism. He can establish a heroic context, and make us uneasy by introducing into it a heroism that fails or is misplaced, or that is not real heroism but a mere series of postures…. Peckinpah intensifies our yearning to sympathize by establishing a glorious frame, a heroic context with those outlines we are familiar because...

(This entire section contains 1083 words.)

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we are familiar with the genre. (p. 5)

Peckinpah knows how to toy with all the assumptions and expectations that cinema has instilled within us, and he does this so unostentatiously that we can mistake his subtleties for excess, his ironic deflations and amplifications of types and clichés for a lack of artistic control. Often this distortion of convention goes unnoticed or is condemned for being improbable, when its improbability is intentional…. We expect [Spielberg's] The Sugarland Express and [Altman's] Thieves Like Us to end as they do. Therefore Peckinpah makes The Getaway end differently, but the getaway itself is so unlikely that it's almost sinister, as if its excessive cheeriness suggests what would really happen to such "outlaws" in the real world, much less what should happen to generic convention. And if we consider Peckinpah's cynicism, we must allow for the possibility that the ending of The Getaway might be intended to disappoint the demon within, whose demands for generic propriety are not altogether ingenuous.

It is this cynicism that lies behind Peckinpah's highly stylized … treatment of violence. His obsessive rendering of violence into gross lethargic ballet heightens our vicarious experience of it, makes it less of a kick and more of an indulgence, wherein the reluctant eye will linger and thereby learn. [As Peckinpah has said:] "Most people don't even know what a bullet hole in a human body looks like. I want them to see what it looks like…." (pp. 5-6)

People will turn away and assume that Peckinpah's presentation implies celebration, or at least endorsement, and that the brutal approval of an audience applauding massacre accords perfectly with the director's intentions. Many critics, who ought to know better, make these fallacious assumptions. Their condemnation may be silly, but it is not Peckinpah's responsibility to lash out at this silliness. What he must do, intent as he is on edifying his viewers, is find a less blatant method of attack.

With Alfredo Garcia Peckinpah demonstrates his discovery of such a method: manipulation of sympathies, assumptions, and expectations, but manipulation that does not reduce characters to devices…. In his latest film Peckinpah sustains the possibility of heroism by presenting a perversion of it. He expands, intensifies, we might say "bloats" the figments of cinematic convention, not in the direction of camp or caricature, but naturalistically, making irresistibly believable and arresting the types and reactions we have come complacently to look for and accept. He translates back into ungainliness what Hollywood has portrayed romantically, but without any correlative diminution of vividness. Never before has he used his familiarity with audience response to such great effect, nor has he ever presented with such tenderness the things in which he so desperately believes. (p. 6)

Mark Crispin Miller, "In Defense of Sam Peckinpah," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1975 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Spring, 1975, pp. 2-17.


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