Category Archives: Director Series: Sam Peckinpah

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

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.

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Convoy (1978)

Sam Peckinpah’s penultimate film is Convoy, a Kris Kristofferson vehicle (sorry) about a bunch of truck drivers and their epic run-in with a corrupt lawman. The characteristics it shares with the other films from the late career of Peckinpah are not, unfortunately, anything other than the over-budget, highly confrontational, highly chaotic occurrences typical of the productions of Cross of Iron and The Killer Elite. The one difference in that regard is that Convoy actually did well at the box office, riding on the popular wave of truckerdom started by Smokey and the Bandit the previous year. But the uniqueness of that success is eyebrow-raising, too, for besides a chaotic production Convoy shares very few traits with any other film from Peckinpah’s career.

Kris Kristofferson is the sinewy truck driver known by the CB handle “Rubber Duck”, and his route across Arizona hooks him up with two of his trucker friends and a femme fatale played by Ali MacGraw. Their conflict with Ernest Borgnine’s crooked cop “Dirty Lyle” provides the main clash of Convoy, and the film’s title refers to the miles-long line of trucks that eventually forms in Duck’s wake as he crosses the Southern U.S. The escalation of the convoy itself isn’t too convoluted, which is to say that the pacing of this first chunk of the film is even and sensible. Preexisting animosity between Duck and Lyle leads to a situation of entrapment and extortion, which leads to the trucker retaliation at a diner, which leads to Lyle involving more and more policemen, which leads to the truckers involving more and more drivers. Ali MacGraw is just along for the ride (sorry).

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Cross of Iron (1977)

If there’s one film in the late career of Sam Peckinpah that stands out among the rest, it’s Cross of Iron. By 1977, Peckinpah was still regarded relatively highly within the American film industry despite the fact that his last few films – Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and The Killer Elite – performed atrociously at the box office. While most Peckinpah purists regard Alfredo Garcia as a violent and uncompromising classic, there’s little doubt that The Killer Elite is one of the weak points in the director’s career. Cross of Iron would be followed by Convoy and Peckinpah’s final film, The Osterman Weekend, but the former of the three is the only one that truly taps into the brutal verve that made the director so sought-after in the first place.

Interestingly – though perhaps not so surprisingly – Peckinpah supposedly turned down offers to direct the King Kong remake (with Jeff Bridges) and the first Superman film, opting for Cross of Iron instead. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, and odds are you’ve heard of King Kong and Superman while the “heroes” of Cross of Iron are difficult to name even after you’ve just watched the film – but one gets the sense that Peckinpah wouldn’t care about that, and would’ve picked Cross of Iron all over again if he were given the choice today. It was the quality of the story that mattered most to Peckinpah, and while King Kong and Superman endure to this day for a variety of reasons it can probably be argued that the strength of their scripts is pretty far down on that list.

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The Killer Elite (1975)

It’s tough to find defenders of The Killer Elite. Watching the film without any knowledge of the chaotic production or of director Sam Peckinpah’s personal, financial and artistic woes at the time probably makes for a bland and unexciting viewing experience; sadly, a little background on Peckinpah effectively makes it even worse, as it’s hard to watch The Killer Elite without noticing that the gleefully indulgent heart characteristic of his best films seems to have vanished.

The set-up ain’t bad, although that hardly ever matters in the hands of a capable director. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as CIA-contracted assassins and friends who have worked together for years. Duvall’s George betrays Caan’s Mike, shooting him in the elbow and knee and leaving him badly crippled. The rest of the film follows Mike as he recuperates, retakes his post at the shady government operations agency, and ultimately seeks revenge on his old pal George.

There are plenty of rumors associated with The Killer Elite that may or may not be true. First is that Peckinpah took the project specifically as an attempt to recreate the financial success he had with the Steve McQueen-starrer The Getaway, which marked the last financially successful movie Peckinpah would direct. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was both more in line with Peckinpah’s Western sensibilities and more of a box office flop, and so it is admittedly easy in that regard to draw parallels between The Getaway and The Killer Elite. The fact that the project may have been more associated with money than with any real passion pretty much sets the thing up for failure out of the gate.

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Sam Peckinpah is nearly always divisive in his filmmaking, but perhaps never more so than with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Unlike The Wild Bunch or Straw DogsAlfredo Garcia (or BMTHOAG, as it may be lovingly referred to) isn’t necessarily controversial because of the level of violence. While other Peckinpah films seem set as classics even in spite of their explicit scenes of brutal violence, most people just can’t decide whether Alfredo Garcia is any good or not.

The set-up comes in the wake of the proclamation that serves as the film’s title. Alfredo Garcia has impregnated a young girl, and her powerful father offers a million dollars to the man who delivers him from the neck up. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a piano player in a rundown bar who eventually becomes tangled up in the hunt for Garcia at the prospect of a large payoff. His girlfriend, played by Isela Vega, comes along for the ride – and needless to say there are vicious consequences. Soon the head of Alfredo Garcia is in Bennie’s possession, but a darker drive swells up within him and his plans change.

Why would people dislike Alfredo Garcia? For starters, the set pieces from the first half of the movie leave a lot to be desired. In fact, there aren’t very many set pieces at all between the initial “Bring me the head!” scene and a mid-movie altercation with two biker thugs. This altercation serves a) to begin to show a few cracks in the otherwise happy-go-lucky demeanor of Bennie (as Warren Oates brilliantly snarls “you two guys are definitely on my shit list”) and b) to show the promiscuity of Bennie’s girlfriend. Both of these revelations are compounded and built upon in later scenes, but during the scene in question the sense of urgency and pacing of Garcia seems lost.

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The Getaway (1972)

There is a scene in The Getaway where Steve McQueen’s Doc and Ali MacGraw’s Carol evade a roaming cop car by diving into a dumpster. The pair end up swimming in trash for a lot longer than they’d probably expected, but it’s the few shots leading up to this sequence that are the most interesting. As the cop car slowly turns the corner and begins the prowl down the thin alleyway, Doc moves furtively up to the corner and braces himself against the brick wall, gun drawn. This is Steve McQueen, major action star of the era, it’s Frank Bullitt and Thomas Crown and The Freakin’ Cincinnati Kid for chrissake – but when Doc sidles up to the corner of that alley, the guy playing him ceases to be so endearing as he usually is; those cops coming down the alley are about to die, and Doc’s going to kill them.

He actually doesn’t kill them, of course, and we’re treated to the dumpster sequence instead. Point is that Doc’s moral compass is way (way) off from the kinds of characters you usually see McQueen portraying, and the prospect of shooting cops dead is a decidedly likely prospect throughout the course of The Getaway. Sam Peckinpah plays with this beautifully, and it’s possible that his second collaboration with McQueen (following the much more lighthearted Junior Bonner) was designed specifically to explore the questionable morality of the central character. It’s also something that Peckinpah would continue to explore in his 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

It’s more jarring here, through McQueen’s Doc. Freshly released from prison, Doc takes Carol along on a heist as the getaway driver. The heist goes bad and team member Rudy (played brilliantly by Al Lettieri) attempts to kill Doc and take the money for himself. A narrow escape only paves the way for a multifaceted chase, with Doc and Carol, Rudy, the police, and other forces vying for the stolen cash. All the motivation Doc has is to survive, to not go back to prison, and to keep the money for himself; the first two motivations are understandable, but it’s the third that receives most of the focus here. Doc really wants that money, and he’ll beat up and shoot people to make sure he gets it.

Rudy’s character, I think, effectively makes Doc’s character tolerable, meaning we’d be a hell of a lot less likely to root for Doc if we weren’t also rooting against Rudy. The two men being opposed from the very start is what provides us a clear good guy/bad guy pairing, or at least pushes that idea a little more into the light. One of the best Rudy scenes sees him riding in the back of a car driven by a man he has taken hostage. The man’s simpleton wife inexplicably sides with Rudy during this entire encounter, and as the trio barrel down the highway Rudy and his new girl munch happily on sticky ribs. A rib fight ensues, meaning Rudy and the girl gleefully whip ribs and fries at each other and at the despairing hostage. Barbecue sauce coats the inside of the car. Suddenly, Rudy shrieks “I don’t like this game no more!“, and the trio go immediately back to silence. There’s something weird and off-putting about this scene, very nearly bordering on disturbing, because Rudy’s mental state is shown to be completely unhinged by something as absurd as a rib fight.

That said, Doc isn’t a portrait of mental health either. His prison stint has had a clear effect on him, evident when he states it out loud – “It does something to you…It does something to you” – and again when he snaps at his own girl Carol. He strikes her for a simple misstep, and one could argue that his turnaround is as sudden and therefore even as repulsive as Rudy’s. But we’ve seen Doc in prison at the beginning of the film, we’ve seen the mindless way that days bleed into one another and time slips into nothing, we’ve seen years of days in a few short minutes. Rudy doesn’t have such a backstory, so his character traits are unexplainable, unreasonable, alien and terrifying. Doc may very well exhibit the same traits, but the reason we aren’t scared of him isn’t just because he’s the protagonist or just because he’s Steve McQueen. Doc’s pain is the cause of his ruthlessness, and in this way out of the entire Peckinpah oeuvre The Getaway is probably matched only by Straw Dogs in terms of depth of character.

Straw Dogs (1971)

A quick visit to good ol’ Wikipedia will let you know that Straw Dogs came out the same year as A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and Dirty Harry, all of which were considered by the general public to be excessively violent films. Those other films undoubtedly have some rough sequences (especially the slap-happy home invasion of A Clockwork Orange), but Straw Dogs probably takes the cake for the most disturbing usage of violence in any movie of that era. Though Peckinpah had endured harsh criticisms for his portrayals of violence in his earlier films (especially The Wild Bunch), Straw Dogs would reach new heights (or new lows, depending on who you ask) with regards to what can and cannot be shown in a mainstream feature film.

Dustin Hoffman’s David and Susan George’s Amy have just started a quiet stint in the English countryside, during which David plans to finally get some work done and Amy plans to nag David and putter around looking for the cat. A few of the locals throw long and blatant gazes toward the leggy Amy, much to the subdued frustration of David. Eventually, the locals begin to test their limits toward the young couple – and eventually the gazing becomes staring, the staring becomes touching, the touching becomes harassment and the harassment becomes outright violence.

A long and complicated scene in which Amy is raped provided much of the fuel for the fire of controversy that ignited immediately upon release of Straw Dogs. There are actually two rapes back-to-back by two of the vicious locals, the first of whom is a man Amy knows and used to date. There is a sickening ambiguity to this first sequence in which Amy, initially resistant, seems to fight the event off less and less as it progresses. The promiscuity of her character throughout the film was also harshly criticized, which somehow morphed into a criticism of Peckinpah’s depiction of women in all of his films.

Regardless, it’s the second rape that many perceived to be the excessively brutal one. Amy very clearly resists and despises the occurrence, and while the second happening isn’t actually as graphic as the first Amy’s reaction is what makes the sequence so completely disturbing. This scene was immediately cut by studios prior to the film’s release and the uncut version was slapped with an X rating.

The paradox here lies in there fact that cutting the second sequence left that ambiguity of the first to sit and fester, with many audiences believing through the end of the movie that Amy had ultimately allowed the horrible event to occur. Studio muddling is a characteristic of nearly every Sam Peckinpah film, and fairly noticeable in his films from Major Dundee onwards. The reworking of Straw Dogs provided the ultimate irony not only by confusing audiences with last-minute editing, but by effectively highlighting the most disturbing portion of the film in an effort to lighten things up.

Still, whatever form you find Straw Dogs in will mark an important turning point in Peckinpah’s career. Violence on the Western front is one thing – Westerns by their nature are violent, set in seemingly lawless lands, populated by drifters with no names or backstories or ties to society. Peckinpah essentially takes these traits and plops them into a town in England to watch what happens. The local brutes – especially those played by Del Henney and Peter Vaughan – capture that Western-bandit quality of general disregard for societal structure and general desire for personal satisfaction no matter the cost.

Straw Dogs isn’t a Western. The ultimate message, though – or one interpretation of the film – may be that the setting matters little, the players involved matter little, the circumstances surrounding these particular players in this particular place matter little. Peckinpah’s mankind is prone to violence, will grow to wrest a violent tendency from the most unassuming of men, and Straw Dogs depicts this unpopular but unwavering philosophy in an important way.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.

Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee may be the threshold Sam Peckinpah crossed to get from amateurish filmmaking to successful, mature directing. His breakout (in terms of “mainstream” filmmaking in the way we’d deem such international success today) came later with The Wild Bunch, but Dundee is every bit as impressive when held up against Peckinpah’s earliest film effort The Deadly Companions and his follow-up Ride the High Country. Less tangentially: Major Dundee is the first Peckinpah film that’s truly worth revisiting.

Charlton Heston stars as the titular Union Major, disgraced after an unspecified maneuver and forcibly removed from his position close to the end of the Civil War. When he and his troops happen across a camp ravaged by brutal Apache, Dundee swears to shift his personal war onto the native tribe. Captured Confederate prisoners from the opposing side – best represented by Richard Harris’s Captain Tyreen – and a few drifting recruits with no allegiance in the actual War – best represented by James Coburn’s mountain man Samuel Potts – round out the field and unite under Dundee’s cause.

What ensues is essentially “Moby-Dick on horseback”, as some have labeled Dundee before with good reason. Dundee’s cause is not dissimilar from Captain Ahab’s in that his vision is singular and unshakeable, no matter the cost or danger to those under his command. Tyreen is a near-perfect analogue for Starbuck, questioning Dundee’s motives and his methods. The young bugler Ryan provides narration for the film and is a sort of Ishmael for the journeyers, while the Apache is largely absent from the film and thus fills the whale-sized shoes of Moby-Dick himself. Analogues aside, Dundee also captures the epic spirit of such Great American Tales in rare and exciting way.

As mentioned in our opening segment of the Peckinpah Director Series on The Deadly Companions, it was not uncommon for the sets of his films to be characterized by chaotic scheduling, mass firings, and no small amount of alcohol consumption on the part of the director himself. Heston famously stood by Peckinpah and all but saved his involvement with the project, while simultaneously claiming that Peckinpah would often wander off and leave Heston to direct in his absence. The difference here is that Dundee is a great film, while Companions really isn’t – at a certain point, the reasons why become unimportant.

Still, another unfortunate thing that characterized Peckinpah’s films (and specifically Dundee) was the tendency for his original cuts to be massively edited and chopped by studio executives. The runtime of Dundee is fairly long, but it’s nowhere near as long as it would have been if Peckinpah had had his way. Regardless, even the shortest cut available is worth a watch.

The triumvirate of Heston, Harris and Coburn is a major driving force of the film, and the character of Amos Dundee is certainly one of Heston’s most underrated roles. Odds are some moron will deem it wise to remake Major Dundee someday in the near future, updating it for the modern age by setting it in a postapocalyptic wasteland and casting Mark Wahlberg as Dundee. The Apache will be replaced by CGI’d robots. Actually, everyone will be replaced by CGI’d robots.

Until then, check out Major Dundee for an early look at a filmmaker on the cusp of international success.

The Deadly Companions (1961)

The first of our Director Series will focus on the films of American director Sam Peckinpah, largely known for his revisionist Westerns and his notorious depictions of violence in nearly all of his films. “Bloody Sam” achieved wider fame following 1969’s The Wild Bunch and retained a strong reputation with efforts like 1971’s Straw Dogs and 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – as with all of our Director Series, we’ll take a look at some of the lesser-known Peckinpah films as well.

And more for the sake of completion than anything else, we begin with Peckinpah’s directorial debut The Deadly Companions. Brian Keith stars as a cowboy known as Yellowleg who accidentally kills the young son of Maureen O’Hara’s cabaret dancer Kit Tildon. To make amends (or to clear his own conscience, or for some unexplained reason) Yellowleg escorts Kit through dangerous Apache territory to the place where she demands her son be buried. Local bandits and murderous Apaches haunt their journey, as does a growing intimacy between the two leads.

Sorely disjointed and nearly robotic with regards to some of the dialogue, it’s certainly not Peckinpah’s fault that Companions is quite stiff. Still, while the plot and setting and characters all seem like elements Peckinpah would be attracted to, the film is devoid of nearly any of the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks. The director was untried with the cinematic format at this point in time, though, so perhaps Companions shouldn’t really be held up against the “good” Peckinpah movies.

Why would Kit almost instantaneously fall in love with the man who killed her son? Put aside the fact that Yellowleg killed the boy, and he’s still not offering a heck of a lot in the Lover Department. This is one of the many uneasy contrivances that could be the fault of the script but are more likely due to studio interference during the editing process.

In fact, Peckinpah allegedly vowed never to direct a film again after Companions unless he had script and editing control. The final product of this film, one would assume based on such a claim, is probably a far cry from what Peckinpah envisioned when he agreed to the project. The resistance he met with during the shoot would also come to characterize some of his later productions, and that clash is just painfully evident in the flow and pacing of his debut feature. Again, The Deadly Companions has all of the pieces of a Peckinpah classic – they just happened to be cobbled together into something that’s a lot less satisfying.