Known for the graphic violence and beauty of his challenging films, director Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984) was a Hollywood maverick whose movies were highly controversial. He was best known for such bloody, exquisitely crafted westerns as The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah's much-imitated films were among the first to employ highly stylized cinematic techniques to depict the extremes of human brutality.
Heavily criticized for allegedly glorifying violence on screen, Peckinpah always maintained that his purpose was to sensitize audiences to unspeakable acts. "I'm a great believer in catharsis," he explained in one interview. "When people complain about the way I handle violence, what they're really saying is, 'Please don't show me; I don't want to know."'
Jeans vs. the Suits
Peckinpah was descended from early settlers in California who became ranchers and mill owners. His father and grandfather were judges, but Peckinpah grew up on a ranch. The independent spirit of his background and upbringing infused his entire life and career. As a teenager, Peckinpah was such a troublemaker that his father sent him to military school to try to rehabilitate him. Peckinpah served in the U.S. Marines during World World II.
After the war, at Fresno State College, Peckinpah became involved with Marie Selland, who was active in theater groups. He enrolled in drama classes, started directing plays, and married Selland. Their marriage lasted 15 years and produced three daughters and a son.
After earning a master's degree in drama from the University of Southern California, Peckinpah took a job handling props for network television. He was fired from the musician Liberace's TV show for refusing to wear a suit on the set. He next worked as a dialogue director and occasional writer for movies. As an assistant to director Don Siegel, Peckinpah helped write the script and had a small acting role in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He then returned to television, working on scripts for such westerns as Gunsmoke. By 1960, Peckinpah was writing and directing his own TV series, The Westerner, but it was cancelled after 13 episodes.
Even in his early days in Hollywood, Peckinpah's fascination with violence made for a rocky career. He once offered a script to Disney studios, which rejected it with the criticism: "Too many shootings, not enough animals." The first film Peckinpah directed was The Deadly Companions, a 1961 western with a fresh and audacious viewpoint. But it had a limited release and earned little attention. The following year he received more acclaim for another cowboy movie, Ride the High Country, which starred Joel McCrea as a former lawman trying to regain his lost integrity. "This movie celebrates a hero of self-control," noted critic Michael Sragow. "But each frame is energized with a sense of what that self-control has cost the man in love, friendship and glory."
Peckinpah's prickly personality and his penchant for creative disagreement got him fired from a job directing The Cincinnati Kid, and he feuded with his producer over his next film, Major Dundee. As a result, the film was extensively edited over Peckinpah's objections, and it failed at the box office. Peckinpah had become almost an outcast in Hollywood. Unable to find another directing job, Peckinpah wrote the scripts for the films The Glory Guys and Villa Rides, a film about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. He also continued to work in television as a writer and director.
"When he was making movies it felt, for some of us, as if we were watching an ongoing street accident," recalled critic Pauline Kael in an interview for a 1999 Peckinpah retrospective. "We felt helpless; he was determined to be doomed. He liked the helplessness of it all; the role he played was the loser. And though the competition is keen, he's probably the greatest martyr/ham in Hollywood history." In Kael's view, Peckinpah was largely to blame for his legendary battles with studio executives: "He needed their hatred to stir up his own. He didn't want to settle fights or to compromise or even, may be, to win. He wanted to draw a line and humiliate the executives. He simply wasn't a reasonable person."
The Wild Bunch
In 1969, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch was released. At the first screening, dozens of people walked out during the film's first ten minutes. This landmark film had a mixed but profound impact on audiences, many of whom came into theaters expecting a mainstream western and felt themselves challenged at every turn. On the surface, the story concerned what critic Sragow called "grizzled outlaws escaping railroad bounty hunters and barging into the Mexican Revolution." But it was much more than that. Writer Charles Ramirez Berg termed the film a "frontal assault to cinematic sensibilities." After a European release, it did poorly at the box office in the United States, and the studio cut eight minutes from every American print of the film.
The Wild Bunch marked a dramatic departure for Hollywood in its depiction of violence, away from what Berg called the "sanitized, 'bang-you're-dead' movie convention-no splattered blood or contorted body spasms" to a more terrifying, in-your-face hyper-reality. The film's carefully choreographed, slow-motion bloodletting would be much imitated in years to come by directors from Martin Scorcese to Quentin Tarantino. To admiring critics, Peckinpah's approach to violence in the The Wild Bunch was visionary. "Peckinpah's treatment of individual acts of violence is electrifyingly ambiguous," asserted Sragow. "Peckinpah cuts among speeds-and between parallel displays of mayhem-as he shifts perspectives. The results challenge a viewer's powers of perception and empathy."
More than any Hollywood movie made up to that point, The Wild Bunch seemed designed to rile audiences. "The idea was challenge," wrote critic Louis Black. "The intention was confrontation. The essence was conflict." Kael said Peckinpah's own attitude toward his goals in the film was ambivalent. "I remember his talking to me, when he was planning The Wild Bunch, saying that he was going to make a picture so ferocious that it would rub people's noses in the ugliness of violence. They would never want to see anything violent again. But when the picture came out and there were insensitive people who cheered the bloodshed, he seemed delighted, he acted vindicated."
The Wild Bunch divided Peckinpah's audiences and critics into two camps: those who adored the moral ambiguity and technical daring of his work, and those who abhorred his obsession with violence and considered his skills overrated. For The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah received his only Academy Award, for best original screenplay.
Feuds and Furor
Peckinpah's next film, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, suffered editing cuts by producers after more feuding between the studio and the director over its contents. Next, Peckinpah went to England to film Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman. Released in 1971, it was a brutal story about rape and revenge, filled with what seemed to most critics as gratuitous violence. It was attacked by many for its unflinching portrayal of sexual violence but hailed by Peckinpah fans for its uncompromising attitude.
Peckinpah's notoriety had grown to the point that he had become a magnet for social critics. Straw Dogs especially called attention to Peckinpah's often crude and degrading portrayals of female characters in his films. "Peckinpah on screen was a terrible misogynist," wrote biographer David Thomson. "His women are bitches, whores, whore-saints, sluts, betrayers, naive madonnas— they are also riveting. [T]hese women are so passive, so silent, so fit for male paranoia."
Teetering between cult status and controversy, Peckinpah softened his hard-edged style when he agreed to direct two top Hollywood stars of the era, Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, in the romantic action thriller, The Getaway . This film, more accessible and less offensive to mainstream audiences, was his biggest box-office hit. Having paid some bills, Peckinpah returned to his more adventurous mode with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a beautiful but obtuse western that was severely cut by MGM Studios during the usual post-production disputes that dogged Peckinpah's efforts. Thomson called Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid "one of the great American films, entrancing, perplexing, the beauty redeems the boorish attitudes."
Most of Peckinpah's fans were disappointed with his later work, including his grisly mid-1970s films Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, —a story of a man carrying a decapitated head— The Killer Elite, and Cross of Iron. These movies lack the vitality and freshness of his earlier work and seem to show a frustrated director who is stewing in his own juices. With his career on the decline, Peckinpah next directed a knockoff comedy called Convoy, a film based on a pop song. His final effort was the ill-received The Osterman Weekend, a creative but unfocused work released in 1983.
His Own Man
Throughout his career, Peckinpah's efforts to bring his uncompromising vision to the screen were constantly thwarted by studio executives who blanched at the excesses of his style and content. The battles were the stuff of Hollywood legend. Peckinpah's approach always took on the dimensions of a director-against-the-world crusade. "His anti-authoritarianism went beyond radical chic," Sragow wrote. "He curried favor with no one, whether movie mogul, ideologue, or tastemaker."
Peckinpah's turbulent personal life mirrored the macho images he put on screen. He was a hard-drinking, rugged individualist who refused to follow many of society's social conventions. Following a divorce from Selland, he married Mexican actress Begonia Palacios, and they had a daughter together before divorcing. Peckinpah next married an Englishwoman, but that marriage was short-lived. He returned to Palacios; they again married and again divorced.
Black noted how the director's screen protagonists seemed to represent his own frustrations: "Peckinpah cherished failure, celebrating it as an act of defiance. Peckinpah's heroes were aggressive losers, men out of time who were proud of it, who wouldn't have it any other way, as though they knew that there would never be a really good time for such dreamers, such visionaries." Thomson agreed, pointing out that the plots of his movies, though usually set in the dying days of the American frontier, seemed to mirror the director's own predicaments: "Through Peckinpah's work there is the theme of violently talented men hired for a job that is loaded with compromise, corruption and double-cross. They strive to perform with honor, before recognizing the inevitable logic of self-destruction."
Self-destruction was a constant motif in Peckinpah's life. He battled alcoholism and a rash of illnesses and physical limitations. Because of the excesses of his lifestyle, Peckinpah developed heart disease. He eventually had to wear a pacemaker.
In December 1984, a blood clot was discovered in Peckinpah's lung and he was flown from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Los Angeles, for treatment. He died at the age of 59 in a suburban Los Angeles hospital, with Palacios at his side.
Battles over his work continued beyond his death. When a "director's cut" of The Wild Bunch was released in 1994, restoring sections edited out by studio executives in 1969, the Motion Picture Academy of America slapped an NC-17 rating on it, even though the original film had been rated "R." The rating doomed the re-release, because most major theater chains and some video retailers refused to carry NC-17 movies. Long after his death, it seemed, Peckinpah still had the power to incite controversy.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf, 1994.
Atlantic Monthly, June 1994.
New York Times, December 29, 1984.
Time, January 7, 1985.
"Sam Peckinpah," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com.
"The Passion of Sam Peckinpah," The Austin Chronicle, http://www.auschron.com/issues/dispatch/1999-10-22/screens-feature.html .