Bloody Sam On the Lam
A History of Sam Peckinpah & the Revisionist Western
His name is one that brings memories of a mad genius; a cinema auteur with balls of steel. He was a man who would redefine the Western genre and horrifically expose the true nature of inhumanity and violence, that the old school studios and television audiences took for granted; while at the same time, serving as the ground work for the newest generations of directors and Hollywood rebels. This is the story of Sam Peckinpah.
In 1943, a young David Samuel Peckinpah of Fresno, California, found himself serving in the Pacific Theater, during WW2, with the United States Marine Corps. On numerous occasions his unit witnessed acts of barbarism and torture conducted by Communist Chinese forces against unarmed, and previously surrendered, Imperial Japanese soldiers. Peckinpah later described witnessing such atrocities as “time slowing down”, as if three seconds lasted an hour. These experiences would forever impact his future work in terms of content and cinematography.
Upon his honorable discharge and return to the United States, Sam studied theatre at California State University and the University of Southern California; there he became affiliated in the techniques of writing and directing; and it was in the mid 1950’s when Sam realized that his true destiny lied elsewhere. He began writing and selling scripts for episodes of western themed television shows, including Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel, The Rifleman, Broken Arrow, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, and The Westerner. Many of these shows are thought of by modern audiences as often hokey and cheesy for simply being products of their time, but the episodes written by Peckinpah often delved deeper into thematic issues which questioned and reflected such audiences both then and now. What does it mean to be a man? What is the real definition of honor and justice? How does a man bearing the tin star hold himself and exercise his power of law enforcement in an environment merged between civilized order and frontier anarchy?
Following his literary work for television, Sam finally had the opportunity to work in Hollywood films, after signing a directing contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer, in 1961. His first film, The Deadly Companions (staring Maureen O’Hara, and Brian Keith) was a low budget B-Movie with mixed reviews, but was his first absorption into film directing, nonetheless. However he would be instantly catapulted into the spotlight with his follow-up film Ride the High Country. This western film starred Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in their declining years, as their characters chronicle a gold mining rush in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, during the early 1900’s. More than just being a film about the evolving and modernizing face of the west, the film also experiments with thematic values and commentary about how (metaphorically) every sunset is the end of one generation’s adventures and the beginning of the next generation’s. As well as how the legal standards of those who are good and bad can be come socially diluted by decisions of moral conscience and exterior circumstances beyond the control of the characters. So much so, the by the end of the film, the viewer can barely even tell who is (by definition) the hero and the villain.
Released in July of 1962, Ride the High Country was a critical and box office success and further cemented Sam’s career as a visionary and thematic film director. However, Sam’s next big budget film was with Columbia Pictures. 1965’s Major Dundee starred Charlton Heston and Richard Harris as two former West Point graduates turned bitter enemies during the Civil War, who must work together to command a motley crew of Union cavalrymen, Confederate prisoners, and civilian volunteers who march south into Mexico (during the Franco Mexican War) to hunt down a Apache war party. While filming on location, Peckinpah began to experiment with slow motion cinematography of battles and individual moments of violence to expose the reality of how morbid and inhumane violence and war can be, despite how other studios preferred to glamorize it for the sake of mass entertainment; while in terms of theme, Peckinpah desired to use the atmosphere of the American and Mexican frontiers during the mid 1860’s to bring light to the unknown conflict of the Franco Mexican War which carried on during and slightly after the American Civil War, as well as showing how the Civil War involved the physical and emotional struggles of numerous people, with differing ethnic, racial, and national identities.
Yet, this grand vision that Sam had in his head and on the camera was thwarted by increasing pressure and intimidation from Columbia Pictures. Due to of the extensive location shooting, behind the scenes animosity between members of the cast and crew, lack of sufficient budgeting funds, and Peckinpah’s newfound addiction to alcohol, the studio blatantly snatched the film away from him, recut the footage and organized an orchestra score.
Upon the film’s release in theaters, it was a critical and box office disaster. So much so that Sam Peckinpah was consequently blacklisted by many major Hollywood studios. He wouldn’t have a chance to redeem himself until 1969, when Warner Bros hired Peckinpah to direct what is regarded as his magnum opus The Wild Bunch. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan, the film combines the thematic elements and commentary of Ride the High Country with the visual atmosphere of filth, dirt, sweat, grit, and blood of Major Dundee; however, instead of showing the frontier of America during the Civil War and the dwindling gallantry of the Franco Mexican War (1862-1867), the audience is treated to the modernizing of the American Southwest, and the carnage of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Plus, Peckinpah takes the on screen violence and cranks it up to levels which audiences were straight up appalled and disgusted by (women and children getting trampled to death by horses, an entire bridge along the U.S./Mexico Border getting blown to pieces by dynamite, and a final gun battle taking over 12 days to film). It was released with mixed reviews but made profit at the box office; and inspired the next generation of filmmakers in terms of how to portray violence on camera.
Following The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah spent the next three years as an experimental period; making a series of films which appeared opposite to that of his magnum opus, followed by another film which paralleled it; such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue (with Jason Robards) , Straw Dogs (with Dustin Hoffman), Junior Bonnor (with Steve McQueen), The Getaway (also with Steve McQueen), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (with James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, and Bob Dylan). Such films were extremely difficult to make thanks to Sam’s alcoholism, his inability to intelligently work with his actors, and several instances of studio interference in the creative department.
However, in 1974, Peckinpah made a film which he publicly regarded as his personal favorite. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. This modern western chronicles a Mexican crime lord’s attempt to find a man (named Alfredo Garcia) and sever his head after his daughter confessed to having been raped and impregnated by him. A down and out American named Bennie gets word of the private manhunt, and soon discovers that Alfredo Garcia is already dead; all he needs to do is dig him up, remove the corpses head, deliver it to the kingpin, and receive $1,000,000 in cash to start his life anew. However, as the film progresses and Bennie must kill more and more people in order to reach Garcia’s grave and deliver the head, the dirtier he and his car gets; symbolizing the staining of his soul by desecrating sacred ground and committing the murders of others to achieve something as common and practical as money; with Sam indirectly asking his audience, “What does it profit a man if he is to gain the world at the price of his soul?”
Following the completion and release of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah fully accepted the fact that none of his films following The Wild Bunch would ever being him any commercial success, not strike chords with the younger generation of Americans as the political and cultural tide began to change. Sam was unable to adapt with the evolution of time (much like many of his characters) and slowly faded away from the spotlight as he continued to drink and abuse drugs. Peckinpah rounded out his film career with four more films. The Killer Elite (with James Caan and Robert Duvall), Cross of Iron (with James Coburn), Convoy (with Kris Kristofferson and Ernest Borgnine), and The Osterman Weekend (with John Hurt, Dennis Hopper, and Burt Lancaster). In February of 1984, after decades of alcohol and drug abuse, Sam Peckinpah died of heart failure, in Livingston, Montana. His passing (like those of many of his characters) marked the end of an old dog’s rough and tumble life, and left a legacy for a new generation to pick up where he left off.
- Weddle, David. If They Move … Kill ‘Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. Grove Press, 1994. Print. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Fine, Marshall. Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah. Miramax Books, 2006. Print. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Fulwood, Neil. The Films of Sam Peckinpah. Pavilion Books Ltd., 2014. Print. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Prince, Stephen. Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. University of Texas Press, 1998. Print. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Bliss, Michael. Justified Lives: Morality & Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah. Southern Illinois University Press, 1993. Print. Accessed March 26, 2020.
- “Badass Digest : The Great Sam Peckinpah - Part 1” Youtube, uploaded by Cinefix, 8 March 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnwvoQ5laig.
- “The Great Sam Peckinpah - Part 2” Youtube, uploaded by Cinefix, uploaded by 15 March 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqR6lCfXjw0.
- “Sam Peckinpah - Man of Iron (1993)” Youtube, uploaded by Eyes On Cinema, 10 April 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dWfbmqGr3Js&t=968s.