Inside the head of Sam Peckinpah

So the great director's films are about violence? Not really. Are they about honour? Hardly. In fact, says Rick Moody, Sam Peckinpah offered us realism - albeit of a very particular kind

"Now, most funeral orations, Lord, lie about a man," - so says David Warner, in his memorable turn as Joshua, the fraudulent preacher in Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue, from 1970. The same can be said of most film criticism - that it dissimulates or exaggerates about the film, about the director, about the movement, about the art. So let's aspire in this revisionist essay on Peckinpah to tell the truth. Although it's worth noting that when you believe what characters say in a Peckinpah film, you play right into the director's malevolent hands.

Nevertheless, the first point that must be made, here in the 21st century, is that Peckinpah's films are not terribly violent. That's how he made his reputation: as "Bloody Sam", the man who never met a bucket of theatrical blood he wasn't willing to splash around, and who always made certain you knew when the blood was about to flow, by means of slow motion. Still, by today's standards, the better part of the Peckinpah canon is not terribly violent - not when judged against today's rivers of gore. There are, in Peckinpah, no fountaining bodies, no bits of brain tissue splattered about. Anything released in the last 20 years is quite a bit more repellent. Seen any of those Saw movies?

Ride the High Country is a good place to start for the uninitiated. Released in 1962, it scarcely departs from the western as we understand it. There's the good guy, Steve Judd, and the bad guy, Gil Westrum, and they behave according to type for the first reel, at least until they get into the business of saving a young, impetuous romantic (the very first film role of Mariette Hartley) from her up-country fiance. Then the good guys and bad guys get curiously admixed, till it is hard to tell which is which. Indeed, Hartley's impetuous tomboy and Randolph Scott's old cowpoke have, toward the end, an exchange on the ubiquity of gray areas between right and wrong.

This exchange could serve as a template for the morality of the entire Peckinpah oeuvre. Still, the threatened gang rape in High Country happens mainly by implication, and there is little here of Peckinpah, master of the high-noon showdown. Even in the midst of the climactic shootout, the camaraderie between the "bad" Westrum and the "good" Scott, as they pick off a posse of far worse mountain men, is anything but removed from the western genre. The shootout involves a lot of grimacing, and there is ample time, despite perforations, for Scott's last pronouncements. After which the orchestra swells!

In The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the Jason Robards vehicle that Peckinpah made in 1970, just after The Wild Bunch, the comic and light-hearted moments that also marked the first reel of Ride the High Country are back, even expanded. Though the filming apparently suffered many problems, not least of which was the director's frequent intoxication, the results are good-natured, even heartwarming. Robards's performance, in which he often appears alone, inveighing against God, or fate, or luck, is marked by an almost Beckettian slapstick existentialism. His scenes with David Warner, too, are funny, sly, and immediately accessible to cinemagoers who also admire Ionesco or Pirandello. While I am sure Peckinpah believed he was remaking the western along more realistic lines - John Wayne and John Ford needed to be dispatched, after all - this is not the film that achieves that end. The western, in Cable Hogue, is comic, is populated by stock outlaws and tipplers. Its only generic innovation is its nihilism about the possibility of good. The preacher is a liar and pervert, the bank owner delights in the collapse of the revivalist's tent, the whore is the only girl in town, who does, of course, despite her short temper, have the heart of gold. Where's the realism in this?

The big revenge sequence in Cable Hogue, wherein Robards repays the two drifters who left him in the desert to rot, is modest, and, as befitting the gentler, wiser Peckinpah, one of the thieves is saved. Even the "bad guy" who gets sacrificed goes down not in a hail of bullets, but in a modest single shot. In fact, the most violent sequence in Cable Hogue is the very first, in which Robards, while attempting to make lunch out of a gila monster, has it shot out of his hands. Presumably humane treatment of desert animals had not yet swept the film industry. And what of the later films? Not so violent either. Junior Bonner, The Killer Elite, Convoy (among the most inexplicable moves in a career filled with odd moments), The Osterman Weekend. Pretty tame!

The unvarnished truth is that the Peckinpah reputation for excessive violence, a violence which no longer looks terribly violent, rests on a very few films: on The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Of these, Pat Garrett is not terribly successful - we can probably discount its meanderings, despite the strange Bob Dylan cameo, and the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies him. Its longueurs are not made tolerable by the genuine magnetism of antagonists James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, the latter of whom, prior to the grizzled outlaw role into which he later settled for good, appears here as an amiable and stunningly handsome Billy the Kid. The camera just loves the guy.

The Wild Bunch, however - a true masterpiece - presents a whole raft of problems. Auteur-criticism types will tell you that the story is about honour, as in this memorable exchange between the two principal desperadoes, played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, here disputing over the vigilante who has followed them into Mexico:

Holden: "What would you do in his place? He gave his word."

Borgnine: "To a railroad!"

Holden: "It's his word."

Borgnine: "That ain't what counts! It's who you give it to!"

Peckinpah seems to imagine that honour is at the story's core; that despite the whoring, drunkenness, money-lust, and savagery that propels the tale, the principals do get around to defending their Mexican friend Angel from the brutal Mapache - though a little too late, as it turns out. And yet the film itself, with a body count in the hundreds, and its prolonged shoot-outs (sequences that have surely influenced all the action film excesses that followed: the Schwarzenegger films, the Seagal films, the Van Damme films), its absolutely demeaning treatment of women, is not exactly what one would consider honourable at all.

The opening title sequence, in which the outlaw posse controlled by Holden's character Pike Bishop enters town and attempts to rob a railroad, is noteworthy for the way it juxtaposes its theme music and its incipient outlaw bloodlust with a scene of local children pitting two scorpions against an army of fire ants. In this way is innocence ruined, the title sequence seems to say, after which it reenacts this Nietzschean material, in the course of the film, again and again. Children, for example, ride the body of the martyred Angel, token Mexican member of the posse, as he is being dragged behind horses of the evil general; and, later, it's a child, serving as a sniper, who administers the coup de grace to Pike Bishop, when he is busy trying to clean out the general's entire army with a machine gun.

The west was like this, Peckinpah says, whether wittingly or unwittingly. It was not so much a place of honour as it was a place where life was cheap, where no one gave a second thought to the man standing next to him, and a buck, a bottle of scotch, and a syphilitic prostitute were enough to get a man through. Perhaps it is more honest to say that during the Vietnam years (the years in which Peckinpah operated at the peak of his abilities), the squeaky-clean western, the John Ford western, needed to give way to something far more jaundiced; a western that was more about survival of the fittest, and the will to power, and the corruption of the rugged individualist.

For similarly hard-hearted truths were available for consumption in some of the other classics of the Vietnam period, in, for example, Bonnie and Clyde, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Still, by the time we get to what is arguably the last watchable Peckinpah film, the incredibly strange Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), it is hard to believe that what is being dramatised amounts to any kind of world view at all. This later Peckinpah, using his reliable journeyman Warren Oates as vessel for autobiography, has by now slipped into some fugue state marked only by bizarre tragicomedy and fabulism. In fact, this revisionist western is so revisionist that it has jets, convertibles, accountants, and modern Mexico City in it. The revenger's narrative, however, is unchanged, almost entirely intact from The Ballad of Cable Hogue: a Mexican patriarch's underage daughter is impregnated by the aforementioned Alfredo Garcia, who was "like a son" to this crime boss. A million dollars to whomever will bring him the head! Somehow Oates, a luckless piano player in a dead-end Mexico City bar, becomes the bounty hunter who can deliver the goods, but not without giving up everything that's dear to him.

Alfredo Garcia is more like a B-film than the relatively high-minded fare of which one imagined Peckinpah capable after The Wild Bunch, or Straw Dogs, and The Getaway. And more like the B-films of Roger Corman than John Ford's. In a way, here at the end of his major output, the garishness, the half-heartedness of the production values, the fuzzy story and fuzzier characters remind us that at the end of his career, Peckinpah is among the undisputed poets of alcoholic cinema. Peckinpah in Alfredo Garcia never misses a chance to treat a woman badly, to make sure she shows the camera her breasts, and his joyless men seem to lust after nothing but money and rotgut drunk straight from the bottle. They have come to the end of their luck. As had the director himself. There's a desperation to Alfredo Garcia, therefore, and yet, for all that, it is hard turn away from it. Train wrecks, after all, offer a visceral satisfaction, if only for their scale.

And the very last thing Peckinpah shot? Right before his death? Julian Lennon's music videos for Vallotte and Too Late for Goodbyes. Did he need the money? Did he like playing the underdog? Was there something moving about musical advertisements for the son of a famous victim of violence? However you answer these questions, there's something starkly beautiful about Valotte. Julian Lennon, his features and his voice so unsettlingly reminiscent of his late father's, sits alone at the piano in a recording studio, as the camera seems to hover, as if from hereafter itself, at the uppermost corner of the ceiling above the performance.

There's nothing flashy or cheap about the video (in an era when cheap was the order of the day), and everything about it feels understated, even graceful. But whose heavenly ken is depicted therein? From the top of that ghostly staircase? John Lennon's point of view, lamenting a son he insufficiently came to know? Peckinpah's, who knew his time was short and that his vision, as realised, was incomplete? Maybe Valotte was a sort of funeral oratory, too - one, as in David Warner's speech from Cable Hogue, in which the orator was unable to lie.

Rick Moody

The GuardianTramp

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