Posts tagged “Sam Peckinpah

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)


There’s a list of films that I know about and have accepted that it’s going to be very unlikely that I’ll be able to watch. I thought Bring me the Head of Afredo Garcia (1974) was one of those films. Thankfully that is no longer the case. First aware of it during a Sam Peckinpah documentary on a DVD, probably for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) or The Wild Bunch (1969) I would always look out for Garcia’s Head, just in the hope that it would appear to me. And out of nowhere – Bam! Probably Peckpinpah’s finest work post Wild Bunch.

One of the few films he made when he felt he wasn’t “whoring himself out” which I can understand, work for someone else’s ideas and vision instead of your own which he found more satisfying, but it was all too late to save him from alcoholism that killed him. If he was allowed to see his vision through maybe, just maybe he would have produced more interested un-compromised work. I wonder what Major Dundee (1965) would have been like if it wasn’t take away from him? All this questions and very few answers, at least we have a directors cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that shows how dedicated he was to the Western, how his vision of a dystopia’s depicted by looking back.

Moving forward a year to Alfredo’s Garcia’s Head his last true Western in the neo style, is Peckinpah being allowed a longer leash from Hollywood to get his own passion project made, after Billy the Kid was mangled in the editing room. Maybe that was his “compromise” allowed him to get on with this will less interference from the studio? Looking at Bring Me the Head it feels more personal, he’s been allowed the length that he wants. His cast is familiar to him, casting Warren Oates who was one of the Wild Bunch who all met with a bloody end. Here he’s the focus of the film, a pianist in a bar Bennie who recognises a photo that has being doing the rounds – an Alfredo Garcia no idea why to him, a few men are after him.

Now lets rewind a few minutes to a Mexican version of The Godfather, no introductions, just straight into a family of power, the daughter of the family’s patriarch and godfather want to know whose impregnated his daughter, she wont speak until her own life’s threatened, does she finally speak, a bounty’s made for this still unknown man who hasn’t long to live. What kind of film have we let ourselves in for here. Who in the 20th century gives such an order, still its carried out, leading to a montage of search across the country, names crossed off, locations checked, still no sign until Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) meet Bennie whose the first lead anyone’s had so far. Leading to him being hired/encouraged to go on the search for him and bring back his head.

A 20th century bounty hunter, complete with car and machete, about to make his fortune – $10,000 is waiting for him. The journey wouldn’t be the same without his lover Elita (Isela Vega) bar-room floosey and singer who he has grown to love. To me it’s a Mexican Western with a white man out on the make for some big bucks. Is he made in the same vein as the man with no name from the Dollars trilogy or the troubled loner in Randolph Scott’s image.  It all starts out so innocently before they’re met by bikers and another chance to see Kris Kristofferson, reminding us of far darker scenes in Straw Dogs (1971, another I have not yet seen). The road to Garcia is a bumpy dangerous one paved with not temptations but those of a foreign land that is not known to the white man.

Violence is following him every step of the way, all of this bloodshed and for what? The head of a guy he only knew slightly. There are few moments of tenderness in the film, as it all turns sour when they arrive in the village of Garcia. It seems that nature beat them to the man who we would never meet alive. Forcing our hero – if you can call him that to sink lower than he would have thought. A blatant comment of screen violence of how far other filmmakers would go for on-screen violence. Only met further by Peckinpah who shows how brutal violence can be, reusing what is by now a well established technique – using slow-motion to emphasise what the releasing of bullets, piercing a human body, how fast death can then reach someone. Admittedly I knew what he was doing so the effects are lessened on me. Still it was beautifully edited, each time a gun fight was filmed it was taken from every angle, using what feels like every camera angle. With more open space he has been able to extenuate the effect of violence.

Ultimately the film’s summed up by Bennie who through all the lengths he goes to get the head of Garcia he has come so far to gain so little at great expense. He has caused so much death, for what – desecrating a grave over a family disagreement. Letting the family know how he feels the only way he knows how or grown accustomed to. It’s a sad end to a beautifully sad film that depicts the lengths a person will go to, even when the West has been won, borders have been made, and you hope that people have progressed morally from these reprehensible acts that keeps crime alive.  Compared to his other films its unique, back in Mexico, a country Peckinpah is comfortable in. You can see a clear argument for his ideas on-screen, that of violence in the modern world, you can find it anywhere if you look hard enough. For Bennie that was too close.

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Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Revisited


Bonnie and Clyde (1967)I was inspired to get out of my collection a film I hadn’t seen in a few years thanks to m friend over at Once Upon a Screen. It was one of the first classics that I devoured when my interest in film was developing, hungry for the more obvious pieces that everyone knows without really having to look to far, readily available to watch you could say. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is also a turning point in American film, breaking the mold of the decaying studio system to deliver one of the then most violent films. Very much a product of its time, that has stood the test of time, still having the power to shock. It may look dated in places however that’s hardly something to complain about, it’s almost 50 years old, yes 50 years old, a film about two of the most prolific bank-robbers of depression era America, a two-man Jesse James gang that drive around the Deep South, robbing from the rich banks that prevented them having the life they felt they deserved.

I can’t leave the subject of violence that my friend discussed, It wasn’t used for the sake of violence. Like any content it has to be used properly and for a reason, unless the intention is to throw you off-balance, a stylistic choice by the director. Violence has since this film and The Wild Bunch (1969) been attributed to a rise in violence which is nonsense, violence was there before both those films and as we know after the events in France its still happens. No  one is blaming film-violence for the acts of terrorism there. It comes from a root cause, a method to scare and control. Violence of the screen acts only as a mirror image of life, if we don’t see violence behind the security of a projected image we don’t truly understand the power of violence. It’s not glorified by Arthur Penn its simply mirrored and exaggerated in order to show us how bloody and horrific it really is. Just what Peckinpah built upon two years later using slow-motion that became a signature in hos work. If we re forced to look at it we’re engrossed by it, which we should be repulsed by. The images on the news is the real violence which we’re warned about before a piece of broadcast. To deny violence on-screen is to deny that it happens, much the same goes for strong language which is used right is a true reflection. Obviously not all audience should be exposed to this, learning the dangers of the world through the comfort of fairy tales that have dark characters and morals that stay with you, allowing you to understand the world around you as you grow up. Violence and strong language if dealt with sensitively can be powerful weapons in their own right.

Enough of the lecture and onto the film that I hadn’t seen since I was at uni so over 3 years ago now. I think that was long enough to forget most of the plot, even the odd clip didn’t really join up all the dots. Allowing me to go into this film very much with a fresh pair of eyes, maybe that’s the power of the images that they stay with you long enough that they you can feel their presence even as they fade into the long-term-memory. The events had long since faded leaving a sense of visceral violence and youthful energy that excites you, even though it’s about bank robberies. We are slowly lulled into a false sense of security, an uncertain time of un-seen poverty in America via old photographs that depict suffering, poverty and struggle to survive against the odds, the banks and ultimately the system that itself is fighting to stand-up. Before we meet a young couple in the oddest of situation, a crime is about to be committed,  the start of a strange relationship between Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway). Sparks fly between them but not in the standard sexual sense, getting their kicks on the open road in the small towns of Deep South.

It’s the youthful energy that sets this film alight, we don’t really care about what they do in the beginning, no bloods shed. They are stealing from the rich, whilst respecting the poor. In the beginning it’s just the too of them, riding the open road, enjoying the spoils in the cars that come and go like the clothes on their back. As if they don’t have a care in the world, they have their whole lives ahead of them. Before meeting their getaway driver C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) who wants to share the spoils, add some excitement to his otherwise boring life. It beats the routine of adult life they are now trapped in. Are they escaping adulthood or just the responsibility of it? They are using their bodies to get what they want, becoming powerful forces in the Southern states, forcing the hand of the already stretched banks. They are unaware of the effect they are having, a danger to society, only interested in the notoriety that is produces, they relish it, they are somebody, the Barrow gang as they come to be known when they join up with older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) who is trapped between her upbringing and obligation to her husband.

We have our outsider within the gang acting (Blanche) as the conscience of the film. Scared witless by the acts of violence that escalate, and torn by her love for Buck. Screaming at any given time, out of fear or excitement the line becomes blurred as she comes to accept her position in the gang, neither a prisoner nor a participant in the robberies. We the audience however have the choice to continue watching or turn-away. I stayed. There was too much to not ignore. I noticed that as however modern the content, the violence of the bolemic blood. It’s very classic in terms of production. The interior car scenes are all completed with front and rear projection, this could be due to budget or stylistic choices, to have a classic look, when as early as the mid-fifties car scenes were being taken to the location. We’re reminded we are looking at an artifice not reality, it shows up on-screen, yet we don;t care as we are lost in the energy and conversation of the Barrow gang. We are looking at kids, young people swept up in the moment before reality soon comes back to haunt them.

I could go on about the plot, which we all know, it is also a road trip that charts the life of these two lovers on the run from the law. They start loosing that youthful edge as the presence of the police is not far behind them. Numerous shoot-outs which I had forgotten reference films from the era, loud and messy affairs that are nostalgic for that era of film before the Hays code had been enforced on American film. It’s finally breaking free from those restraints. However as much as they are loosening there lies within a moral, that all these acts of violence will catch-up with you. As we have come to have burned in our minds, as one of modern cinema’s greatest scenes begins to unfold, bringing a close to an era in the South.

The gunning down of Bonnie and Clyde is the only scene I have re-watched away from the film, yet connected to the film is even more powerful, we’ve been taken on a thrill ride through open country, sex, violence and silliness. Reality kicks in, and orders restored in the world, our image of the film’s shattered and reformed. Violence is not a nice thing, as a mentioned earlier, it can kill with ease. The slow-motion image of their death, two dancing corpses being pumped with bullets is hard to swallow yet at the same time parodies the death scene, that moment actors relish, to leave the screen with a dramatic exit. They are also leaving life to something less exciting…death that has no escape. Driving that image home is enough to shock the audience, whilst at the same time wow them with this effect.

Bonnie and Clyde was a turning point in cinema there-after there was no point where you could go back, the fast images of death have been burned into a generation. Wanting more, seeing more on the TV at night with the Vietnam war showing death every night, when it happens everyday on our streets. Cinema had to reflect that not shy away from reality which is far darker than it wanted us to believe. It’s not even just a standard crime thriller as the characters each question their position in society, all equally “rednecks” who are fighting against the stereotype to be something more, it has a voice for the younger generation that was then still fighting to be heard against the establishment.

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Westbound (1959) Revisited


Westbound (1959)I’ve decided to undertake a revisit the Ronown Cycle of films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, taking the cheap budget of a B-western and raising it with the direction and the ideas of the script to that of a A-Western, before the power of the films was really known. All culminating in Scott’s swan song to cinema with Sam Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country (1962) where he decided to never act again, believing he was unable to surpass his performance. Westbound (1959) is the first in a disjointed series that hopes to redress my view of these films that I only started to understand as I was finishing the first watch. It will be out of sequence, based on an availability, however this time I will be using a more critical eye in order to expand my understanding of these films.

So out of the seven films I am starting with number 5, which so far feels like a more cerebral of the series. Set during the height of the civil war as most westerns are, either before, around or after that period of upheaval in American history. Which allows for a darker story to be told. When Union captain John Hayes (Scott) to undertake a mission that could change the course of the war for the side that does eventually go onto win. It’s one he does at first with reluctance, a return to an old way of life that is away from the front line of war, something that he believes in. To manage a stagecoach route to ensure the daily passage of gold to the Union is not what he had in mind.

However when he meets wounded soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) returning home, unable to fight himself. Having to face battles of his own at home, Hayes grows into a father figure who wants to instill new purpose the now disabled soldier. It’s a rarity to see a handicapped actor playing such a prominent role. Usually given to an extra on a battlefield or about to have a limb blown off. Placing him in a role that allows both the characters and audience to confront the issue head on. On returning home his wife Jeanie (Karen Steele) takes a while to adjust to his new situation. He’s not the man she saw go off to war. A walking casualty of war that has returned from the battlefield.

The Miller’s live in the the Colorado territory that was supportive of the Confederate campaign. Wherein we find the villains of the film. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) both in the field of love and war where Hayes is concerned, coming back to town where he finds his old flame Norma (Virginia Mayo) who is caught in the middle of these two men. Clay’s right hand man – Mace (Michael Pate) who is a real thorn in his side, acting more in impulse than intellect. These are the two real difference between them, its classical really, the intelligent bad guy gets the less intelligent more physically stronger gunfighter to do the dirty work and that fact is not hidden from view.

On the surface its a class set-up for a western of the period, however underneath we find darker tones, a country whose people have no real conscience, a wounded soldier, a stagecoach load who fall to their deaths are all placed before us. Its harder hitting than that standard gunfight or brawl in the street. We have men who act with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Whilst Hayes and his men fight to keep the route open to ensure a steady supply of gold to the union acts as a metaphor for a country working together for the greater good. Of course set during the Civil War that idea is meaningless, its one side for the other. Move it forward to the time of production you have look further, where I can see no parallel. The is probably the weaker of the series, its heavier on characters and settings, not set in the wide open spaces, it’s very luscious in terms of landscape. I feel there is something that wants to come out, there are things going in, characters who are fighting to be heard whilst becoming too mainstream as the film progresses. Aspects could have been developed and just left.

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The Deadly Companions (1961)


The Deadly Companions (1961)Another Sam Peckinpah film in as many days, and one I was unaware that even existed, being a much earlier film in his back – catalogue of work. Probably made with more studio control, yet The Deadly Companions (1961) does have some of the hallmarks of his later work. I do feel it’s slightly more successful than his next film Major Dundee (1962), but that’s for another review.

Focusing on his debut film he has pulled together an interesting cast, with Maureen O’Hara who became synonymous with the Westerns, a woman who could easily stand up to men, one that even earned the admiration of John Wayne on and off-screen. It is also her Irish roots that makes her come across as someone not to cross. However I feel she was miscast in the role of dancer Kit Tildon who is  a social outcast, shunned by the other women in her town. Mirroring Claire Trevor‘s Dallas in Stagecoach (1939) a prostitute just trying to make a living, whilst also aspiring to be more. I feel age is the real factor as O’Hara  is clearly not in her 20s or 30’s who has a son of ten.

Looking at the rest of the cast we have recurring actor Chill Wills and Strother Martin who are strong and defined character actors in the genre. Also surprisingly for me as I have never seen Brian Keith  in a leading role delivers a strong performance, here as known simply by the name of Yellowleg after saving the life of confederate runaway Turk (Wills) and Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran). Together they are an odd group, lead by the ex-Union soldier (Kieth) who we are left puzzled by. Barking orders at everyone, joining these two men as they ride out to rob a bank. Always keeping his hat on, even in spite of the Parson (Martin), leaving us to wonder what is under there. It’s believed that he has been scalped during the war and doesn’t want to show his scar. We fear him and don’t trust the man yet are intrigued as to his motivations as much as Turk and Billy are. 

On meeting Kit’s son Mead Tildon Jr. (Billy Vaughan) we believe that he maybe the father although this is never really made clear to us even as the film progress, and probably why it’s a much-forgotten film of Peckinpah, because of the plot holes that leave is wondering what is his connection. We also learn that Yellowleg has been wounded by a bullet in the shoulder that affects his aim with a gun which sadly takes the life of Tildon Jr. filling him with guilt and a need to right his wrong towards the grieving mother (who should really have been played by someone younger, or cast an older son).

It’s the sense of guilt and obligation that comes with the guilt in hopes of redeeming Yellowleg in order to move on. To have that forgiveness from a social outcast who has been terribly wronged. He wants to escort Kit to the burial place of the son’s father, her husband that now lies within Apache territory, something that she is willing to do alone, probably why O’Hara was chosen for the role, her stubbornness and strength of character over the other aspects of the role. Heading off alone she is soon followed by Yellowleg and his two friends (I say that lightly) who are ordered as if they are in the military, They are more bothered about robbing a bank thank riding with him, They are seen was his troops or backup that are obligated by association alone to follow him. Turk strangely has dreams of rejoining the Confederate army, carrying an officer’s cap with him which begins to consume him as the film progresses.

Where the film starts to fall down in the love interest that develops it doesn’t feel natural for Peckinpah to have that in his films. Of course having the only woman and lead actor pair-up is natural for films of that era, there are worse on-screen pairings. It’s the outsider element which draws them together, however it does detract from what the characters have, that dynamic of a mother’s child killer escorting her to his final resting place, whilst also having his own demons. Also the added element of the Apaches is very unique and not really explored in great detail. They are seen as unhinged, affected by the western society as they play around with a stagecoach they have previously stolen.

On the face of it The Deadly Companions does have strong themes which seem to be lost along the way, with interesting casting that really doesn’t help the film. Still this is a debut film and very much not in the same vein as most Westerns of the day. No killer would be seen to wear his guilt on his sleeve as openly as Yellowleg who coming from civilised society maybe bring that sensibility with him to the west.

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The Wild Bunch (1969) Revisited


The Wild Bunch (1969)Yet another western I have been meaning to revisit to better understand. My first reading of the film was completely off, as I realised after listening to a lecture from Richard Slotkin, now I really do have a far better understanding of The Wild Bunch (1969) which does indeed overshadow the rest of Sam Peckinpahwork, when he has so much more to offer to cinema. Instead of going over the plot I want to more analyse the film interns of how I read it, looking at certain elements and quotes which really do stand out for me, which probably shows why it stands out more so than others. It’s not just the violence that he wanted to amplify to the audience, Peckinpah, hated violence (not that you’d know it from his films) almost glorifying it, yet this has a knock on effect as we see the action, the deaths, the falls shot in slow-motion, we’re forced to look at the image for longer, it’s a form of torture, you want violence, here it is, in all of its bloody form, you look on staring at this beautiful image not really comprehending that you are seeing someone die before your eyes. At full speed and on the streets we don’t have that luxury, our memory replays the moments of real violence in real-time, or sped up we have no time to really process what has happened until it’s over in a flash. Peckinpah stretches those moments to allow us to process, to understand and if we want…enjoy the brutality.

With the more obvious element that stays with you long after the credits have rolled I want to focus on the Wild Bunch themselves, who in history were really Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and their gang. Taking the title and placing it on to an equally dangerous group of men, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), playing old men who lead a bunch of gunfighter’s who we meet in the close of their era and the death of the West. Their time is almost up and they know it. Hoping that they will be carrying out no more jobs after the bank-robbery, which leads me onto my first quote which struck me.

 If they move, kill ’em! – Pike Bishop

To be honest Pike delivers most  of these lines, this one is led with such military precision, there is no thought for the casualties. Those held up in the bank are collateral damage they just don’t matter in the mission, get the money and go. It’s cold blooded. Yet we spend most of our time with these men, much like most westerns, focusing on the heroes, these are reversed, leading us to believe the heroes lead by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was once a member of this gang, given a chance to redeem himself. He is the anti-hero (of sorts) that are ordered to lead a gang of misfits, the scum of the earth in search of the wild bunch. Thornton has his own lines which such as

We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them. – Thornton

There’s a yearning to even for him for the old days, for the male companionship he no longer has, surrounded by idiots who can’t even shoot the right men. Yet they are his only hope of ensuring his freedom which is in the hands of a railway man. He wants to feel alive, to be a man, to have some honour again.

I found that over the course of the film it wasn’t just a swan-song to the classics of the genre, such as John Ford’s, Hathaway’s, and Hawks etc that focus on the hero of the hour, there are no heroes here, their words and ideas are flawed, not those of men with honour that you would look up to. An argument between Pike and Dutch about a man’s words is a great example of this moral western that takes the violence by the throat and shakes it up.

What would you do in his place? He gave his word – Pike

He gave his word to a railroad. – Engstrom

It’s his word. – Pike

That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*! – Engstrong

The idea of a man’s word is a powerful masculine idea, a man’s word is worth more than a signature on a legal document to some people. It’s on the same level as the strength of a man’s hand-shake, a judgement I use myself, it’s a greeting with a stranger, or a positive start to an interview etc. A man’s word is a step further, a promise that binds two men together intrinsically. What’s being discussed here is who Thornton gives his word to, the enemy that is the railroad man (HarriganAlbert Dekker who employs him, making him a traitor to Dutch who was like a brother to Thornton, this is a betrayal much like a partner having an affair and living with them. You could say; sleeping with the enemy. Where it becomes blurry is Pike arguing the point of the fact he still gave his word, it doesn’t matter who to, he;s accepted that he has changed sides and has to live with that, respecting him. Giving your word and keeping it shows the sign of a strong man. 

Another quote to look at is

(talking about the railroad) There was a man named Harrigan. Used to have a way of doin’ things. I made him change his ways. A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can’t stand to be wrong. – Pike  

Pride. – Dutch 

And they can’t forget it… that pride… being wrong. Or learn by it – Pike

How ’bout us, Pike? You reckon we learned – vein’ wrong, today? – Dutch

I sure hope to God we did. – Pike

The glory days of their ability to strike fear into people, forcing them to change, to act fast. They are glorifying themselves as being almost gods, people to fear. Harrigan has become a man to fear as he has finally come after him, taking the law into his own hands, that at the start of the film caused countless innocent victims shot in cross-fire. Pike and Dutch are also reminiscing of better times, the height of the gunfighter that they were a part of it is no longer there. They encounter the latest vehicles that even outmoded the horse, a form of transport they have come to rely on and is synonymous with the western. Ironically used to kill Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) the good old days are over.

I want to touch one other aspect that is the US Army that is never portrayed in a positive light throughout the film. Traditionally the cavalry are the trooping the colours, riding in, sounding their bugles before quelling and pacifying the enemy in no time. Peckinpah portrays them as incompetent, even the main men think little of them. This could easily reflect Peckinpah’s and many other liberal directors who wanted to hit out at the Vietnam War, a divisive war, reflected into the countries own domestic past we see a different army that is unable to get up and react to weapons being stolen from under their noses. An embarrassment for any army, filled with raw recruits unaware of what they have to do.

It may have took a few attempts to really understand The Wild Bunch  for me is a morality western, a Neo-Western if you want to be picky as its questions the genre and the countries past, taking it and reforming it to be viewed by an audience who is drawn by violence and the legend that has blurred the countries past, the two myth and fact is intertwined, only those who study American history (before 1900) really know what happened. I am slowly seeing the connections and the differences between fact and film fiction. I can see why this film overshadows the rest, the characters are painted on a wider canvas, morality is blurred and the violence is heightened. It’s a sweeping western that doesn’t even show a Native American, replaced with the Mexican Army who are more intelligently depicted than before, they are not just drunk gringos who sleep out in the afternoon sun with a sombrero covering their faces. They are fully formed people, which is something we don’t get from the Natives. The main cast is filled with actors who have hugely played the good-guys in westerns, here playing cold killers who have their own moral code that if you think about it would frighten you. Should we really listen to what these cowboy role models oft he silver screen have told us?

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Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) Revisited


Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)I first watched Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) when I discovered Sam Peckinpah properly at art-school, like most of the western films I have reviewed. Another which I had not fully understood apart from Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is given the badge of sheriff with one main objective in mind, to bring in Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Along with a very quiet and aloof Bob Dylan as aspiring bandit Alias who also provided the melancholic soundtrack which really struck a chord in a few scenes. Which has really made sense this time around as a cast of new and old actors, two generations of men and women are in the old west, a west that is fading in the 1880’s which reflects the state of the western genre, as actors from the golden age are retiring or dying, making way for fresh talent to make it’s own mark.

The older generation lead by James Coburn who wasn’t really that old at the time of film, in his mid forties, it was only a matter of hair and make-up, along with his years of experience that allowed him to take on this iconic role of America’s gunfighter past. Whilst Kristofferson a young country singer turned actor represented the new blood that was ready to take over the reigns. It was for Peckinpah to see the baton was passed on with a real sense of loss, the passage of time marked between one generation, a new way of thinking, a generation outmoded and outdated. Having to only think about surviving and trying not to die.

At the heart of this however is a friendship between two men who once rode together, building up a reputation of fear, death and gunfire, creating legends wherever they went. Part of the fabric of the west before it was tamed, fenced off and regulated to ensure its prosperity as a nation. These two men were a dying breed. Throughout we see friends of both men fall before the gun, in timely Peckinpah violence, allowing us to see how dangerous it really was, not quite glorified, using fake blood that wasn’t far off tomato ketchup, the action is more real than the blood that leaves the dying man.

My focus was on the older members of the cast from Slim Pickens, Jack Elam and Katy Jurado who had all made their mark on the genre as character actors creating more depth around the leads they supported for years before. All meeting horrible ends, each having their moment. I still get a little choked up when Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) goes off to the river to die, joined by his wife Mrs Baker (Jurado) who watched him drift off to the next world. Two very different figures who have met age head on, accepting their mortality, accompanied by Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door that only plays for a moment, being both an obvious choice and spiritual, paying respect to the dying who made their mark on the land.

Whilst the younger men are showing their age, the skill with the gun, is something to show off, cocky to an extent that they don’t respect the older gunfighter who have the upper hand still whilst they are still around. Brought down by Garrett who reluctantly sees the job through, his duty to the men who elected him during the age of the cattle baron. He may have the upper hand which ultimately costs him more than his life, a friend who he rode with for years. To ask anyone to kill a friend is a terrible and impossible thing to ask of anyone. Made hard still by the pressure of responsibility and age which bears down on him. A conflicted man, unlike the less complicated Billy (William H. Bonneythe Kid who as much as he respects his friend still has a confidence only the young can carry.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a landmark film in that is marks the beginning of the end really of the classic genre, the older man are hanging up their gun belts and seeking the easier life. Whilst the younger more violent driven genre which is rewriting the past, becoming more honest. Peckinpah as I have said before loves this genre, coming into it at a point when it’s worn out, needing to be regenerated to carry on, making the end of something that was once glorious. Which all his westerns deal with, never positive, full of death and despair. Violence a trademark of the director is very much their, with an absence more so of the slow-motion which is held restrained for stable scenes, to mark the passage of time, something that is growing ever more between the past and the present for him.

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Cross of Iron (1977)


Digital StillCameraWith a very distinctive visual style and portrayal of violence, I knew I was in for something both beautiful and gloriously violent. That’s not to say that Sam Peckinpah enjoyed violence for which he will always be remembered for, in fact it was quite the opposite, hating it with a passion. Increasing the volume greatly from The Wild Bunch (1969) which can seem tame in comparison to the much later Cross of Iron (1977) on the Nazi battlefield in Russia.

It’s very rare that we actually sympathise with a German soldier, something I have only done twice before; All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Das Boot (1981). Again it doesn’t really matter what side these soldiers are on, seen more as men in the midst of a war they are loosing. Focusing on their dynamics rather than the politics of the conflict as the began their retreat from Russia in 1943. The main conflict is between the decorated and rebellious Rolf Stiener (James Coburn) and the Prussian Captain Hauptmann (Maximilian Schell) who wants the Iron Cross medal, an iconic and sought after piece in the Third Reich. A personal fight for glory is being waged between two men. A clash of class ideals is going on between these influential men on the Russian front. 

The opening titles of this film are fascinating, matched to a frantic succession of images that depict the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi army, as if they are playing a game, just children taking over the playground. Tinged with cynicism of the weary soldier characterised by Coburn who gas grown to hate all that is about the war and probably Germany. Still he carries out his orders and looks out for his men throughout. Even pitying a young prisoner they find, not having the heart to kill a boy in uniform, which would amount to murder not a legal killing in his and the mens eyes.

Theres a battle within the structure of command, between the colonel Oberst (James Mason) and his assistant Captain Hauptmann (David Warner). Both weary of the war, knowing they have all but lost, wondering when they will surrenderWarner plays a depressed captain whose hopes have been all but lost to the ravages of war, whilst the colonel is holding together his command. Handling a glory hungry upper-class Prussian who will stop at nothing in gaining the Iron Cross, unable to return to his family without one.

A lot of subject matter is discussed here, from the ethics of prisoner treatment to the glory of fighting, philosophy of the individual. By no means is this just a find the enemy and shooter dead kind of a film. It’s both intelligent and thought-provoking as we see the injured soldier, how they are treated by the higher ranks, the mental stresses of war, dramatically seen in slow-motion flashbacks. Whichever side of war you are on, it’s never easy for the simple soldier out there fighting. Who can lose that sense of purpose, killing, running and following orders that lose all meaning with all the death and destruction around them.

The violence found within The Wild Bunch was for its time controversial, by the time of Cross of Iron we had grown used to it all. The very setting of the latter film delivers us more studies of death as they slowed down to not enjoy but be horrified by. Cinematically we see a life coming to an end in far more than a flash of an explosion or a round of bullets piercing flesh and blood. Being forced to see such brutality makes death a spectacle to watch in awe. It’s just a trick, whilst in reality it’s anything but. This heightened experience of war makes it more real and at the same time hype real, what is over in a second we now see for 10 seconds.

It’s ultimately about two men at logger heads, at either end of the social spectrum placed into a world that a power struggle. No one really wins as we leave them when the Russians once more advance. I’m cheering for no one at this point, drained by all the violence that has been spewing out of the screen. All the tired men just trying to live another day as best they can. Isn’t that we are all trying to do, get through the day the best we can, making the most of what we have? Ok maybe a bit extreme there, I’m not in a war zone not knowing if I’ll be alive by the end of the day. For me I’ve just discovered a hidden gem of Peckinpah’s that deserves more praise than it receives, understanding his subject matter, always following the underdog at his demise, just what he does best.

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McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)


McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)

I originally dismissed McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) on the basis that I could hardly hear the actors talking, the action was slow and the soundtrack was much the same too. Then as I learnt more about the film, the director, the 1970’s and revisionist westerns I had to return and find out what it was really about, instead of being shallow and dismissive. Finding something I have found before with other director such as Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah who left their mark on the then dying genre. Breathing new life into it, for however short a time it was. McCabe & Mrs Miller feels as modern as Unforgiven (1992) or Open Range (2003) (which I really should watch again). The tone and look of the film more realistic with Robert Altman in the chair, than most of my favourite westerns. The men and women in turn of the century America talking about modern issues, such as how to trim facial hair or to a buy out of property.

What begins as a lone man (John McCabe/ Warren Beatty) wanting to start out on his own a new brothel in an old mining town. He arrives complete with his own reputation that precedes him, a killer of a politician, someone to be feared or respected. He knows what he wants. He main weapons are really charm, cunning and little business acumen. All that he really needs. The townspeople led by Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois) welcome him and his new venture, a sure winner in a town populated of mainly men. Yet its not overtly adult, there are excited men, at the site of prostitutes in this mountain town, they are a welcome addition. Life just goes on.

Things are going along smoothly for McCabe until he encounters Constance Miller (Julie Christie) a professional Madam who knows a good thing when she see’s it, joining up with McCabe, they form a casual relationship, which on-screen is confused, we never know what they are, they share a bed, the profits, yet its never overtly dealt with, it’s private and confused, like life I guess. She shakes up the business, bringing a different class of prostitutes with her, something the clients will really like and pay good money for.

For a film set in a “whore house” we don’t really see any sex, we know it happens upstairs, it’s just a part of the fabric, so why show it? Things start to fall apart for McCabe with the arrival of two men wanting to buy him out, what could be a profitable venture for him goes ever so wrong, his bravado gets the better of him, and later it gets him.

Only two years into a new century, the ways of the old west, the “whore house” is still a nice venture, yet ways of doing business are changing, to McCabe’s misfortune treating it as a game and little else. He has something pretty good and doesn’t want to part with it. An independent man, who can support himself, proud of his empire, to give it up so easy is not his way. A way that is becoming more cut-throat.

The finale is not what I expected, the atmosphere shifts from a happy mining town, to one greedy for development and change. A quiet gun fight in the snow, are we seeing a legendary gunfighter take up his gun once more, or a man fighting for his life. Whilst Miller, a woman strong on the surface seems to give into addiction, something rarely seen in westerns, simply glossed over, everyone is having problems. The final shootout has more cunning here, unlike the poorly remade fight in The Missouri Breaks (1976) which felt hollow, there was no cunning or wanting to survive, unlike here in the heavy snow that made the stakes even for both men. As the old west was dying, so had the men who wouldn’t change with it.

I’m glad I finally revisited this gem, that pleased me on many levels, the lighting which was far more accurate, as I have worked with myself, reflecting more the time, left very much in the dark. Whilst the sound quality was poor, I soon adjusted and paid even more attention, adding another layer to this modern classic. Which would be far less without Leonard Cohen‘s soundtrack which swept us off to a bygone era when life was simpler yet so much harder. Coming across as bittersweet as Bob Dylan‘s in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), demonstrating a real change in tone in the 70’s for the genre, using contemporary music for the soundtrack.

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The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)


The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)It’s taken me too long to get around to watching The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) I don’t know why really either, not knowing what it was really about until I thought, just stick it on, sit back and relax. And relax I did as another turn of the century Sam Peckinpah western unfolded. A more gentle affair from a director known for his bloody violence that will always be associated with him, which overlooks the rest of his work. which includes this. 

A man who is left to die has to go on a journey that begins with survival and revenge becomes so much more when he Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) finds  what he has prayed for the last few days, dehydrated and desperate for salvation. Not really a religious man he turns to God, who is directed towards the water that he has been praying for. Leading him once back into civilization and financial success in the form of a stagecoach station that he hopes to construct. Taking the opportunity to reap what he has been given.

This gift of water is something he isn’t so easy to give away, charging everyone at first just drink from it, costing one man his life and a philandering preacher man Joshua (David Warner) an uneasy hand in friendship.

It seems whatever Hogue has to do gain respect and trust he has a fight on his hand, with the little he has he later reaps from those who love him. Especially one prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens) who he sees so much hope and love in, he will go to the other side of the Earth for her. Who we are first introduced to in most masculine way, that is forever burned in the viewers mind. We are seeing a flawed and imperfect man who wants to make his mark, to be known by a few.

The majority of the film takes place in the stagecoach station/stop, as people come and go. A light sweeping piece of film, but remains true to the genre of the wild west. Peckinpah is more comfortable, playing with the fabric of the film, manipulating its speed for comic effect, which today could be seen as dated, yet works for the film that doesn’t take itself to seriously. And when it does, its graceful in showing the passing of time, through a musical number of the overlapping of images, he wants us to be lost in what made the western so great, always returning to the stagecoach, which was the first real form of travel for the masses, and first updating the genre in Stagecoach (1939). Fleshing out the drivers of the vehicle, mainly in the form of Slim Pickens that clearly references the original driver from Stagecoach’s Andy Devinethe overweight and grumpy but loveable driver.

I felt there was a need for Peckinpah to respond to the earlier film The Misfits (1961) that saw the death of the cowboy from the modern world perspective. In Hogue it’s a chance to see this at a much earlier date, when a stronger romantic air was around. We have a group of character who don’t fit into society, not wanting to conform to the ways of civilization until they really are forced to in their own ways. The introduction of the automobile scares those who have not seen it, a greater danger than before to be reckoned with.

Lastly there is a re-teaming of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones who were the comic relief in The Wild Bunch (1969) that were brought back into different characters, but very much the same on the surface. Very much in the steps of John Ford and his stock company of actors who played similar roles in numerous films, a gesture is being made in his direction. And the real test of the man for Hogue who at the beginning was stranded alone in the desert by these two. They test each others strength as men, and in the end Hogue is the stronger man for waiting for them to return, having learnt a lot over the duration of the film. Whilst the double act learn when to give up and accept their place. Before a low-key and poignant end to the film that sums up where we have come from and now to.


Violence in Film and the Streets


In the wake of the awful and unspeakable events in the innocent school in Connecticut, the violence of TV and film are called into question again. With the news of Fox rescheduling its adult animated programs, Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show to show repeats instead of the scheduled episodes for the seasonal period. Fox are obviously being cautious in the wake of the awful events that have happened so close to the festive period. I remember around the time of 9/11, the BBC dropped the first episode of 9th season of The Simpsons Homer Vs New York City,as it included the Twin Towers. Which was fair enough. AS I was young at the time I was a little frustrated, but I finally saw the episode.

Coming back to the present issue, it’s hard to draw the line between being sensitive and moving on with our lives. America has and always will be a violent nation. Not to condone the awful actions of last week, which saw a disturbed young man killed women and children at school.

We must acknowledge and pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in such tragic circumstances. Yet we should also carry on with our lives. Its a difficult call to make. Fans of the afore mentioned programs will understand, with a little frustration. The episodes will air in good time. But also they have and will also carry adult content. They are after all adult programs.

This also moves over to the postponing of the release of Jack Reacher (2012) that opens with people being gunned down. Criticism is also being drawn again to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) which is full of violence in the directors usual style. Jamie Foxx has  come out saying that is does promote violence influences people. He’s right and he’s wrong, Of course if you watch enough violence you maybe become pre-disposed to violent acts. But our society teaches us not to. Violence in films is always balanced by the film telling us its not right to commit such acts. Be that in the form of the law, or the characters reactions. Another point that Tarantino made was that it’s a Western, which is synonymous with violence, it can’t shy away from that. His form of violence is more graphical than others, yet he balances this out as all film-makers do. Westerns portray a violent past that America has for a century glorified in film, it’s not going to let up now.

It takes a certain kind of mental instability to commit such acts that have been seen recently. It’s too easy to blame film and TV for their influence. Of course there is a responsibility to them. Director Sam Peckinpah hated violence, he didn’t glorify it, he emphasized how disturbing it can be, the horror it can bring to lives. Just thinking about The Wild Bunch (1969) which is packed with this violence, at the time it was criticized. I don’t to go off on a tangent here, back to the issue at hand, America and other countries with gun and violence problems must look at the other issues such as mental health, social issues that lead to such acts being committed.

It’s because of the American constitution  that allows them to bear arms, which makes sense in a nation that has fought hard to build their country, how they came to be too.

I’m not pretending that I know all there is to know about this subject. But there’s a need for balance between, respecting the grieving, understanding the wider issues and getting on with our lives. Of course the lives of those affected will never be the same again, my thoughts are with them at this time. And there I will finish, leaving you to read this and respond.