[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 that is partly mirrored, partly exacerbated by the savagery of the landscape. "You don't know me well enough to hate me!" Yellowleg shouts. Yet Kit knows him clearly enough. He teamed up with Billy and Turk to rob the bank, so he finds himself in a doubly ironic position. He accidentally shoots the child while attempting to halt a crime he himself was planning to commit. The polarities in his psychological makeup are thus externalized in those with whom he associates and in what he does—the "accidental" killing revealing more truth about him than any of his good intentions does. The journey through the wilderness is necessary so that he can reveal to Kit those aspects of his character that she doesn't know (and, by extension, that he himself doesn't know either). His moral awakening at the climax is thus as much a revelation to himself as it is to Kit. (p. 21)
Peckinpah once declared, "I have never made a 'Western.' I have made a lot of films about men on horseback." The remark isn't pretentious or facetious, nor is the distinction it implies factitious. It is, rather, central to an understanding of his work, which is not that of a director who makes genre pictures but that of an artist who uses aspects of genre to make personal films. For all practical purposes, Ride the High Country is the real artistic beginning of his career, as it heralds his emancipation from the western even as it demonstrates how thoroughly he had absorbed and mastered it, and marks his first command over the polarized structural motifs that inform this and all his subsequent films. These motifs are most evident in the pair of old westerners whose divergent paths late in their careers constitute the primary story. The love story, which as a convention is as common to the western as to, say, comic opera, is secondary, but Peckinpah makes its incorporation organic by using the education of the victimized Elsa and the ambivalent Heck as a way of focusing and thus giving dramatic urgency to the issues at stake in the main conflict between Steve and Gil. The basic issue of that conflict is, appropriately enough in view of a lot of the talk in the script, a biblical question: what does it profit a man to gain the world if he lose his soul? Peckinpah doesn't ask the question abstractly. He gives it a flesh-and-blood reality by telling the story of a man who has grown old and nearly been forgotten and by shaping it as a journey that goes from the low country (the town) through a pastoral wilderness (the farm and the trail) to a primitive frontier mining town far back in the mountains. The journey describes a kind of passage—moral, ecological, mythical—that cuts back through time or, rather,...
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that relocates time along a continuum that is spatial rather than temporal. The story is so securely grounded in this geographic setting that the thematic argument can be followed simply by observing how the values change as the landscape the characters pass through changes and by observing how they look and act in one setting as against how they look and act in another. (pp. 32-3)
Ride the High Country has often been mistakenly viewed as an allegory about moral inflexibility versus moral relativism, but that misses the point of the farewell scene…. What is revealed is not only Steve's great generosity and capacity for forgiveness; what is revealed is that however severely he may have judged Gil, however harshly he may have treated him, Steve never ceased to believe that Gil was a good man. This is the source of the tremendous power the last scene exerts upon us and explains why Peckinpah grants Steve entry into his house justified. The film is not an allegory about legal jurisprudence; it is a beautifully felt story about salvation through friendship, Steve's purity consisting, in the final analysis, not in the rigidness of his devotion to legal principle but in the steadfastness of his faith in Gil. (p. 38)
There are two especially problematic aspects to a film that fails as Major Dundee fails, one for the artists involved and one for critics…. [In] the traditional arts when an artwork fails we can be pretty sure it is the artist's failure. But when a film fails, whose failure is it? If the failure is in part the filmmaker's, then how can one criticize without at the same time sounding as if one is tacitly endorsing the studio's despicable practice of mutilating films? All of these problems come to the fore with Major Dundee because the studio did mutilate it, because what is left is not necessarily in the form the director imagined it to be, and finally because it must be admitted that the picture has substantial problems apart from anything the studio did to it.
Asked once if "they" had cut a lot of Major Dundee, Peckinpah answered, "Yes, they cut a lot of it. They left out what it's about." Trying to figure what it's about is not the easiest job in the world because, with all due allowances made for the pressures under which Peckinpah worked and the interferences with which he had to contend, the film, both in conception and execution, remains the most confused of all his films. Much of the confusion stems from flaws in the basic structure … and from certain intractable elements in the raw materials…. (pp. 53-4)
[Some] of the objections that have frequently been raised against Peckinpah and his films suggest a widespread misconception about the kind of artist he is and the kind of films he makes, and seem to be based on a critical fallacy. That fallacy consists in drawing a one-to-one relationship between the ideas that characters express and the artist's personal beliefs—as if an artwork were nothing more than a veiled sermon or confession…. [Peckinpah] literally has no ideas but in things, which is not the same as saying that he has no ideas or that his ideas are puerile. It is rather to say that his imagination is such that it cannot coalesce except upon substance, whether that substance be character, event, story, detail, convention, structure, or so on. Peckinpah has frequently been called a visual poet, and what this means is that his mind is such that its terms are the terms of metaphor, simile, image, and symbol…. This is why Peckinpah has so frequently been drawn to the western … because everything was there waiting for him: a repository of plots, characters, icons, conventions, settings, and themes—in short, a whole language of myth, symbol, and metaphor waiting to be exploited and capable of freeing his imagination for exclusive concentration on its most important task: giving form to its dictates.
In the case of Peckinpah's imagination, the paramount dictate originates in his discomfiture with all certainties and absolutes and finds expression in [polarized structural motifs] … and in the antitheses, ironies, and ambivalences which mark his films and make them studies in ambiguity…. (pp. 102-03)
[What] is so morally beautiful about The Wild Bunch is inseparable from what is so aesthetically beautiful about it; both are a function of the same imaginative impartiality which is so involved with and committed to its artistic materials that it cannot help granting even the vilest characters a full measure of the rich, pulsating vitality that animates every frame of the film and that leaves us with the unmistakable sense that each character, no matter how minor, exists in the fullness of his particular being. The extent to which this applies to all of Peckinpah's best films forces us to reevaluate the whole question of his so-called mindlessness and anti-intellectualism…. Sam Peckinpah is a first-rate storyteller and a great filmmaker. Is it necessary that our appreciation of his artistry have as corollaries attempts to make him into a second-rate thinker and a third-rate philosopher, especially when it is so plainly obvious that he is intellectual enough about what matters to him, which is manifestly and by his own admission making storytelling films?
With its story of men as deadly companions, unified through fighting and eventually through an ideal of personal loyalty, The Wild Bunch takes up where aspects of Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, and the aborted script for Villa Rides left off…. (p. 104)
[None] of Peckinpah's films is elaborately plotted. What he seems to need is a basic dramatic structure, the simpler the better, for the complexity comes from the richness and variety of texture, the elaboration from the way he dramatizes character and visualizes incident and event. The story he told [in The Wild Bunch] is a beauty, and it brought together the requisite ingredients—outlaw men living beyond their time, bargaining for freedom, compromising for gold, engaged in exploits that seem already the stuff of romance and legend, all set within a historical framework of violent social and political upheaval—for him to make the story support the fullest, richest, and most comprehensive vision of life he has given us before or since. Although he said he wasn't deliberately trying to make an epic, The Wild Bunch became, and remains, his epic all the same. (p. 107)
In general, Peckinpah may be said to have two basic styles: one, seen primarily in his western films, that is open, somewhat lyrical, and expansive; the other, seen primarily in his films with contemporary settings, that is darker, tenser, and rather more jagged in its editing. However, there are elements of both styles in all of his films; and it can be seen that the contemporary-settings style is not so much an antithesis as an extension of the western-settings style. When the setting gets more contemporary and space is at a greater premium, then the sense of being quite literally crowded intensifies, the flow of images is more punctuated by competing images, the glimpses of open space are more sporadic, and the expansions into lyricism—exemplified chiefly in the slow-motion intercuts, the deep-focus shot, or an image held for a long time—are of far briefer duration. Similarly, the camera moves closer to the action (in a crowded setting even it has less space in which to maneuver), and as a consequence it sees less at any given moment, so the cutaways multiply. In The Wild Bunch the two styles are synthesized, because its setting is both savage and civilized, primitive and sophisticated, the most transitional of all his settings. His combination of deep focus, telephoto lenses, slow motion, and fast cutting is ideal for weaving the thick, pulsating, protean textures of life he is after and for expressing the psychological effects of living in a world of such density. (p. 131)
In The Wild Bunch Peckinpah made a tragedy, but at the last moment he carried the structure toward the comic; in [The Ballad of Cable Hogue], by contrast, he has made a comedy, but at the very end he deflects the structure toward the tragic. The terms are being employed here in their technical, that is, structural, sense; but much of the excitement and pleasure of these two films derives from the tension between mood and structure, the variations that Peckinpah is playing upon familiar patterns of drama, and the extremes to which he pushes and then transforms them. (p. 175)
[The] western film and the theme of anachronistic men have become virtually synonymous with one another in Peckinpah's career…. [Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid] is not centrally about men who have lived beyond their time. With its interlocking themes of casual violence and environmental determinism, it is as close as Peckinpah has come to making a film that is an explicit criticism of frontier life, of those "good" old days to which his characters often nostalgically refer. (p. 183)
If there is one thing that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is not, it is another of anything. Set three decades before The Wild Bunch and two decades before Ride the High Country, the film deposits us into just precisely the time to which the protagonists of those earlier films refer when they are speaking lyrically of the ways things used to be. Yet once back there, we find not a simpler, nobler way of life, but a grosser, dirtier, more violent and shabby one, where, ironically, the people are talking about the better times that existed even farther back in the past. Short of blasting his audience in its collective face with the point, Peckinpah could scarcely have been more explicit in demonstrating that the "glory" of the "Old West" exists not in fact but in fancy, specifically in the characters' memories. This was always more or less implicit in the earlier films. In The Wild Bunch, for example, the flashbacks—which show us Pike deserting a friend, leaving behind a member of the Bunch, and through carelessness allowing the woman he loves to be killed—serve only to give the lie to Pike's sentimental talk about the old days. By the same token, in Pat Garrett what the characters reminisce about contrasts markedly with the mood and manner in which the reminiscence is recalled…. Nearly every time a character recalls something from the past, what it concerns is some violent incident, some death, some killing…. (pp. 215-16)
Peckinpah's western films have always … been more about "today" than about yesterday…. Peckinpah resurrects an old, essentially antique mode of heroism that originates in the epic in order to indicate something of what he feels has both gone out of and is needed to withstand contemporary life. At the same time, [Peckinpah realizes] that a fixation on the past qua past is often nothing more than sentimentality and even primitivism, that the hard facts of the past are scarcely less grim than those of the present, and that the actual past does not always offer the most admirable models for emulation; and so [he refers to a mythic past and directs his vision toward a future he hopes] will be possible. (p. 270)
[The] idea of transcendence, a theme of Peckinpah's that has not received much attention, is never far from his concerns, and nowhere does he give it greater or more powerful expression than at the ends of his films: the mountains that, as they witness and ratify the death of Steve Judd, seem to absorb his very spirit and being; the release of the Wild Bunch into folklore, legend, and ultimately myth; the moving of Cable into the whole torrent of the years, his joining the souls that pass and never stop. Nor is the idea of transcendence limited to its metaphysical aspect. At least as often it takes the form of facing and then freeing oneself from the prison of the past, as Pike does, or simply of going beyond the limitations of any moment in life by staying in motion, acquiring more experience, literally more of life itself, so that the old habit or habit of thought can be broken in the collision of self and society. And the great archetype that we so often find at the center of American art and expression, the archetype that Emerson imagined as the single man planted indomitably against the huge world, has several times been visualized by Peckinpah in compositions and stagings, but nowhere so purely, so profoundly, or so essentially as in the scene that concludes with what may yet come to be regarded as the single most beautiful image in any of his films: Pike on his horse riding away from us into a limitless expanse of sand, sky, and sunlight—an image of the frontier and of our relationship to it that, in its richness of implication, suggestion, and significance, can stand with Fitzgerald's evocation of that new world which put us face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder. (p. 271)
Paul Seydor, in his Peckinpah: The Western Films (© 1980 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1980, 301 p.