Tag Archives: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

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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Hero’s Island (1962)

Long before James Mason was cast in the role of Stodgy Old Man in every movie ever, he once played Young Hunk in Hero’s Island. This somehow has nothing to do with his age – Mason was 53 when he played the island-bound Jacob Weber, which is far older than today’s Young Hunk standards – and instead has everything to do with Mason being one hell of an actor. In fact, he appeared as Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita in the same year, a role which definitely leans more toward Stodgy Old Man than toward Young Hunk. One can imagine a remake of Hero’s Island casting Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans or Chris Pratt – basically any of the Marvel Superhero Chrises – in the role of the brawny Jacob, sandy hair and strategically tattered shirt and all. This would be an entirely different kind of film (Superhero’s Island) because Mason’s Jacob is hunky, sure – but is he a hero?

Set on Bull Island in 1719, we meet the Mainwaring Family as they arrive on their new waterlocked home. The deed in Father Mainwaring’s hand entitles him to ownership of Bull Island, but standing on the dirt for the first time he states with a sense of wonder that “it doesn’t feel that I own this”. Ownership, of course, is entirely a matter of opinion – and in the opinion of the fisherman who’ve lounged around the island for years, the “right” of the Mainwaring Family’s presence is no right at all. They’re essentially Crusoe’s savages in the context of Hero’s Island, though their depiction in the opening scenes hews closer to this comparison than their actual function once the film is fully fleshed out. One of the first things the Mainwaring Family sees to is the construction of a large cross, which they kneel and pray in front of once it stands tall. The “savage” fisherman watch from afar, and before we hear them say anything more than a few words we see them bless themselves with the sign of the cross upon seeing the Christian symbol rising from their dirt.

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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.