The problem isn’t that The Osterman Weekend is a bad movie. It certainly is, mind you, but that’s not the main problem. The books of Robert Ludlum are that strange breed of airport literature that often seems perfect for film adaptation but rarely manages to translate well, and by that criteria Osterman isn’t even that bad – this first adaptation was followed by the godawful Michael Caine-starrer The Holcroft Covenant in 1985, an equally shitty made-for-TV version of The Apocalypse Watch in 1997, and then nothing until the Bourne movies finally showed up and allowed the Ludlum Estate to wipe its collective brow. The Ludlum Lens (heckuva title for his biography!) isn’t what we’ll be viewing this film through, but if it were this might actually turn out to be a favorable review.
Instead: The Peckinpah Perspective. The problem with The Osterman Weekend is that Sam Peckinpah directed it – the issue there being that the final film barely resembles what one would come to know as a Peckinpah film. At one point in time, that phrase was gold – it’s a Peckinpah film. It meant violence in a somewhat hyperbolic sense, but it also meant well-drawn characters with muddled motives, it meant ugly people doing ugly things under a microscopic lens. A Peckinpah film, at best, meant an insanely detailed story, and most importantly it meant a story unlike any you’ve seen before. There’s a reason people shake their heads and grind their teeth and comment cynically on message boards across the internet about how nothing in Hollywood is original anymore, about how Michael Bay makes the same movie over and over. It’s because they just watched a Peckinpah film, and because they’re hard up to think of any other film to compare it to.
…unless, of course, the Peckinpah film they just watched was The Osterman Weekend. Starring Rutger Hauer as John Tanner, a mild-mannered (sort of) political news host on a primetime TV program, the film follows Tanner’s reluctant involvement in a plot to expose three of his best friends as Russian spies. An FBI agent named Fassett, played by John Hurt, is the source of this revelation, and in his possession are countless tapes and recordings of Tanner’s besties talking trash about the good ol’ USA. Fassett knows about the quartet of friends and knows about their annual gatherings, known as “Osterman weekends”, and it’s here that Fassett sees a way of manipulating Tanner into fighting for his cause. See, if Tanner can turn one of his friends from the dark side over the course of the weekend, then they all might turn. This would turn the tide, or something, and it’s evidently the best plan one of the most powerful organizations in the world can muster.
The convoluted scheme worsens, if you can believe it, and by the end of The Osterman Weekend it’s nearly impossible to discern anyone’s motives anymore. Hurt’s Fassett is the worst of them, and he’ll make you keep thinking wait, there has to be another twist – his master plan can’t possibly be that stupid. Sigh. It is.
Peckinpah was in a rough place going into this Weekend, and he essentially signed on to the job as a way to regain his standing as a somewhat respectable mainstream director. His combativeness with nearly every producer in Hollywood led to a kind of outcast status, and perhaps The Osterman Weekend was a potential way back into the fold. Regardless, Peckinpah reportedly despised the shooting script for the film and requested to write his own (denied), then turned in his own cut of the film (denied) all while staying on budget and on schedule. After filming wrapped and editing began, Peckinpah’s involvement was essentially nil. This friction caused Peckinpah to essentially disown what would be his final film.
The fact that Rutger Hauer (hot off Nighthawks and Blade Runner), John Hurt, Burt Lancaster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper all turned out for The Osterman Weekend is an attestation to the power of Peckinpah, and all of those actors spoke highly of the director’s work on the film. Given the quality of the final product, there’s the undeniable sense that all of these guys are kind of slumming it – but they seem perfectly willing to do so simply for the chance to work with Peckinpah. Bloody Sam would pass away less than a year later, and it would be nice to say that his poor reputation was immediately expunged upon his passing. Though it wasn’t, Peckinpah has since begun to regain his rightful place among the most unique American filmmakers of his day. When given the control he felt a director should have over his own film, Peckinpah crafted some of the most intense and memorable movies around.
Take a look back at the rest of our Sam Peckinpah Director Series, which includes The Deadly Companions (1961), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), The Getaway (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977) and Convoy (1978).