I’m hoping to see 4 of Sam Peckinpah films, Straw Dogs (1971) is the first one out of the gates, and very much by chance too. I remember reading about the film long before I really considered seeking it out – the article focused on the infamous rape scene which is probably one of the most violent scenes I have ever watch on screen. It was also a chance to see how the director, a few years after the success of The Wild Bunch (1969) and the quirky melancholic musical Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with far less violence than it’s predecessor. Moving forward he would be going across the Atlantic to a completely different environment – Great Britain, involved in no conflicts, yet struggling with rolling strikes and blackouts. The summer of love is long behind us and things are looking bleak.
Mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) has moved to rural Cornwall to be with his new wife Amy (Susan George) who from the first few minutes is very much seen from the male gaze, the camera pans down to focus on her chest, clearly not wearing a bra. Partly out of women’s liberation and easily seen as a directorial decision to engage the male before they’re shocked later on in the film. They have just bought a hunting trap, Peckinpah has sewn a seed early on for what to expect later on. You can’t remove the potential image for violence, a man caught within the teeth of the trap that for most of the film’s fixed to the wall. I notice early on, children are dancing in a graveyard, whilst local pedophile Niles (David Warner) looks on quietly at them, not fully aware of what he’s capable of. I’m wondering where he fits into the dynamic of the film, hovering in the background used as a minor character. Warner is sadly not even credited for his role which is staggering when you see his role increase at a pivotal moment in the film.
We learn that Sumner decided to move into his wife’s family home to allow him to study and write his book, something he really wants to focus on. Having escaped his own countries violence, he can finally begin with hopefully fewer distractions. That’s not considering the sexual distraction of his newly wed wife, who sees the world around her far differently to the naive American intellectual whose still finding his feet in this foreign world. They have employed roofers who leer over Amy at any chance they get. The only attractive female in the film, she’s the only object of desire her even though she’s married, it doesn’t stop their actions. David is oblivious to all of this until he is forced to confront what is only going to be an increase of violence against the couple. I’ve not even touched upon Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) who spends the first half of the film in the local pub, seen as the town drunk. We don’t yet know how much power he yields over the men in the village. He’s the Cornish equivalent to a gang leader, a translation of the Western villain to British countryside. His influence and position in the community allow him a certain freedom, he’s probably never left the village since he was born.
Diversionary tactics come into play, taking David away from his wife on what is a very British past-time; Pheasant shooting, a right of passage for those in the country and part of society. The same men who have been work on the barn roof for the couple take him away, into a civilised arena of violence. Hoffman again plays the innocent, useless with a gun at first. Instead of shooting a man, who can potentially defend himself he aims at the defenceless birds who can’t seem to kill at first. When he finally kills he’s repulsed by what he has just done. Instead of taking home his kill for dinner he leaves the lifeless bird in peace. Juxtaposed with the rape scene which the film is now known for, the build up to the attack is pretty calm, as Charlie Venner (Del Henney) whom she previously had a relationship with, moves in to forcibly seduce. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as he gains control, ripping her clothes from her body before he rapes her. Where it becomes blurry for me is when it moves from what looks like rape to possibly consensual, she somehow accepts him and allows him to make love (in the loosest possible terms). Has she given in to his forceful actions, her past feelings overwhelm her working in his favour. The changes with the introduction of Norm Scutt (Ken Hutchison) carrying a rifle, he want a part of her, he wants a share of the action. Amy returns to being an object to be abused, returning her to a victim. I feel uncomfortable again, the sweaty bodies, is not just sexual joy, but pure terror and transfer of empowerment from woman to the men who have violated her. During the scene we have the first flourishes of slow-motion – the Peckinpah signature, here it’s to display the pain and violence towards Amy who has lost her freedom.
This experience naturally stays with Amy and the audience for the remainder of the film, we are forced to experience the imagery in a packed village hall. As she’s forcing herself to try and return to normality, it’s too. She can’t comes to terms with it during the course of the film, events won’t allow her to. When Hedden’s daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett) who we see leading Niles away to try and take advantage of him. She wants to abuse his innocence, unaware of his true nature she meets a fate similar to Lennie Hall’s victim in Of Mice and Men. Unaware of either’s power it ends fatally for Janice, the first victim of the night.
The finale of the film is long and drawn out, from what begins as a car accident develops into a full blown home invasion as Hedden on the look out for Niles now in the care of still innocent Sumner who wants to defend his house turns into a homestead under act from the natives who use all their forces to try and break through. A once civilised man is broken as he turns to violence, doing all he believes is necessary to protect his home from outsiders who want to kill his guest and obligation, wanting to do the right thing becomes very dark and murky. I’m reminded of the farmer Tony Martin who shot dead a burglar after entering his property. He too went to fatal lengths to ensure the safety of his property, sparking a nationwide debate. A real-life parallel, not as extreme as the Hollywood depiction, we can still see the lengths that even a quiet man will to.
We don’t truly get to see what happens to the last men standing, where do they go from here. Have the images of a war that have been broadcast daily on his TV been subliminally brainwashing him to pick up a gun a shoot. Has his countries love for guns become part of his identity, laying dormant ready to be awoken. I leave the film shaken by the imagery, the intensity of violence an intense and relentless barrage that we are more than glad to end. I’m now interested to see how the violence couple dynamic is carried through to The Getaway (1972), a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (1967) who get a thrill from violence, unlike the Sumner’s who used it as a last resort.
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.