The canon of Sam Peckinpah's blood letting mastery will be on display July and August as part of the Somerville Theatre's "Summer of Sam Peckinpah" series which will showcase 10 of the 14 feature length films the maverick director notched during his tumultuous career.
The program could alternatively be titled, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." At the height of his career, Peckinpah transformed the western genre with gritty gray depictions of morality and balletic orchestration of extreme violence that were at once, disturbing and poetic. At his nadir, Peckinpah had creative control wrested away by studios believing his vision had gone amok. And there were those later endeavors, where the director was too high on coke and alcohol to assemble competent and comprehensive results — though there were always the old flashes of brilliance. In there too, sprinkled between disaster and crowning achievement, were the quirky off-kilter oddities that bordered on cult status and defied genre while polarizing filmgoers and critics alike. Were they visionary masterpieces, or more of Sam firing off into a maelstrom of misanthropic misery propelled by a pint of tequila and contempt for his producers?
If you're familiar with Peckinpah and his works, you can probably fill in the titles next to each category with relative ease. If the name is new to you, or somewhat vague, then you're in for a taste bud awakening and cinematic treat. That said, most all of Peckinpah's films bristle with machismo, hyper violence and perverse, sexually charged situations — not everyone's cup of tea.
Historically, Peckinpah's been viewed as the gateway filmmaker who set the stage for the dark, iconic works of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in the ‘70s and more contemporarily, Quentin Tarantino. The Monty Python skit "Salad Days," where a nice English picnic in the country turns into a blood gushing hell, got at the mainstream perception of Peckinpah and his films at the time, but what made his vision resonate with critics and audiences during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as over time, were the visceral themes of being caught out of time and out of place. They felt dislocated, disenfranchised and desperate — but in those desolate backdrops were always soulful wafts of loneliness and the unwritten code of loyalty.
The Somerville Theatre's program runs the 10 films in tight, near chronological order. "Ride the High Country" (1962), Peckinpah's second feature begins the two-month-long tribute on July 1. Peckinpah had cut his teeth as a TV director with "The Rifleman" series and was also a longtime assistant to Don Siegel ("Dirty Hairy" and "The Killers") in the ‘50s — he had five bit roles in Siegel's conformist horror classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956). Peckinpah’s first feature, “The Deadly Companions” (1961) was mostly viewed as a transition piece, as it starred Brian Keith, the lead of “The Westerner” TV series, which Peckinpah also directed. The piece never quite gelled in the new format, but that theme of redemption and the notion of setting things right (Keith played an ex-army officer looking to make amends to a woman whose son he had killed) would echo loudly in "Ride the High Country" and infuse many of the director's subsequent works.
When Peckinpah set out to make "High Country" many derided his choice of casting Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as his leads. They were aging actors but personal favorites of Peckinpah and precisely what the script called for, old school westerners confronted by the amoral corruption in a mountain high mining town impervious to the influence of outside law and custom. The movie casts shades of "Shane" and floats the specter of Robert Altman's brilliant and yet-to-be-released, "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971).
Peckinpah's follow up, "Major Dundee" (playing July 8), a Civil War era grudge match with the Apache, was something of a letdown by comparison. Marred by heavy studio paring and a vicious on set feud with star Charlton Heston (the excellent cast also included Richard Harris and James Coburn), Peckinpah was removed from the film before its completion.
Five years later, Peckinpah would deliver his magnum opus, "The Wild Bunch" (July 15, 70mm), seamlessly weaving together the vanishing West, the onset of the First World War, the invention of the airplane and the cruel injustice spreading throughout Mexico and fought against by Pancho Villa. The cast of antihero outlaws and rival bounty hunters would factor in more of Peckinpah's idols, Robert Ryan and Edmond O'Brien, aging Hollywood A-lister, William Holden and Peckinpah regulars, Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin ("What we've got here is failure to communicate."), L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. The movie was as much a revelation in cinematic technique (multiple cameras shooting the same action simultaneously, the interweave of slow motion and regular speed action within a sequence and the tight, frenetic cross-cutting that brought it all together with purpose ) as it was a statement about the brutal nature of man and bureaucratic hypocrisy of society in large. The Vietnam War was raging at that time, and some politicized "The Wild Bunch" as an allegory for America's involvements in other countries' affairs. Peckinpah would adhere to his intent to tell a simple story about men of fixed ways caught in changing times. The eloquent score by longtime collaborator Jerry Fielding and the script by Peckinpah and Walon Green would go on to receive Oscar nods.
"Straw Dogs" (July 22), Peckinpah's first non-western, too had the tang of Vietnam attached to it (released in 1971) as it revolved around a college professor (Dustin Hoffman) who relocates to the small English village of his wife (Susan George) in order to extricate himself from the turmoil and protests back home and to focus on his precious mathematical equations. There, conflict and tension come in other forms, the primal power of sex, cowardly acquiescence, pedophilia and class division, all driven by another hauntingly ominous score by Fielding, and culminating in the perfect storm of escalation in a remote enclave where the hand of the law is as ephemeral and effective as it was on the edge of the American frontier. The graphic nature of the pivotal rape scene sparked outrage and controversy at the time and remains equally as provocative and divisive 45 years later.
In 1972, Peckinpah made two movies with screen icon, Steve McQueen, "The Getaway" (July 29) and "Junior Bonner," one of Peckinpah's more somber and contemplative endeavors. "The Getaway," based on the pulp crime novel by Jim Thompson, featured a script by Walter Hill ("48 Hrs."), music by Quincy Jones and ignited a war with producer Robert Evans, dislodging his marriage to co-star Ali MacGraw, who fell in with McQueen off set. The film would go on to become one of the first blockbusters (budget of three plus million with returns of over $25 million) before "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977) would go on to define the genre. McQueen's signature cool gets well displayed, but is also poignantly nuanced by the emotional turmoil his Doc McCoy experiences when he learns of his wife's unscrupulous moves to free him from prison.
It's been widely held that "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (Aug. 5) was something of an angry cathartic autobiographical release for Peckinpah, who at the time (1974) was begging to succumb to substance abuse and alleged blacklisting by the studios. A game Warren Oates stands in as Peckinpah's alter-ego Bennie, a Tijuana piano man who spends the entirety of the film hopped up on tequila and running from the organization (Hollywood) looking to secure the object of the film's title (Sam). He's also haunted by the specter of love and a woman he thought he trusted — Sam's marriages and romances were as stormy as his relationships with his producers. The film opened to tepid and negative reviews but has more recently been reconsidered as something of a weirdly unique romantic odyssey, strange and cultish in its misanthropic meanderings and buoyed by the subtly poetic evocations of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Touch of Evil."
In 1973, Peckinpah cast three popular musicians for "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (Aug. 12), his retelling of the legend of the infamous outlaw and his former partner turned bounty hunter. Folksinger Kris Kristofferson ("Cisco Pike") brought charm, charisma and empathy to Billy, while James Coburn imbued Pat with a weary resignation and palpable inner conflict. Pop singer Rita Coolidge had a small part and rock's poet laureate of the moment, Bob Dylan had a supporting (but barely speaking) role as a member of Billy's posse. Dylan also recorded the self-titled album for the film which included the classic "Knocking on Heaven's Door." The music and lyrics poignantly commented upon the action directly as it unfolded and remains one of the most ingenious intertwines of songwriting and cinema in the wide historical berth of filmmaking.
Two of Peckinpah's lesser received efforts, "The Killer Elite" (1975) based on the Robert Syd Hopkins's spy novel, "Monkey in the Middle," and "Convoy," (1978), starring Kristofferson and McGraw, and based on the similarly titled CB radio propelled pop song by C.W. McCall — a trucker's anthem and runaway hit at the time — play a double bill on Aug. 19. At the time Peckinpah was in such a downward spiral few studios wanted to deal with him. United Artists gave him a rare opportunity with "Killer Elite," Most of his other final projects would be financed from overseas and other alternative sources. Despite the great cast (James Caan, Robert Duvall, Bo Hopkins and Burt Young) and Peckinpah-esque flourishes to the scenes of martial arts combat, "Killer Elite" was regarded as little more than a slightly sating, but pat revenge drama. "Convoy" on the other hand was so antic and choppy — though carried well by Kristofferson and some great freeway pile up choreography — that it registered as instant camp and became a career killer for its director.
Prior to the "Convoy" debacle, Peckinpah made "The Cross of Iron" (which concludes the series on Aug. 26) in Yugoslavia with German funding. The partnership would seem apt considering the film, based on a novel by Willi Heinrich, is about a band of German foot soldiers caught behind Russian lines at the end of the Second World War. Given Peckinpah's rocky standing at the time, and the litany of financial snafus, the casting is impressive (Coburn, James Mason and Maximilian Schell). The film would run out of money before shooting was complete and Peckinpah and Coburn would contrive an improvised, machine gun blazing ending that was both excessive and confluent, and would directly influence parts of Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."
"Cross of Iron" would be the last critically regarded work by Peckinpah. As it became, Peckinpah was unhireable, but his old friend and mentor, Don Siegel gave him the opportunity to assistant direct (uncredited) on the Bette Midler chanteuse comedy "Jinxed" (1982) — a critical and commercial disaster that would be Siegel's sad and unfortunate farewell. Out of the ashes, Peckinpah would get one more opportunity, "The Osterman Weekend," another spy thriller based on the Robert Ludlum novel, with an outstanding cast (Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Meg Foster and Dennis Hopper). Its lukewarm reception sealed Peckinpah's fate. He would not make another film, but would helm two Julian Lennon videos before his death in 1984.
Sadly missing from the Somerville Theatre's lineup are the afore mentioned "Junior Bonner," a deeply moving elegy to a rodeo man, his family and fading ways, and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970), Peckinpah's followup to "The Wild Bunch," which told a tale of loneliness, perseverance and yearning — two of Peckinpah's favorite and his least violent films. "Hogue" star, Jason Robards, had also starred in Peckinpah's TV production of Katherine Anne Porter's "Noon Wine" (1967) with Olivia de Havilland, which is a rare find and could have been a nice add. No matter, the man who pushed the cinematic envelop and created a stir by making violence intoxicating, worked effusively as a storyteller to get at the real darkness that existed there in our everyday lives.
When asked in an interview about the excesses in his films, Peckinpah responded that he couldn't compete with the 6 o'clock news or exploitation films, and in that statement lies a hidden truth, that every bullet, every face slap in a Peckinpah movie, is done with profound purpose. There is little, if nothing, gratuitous in a Peckinpah film.
When asked about working with Peckinpah, L.Q. Jones said: Peckinpah made 14 or 15 films (Jones worked on nine of them), four or five are classics. John Ford made 240 and four or five are classics. It's a stark barometer and all the more reason to capitalize on the opportunity to see "Bloody Sam's” masterworks (and the guilty pleasures like "Convoy" too) up on the big screen.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter at @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.