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 movement elsewhere; to violate 'normal' time and set up a new, catalysing tension between equilibrium and disorder. It's perhaps no accident that Junior Bonner, the quintessential Peckinpah hero, is a rodeo rider, a man whose way of life involves maintaining his balance on a belligerent and rebellious animal.
Peckinpah's films are concerned with exposing the fallibility of collective morality and with testing the reality and strength of an individual's moral decisions by placing him in a crisis situation…. Moral decisions taken in extremis are authentic and revealing precisely because they are spontaneous. Since such extreme situations tend to precipitate violence, Peckinpah's films have attracted constant public and critical indignation about their tendency to 'glorify' or 'dwell on' violence. This is an issue which has so monopolised critical concern that it is worth making two points. First, violence occurs in the films because it is a 'fact of life' and because a man's confrontation with violence provides the extreme test of his moral and physical courage. Second, violence is depicted realistically and vividly—'dwelt on', if one likes—because at this crisis point equilibrium must be felt to be threatened or momentarily lost, a feeling which the balletic or ritualised violence of the conventional Western never effectively creates. (p. 70)
Cable Hogue is a kind of blueprint for the two films that follow it, outlining in picaresque, schematic, and self-consciously comic form themes that the later films embody in a more coherent and powerful narrative structure. Thus, though dramatically it is the weakest of the films, it has the virtue presenting its themes within a clear-cut, readily accessible iconography. Cable's self-discovery 'out of nothing' is realised metaphorically in his discovery of water in the desert….
Hogue's peculiar strength, that uncommon loyalty to self common to all Peckinpah's recent protagonists, renders his survival impossible in an age which sees humanity's unresisting surrender to the machine. By the end of the film, Hildy is travelling about in a car, Joshua on a motorcycle; but Hogue dies after being run over by the first automobile he sees. In Peckinpah's films life evolves repeatedly into this antithesis: man must preserve his independence but he must also stay alive, and the films are about the conflict between, or the hopeful reconciliation of these...
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'Straw dogs' were used as substitute victims in ancient sacrificial ceremonies. The assumption of most reviewers was, accordingly, that the 'straw dogs' [of Peckinpah's film by the same name] were David and his wife Amy, victims of some gratuitous sacrificial impulse on the part of the villagers. But who is the 'Sage' if not David—the one character in the film whose pursuit of learning and belief in the supremacy of reason over blind force (he does not initiate a single violent act in the film) distinguishes him from those around him; as does, more concretely, his status as a foreigner in a close-knit village community?…
Like Cable Hogue,… David finds moral strength 'where it isn't'—that is, in no externally identifiable creed or ruling passion, but in himself, his reason—and the blackboard on which David works out his mathematical problems duly becomes the house's one untouchable icon. (p. 71)
Throughout the film David's unfamiliarity with violence, and with the instruments of violence, is stressed: it is Amy, for example, who imports the man-trap into the house, while David's inexpert handling of a gun is demonstrated in two sequences. The point is that David does adapt, that he is prepared to come to terms with violence, not only by using his gun and his impromptu weapons in the critical defence of his home, but also, on a deeper level, by recognising the violence in his own nature. (pp. 71-2)
Junior Bonner is the quintessential Peckinpah hero, owing all his strength to himself, none of it to the physical shelter of a home or the emotional shelter of personal relationships or public applause. He is an isolated figure, occupying his watchful place on the perimeter of the action—he takes no part in either the street carnival or the saloon brawl—and finding an emotional kinship only with those whose life styles, similarly fluid and unattached, celebrate a kind of continuous present … rather than a defeatist submission to the past …, or the sacrifice of the present moment to the future result inherent in his brother Curly's pursuit of material success or the fleeting rewards of competitive victory….
Like David, Junior reconciles the ideals of survival and individualism. More than David, perhaps, he has learned to understand and confront their destructive counterparts in the modern world, violence and impersonality. (p. 73)
The problem of The Getaway lies in determining exactly where Peckinpah has located 'individualism', that stabilising loyalty to a chosen code of action which characterised David and Junior. Right from the beginning, Doc McCoy seems a character drawn against the grain of Peckinpah's previous heroes. To begin with, he is first seen in captivity, having served five years of a ten-year sentence for armed robbery. Then, almost his first words in the film are 'Tell him I'm for sale.'… Not much later, Doc infringes another item in the Peckinpah concept of individualism—he initiates violence…. Since it's hard to look on Doc as a character whose way of life is endorsed by Peckinpah as were those of his predecessors, one begins to speculate that, Peckinpah having placed his story within a moral landscape markedly more vicious and impersonal than either [Straw Dogs or Junior Bonner] …, the emphasis has to be on survival, the fight for personal freedom overriding any concessions to a more generous or creative morality.
In many respects, The Getaway seems designed as the cynical obverse side of Junior Bonner. (pp. 73-4)
In one respect, Doc McCoy is in the tradition of past Peckinpah heroes. He is … one of 'the elect'. 'Special' is a recurring concept in the film…. Maybe, in a world where the luxury criteria of good and evil are being squeezed out by the more elemental criteria of life and death, captivity and freedom, the strength, expertise and courage of the Peckinpah hero must be harnessed to the pure struggle for survival. Maybe The Getaway's chillingly simple moral is contained in Rudy's gunpoint threat to the kidnapped hotel-keeper: 'You've got two choices. You can live or you can die.'…
Peckinpah's experiments with cinematic time comprise one of the most interesting developments of his recent work. They seem to me to divide broadly into two categories: the interweaving of past and present events into a sequence designed to convey the idea of a continuous, unchanging way of life (the lyrical elisions of time in Cable Hogue, the credit sequences of Junior Bonner and The Getaway); and, in contrast, the accelerated editing of a single sequence in which simultaneous but geographically separate events are intercut. The latter technique, used extensively in Straw Dogs, is designed not to harmonise but to disrupt ideas of time, to suggest the slide into chaos threatening the equilibrium on which individual choice and action must be founded….
['Equilibrium'] is a key idea in Peckinpah, the foundation for the qualities of control and rationality that characterise the protagonists of Peckinpah's last four films….
'Assuming equilibrium' reads the inscription on David's blackboard prefacing his latest equation. That is precisely what David does assume; in the course of the film, however, every kind of equilibrium is threatened….
The Peckinpah hero is distinguished by his ability to 'stand up', to maintain equilibrium, to remain loyal before all else to his own survival and individuality. This is not, as detractors of Peckinpah would have us believe, a latter-day Nietzschean moral system, predicating a hero of superior intelligence who ruthlessly overrides those weaker or less resourceful than himself. The point about David and Junior Bonner is that they do not impose their individuality on others, their beliefs, their values, their wants; they do not, on the one hand, initiate aggression, nor on the other, do they neglect their loyalty to those whose interests are linked to theirs and whose survival is precious to them. (p. 74)
Nigel Andrews, "Sam Peckinpah: The Survivor and the Individual," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1973 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 69-74.