Sam Peckinpah was a violent man. Or maybe he wasn't, but he sure made some violent movies. He is to American cinematic violence what Woody Allen is to the portrayal of neurotic wimps. However, there is a great deal of sensousness and even beauty in many of his films; and above all, he was a master storyteller. He ranks with Hitchcock, Welles, and Capra as one of the giants of 20th century American filmmaking. Let me draw another analogy: he is to the action movie and western what Hitchcock was to the suspense/murder mystery. Almost all of his films have glued me to the seat - let's look at a few.
Major Dundee (1965): An above average western dealing with a clash between the Mexican and American armies during the aftermath of the Civil War. I've never been a big fan of Charlton Heston, and while this is a fine example of the genre, it's just a warm up for Peckinpah's later films. Already, however, some of his trademarks - slow motion sequences to enhance the drama and lyricism, and well coreographed scenes of violence - are in place.
The Wild Bunch (1969): Here is where Peckinpah as we know him arrives. I remember when I wrote my comments on the AFI list that this film would be perfect at #80. Well, that deserves a rethink - this belongs in the Top 20 as one of the greatest (and certainly most influential) American films of all time. There had been violence in movies before, but no one had ever taken it to that level. Stirred up a lot of controversy in its day, and almost everyone from Scorsese to DePalma to Tarintino will rave to you in interviews about how much Peckinpah's masterpiece influenced their work. If you haven't seen it yet, then by all means do so - this might be the most influential movie of the entire '60s.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970): After the over the top violence of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah turned about face and delivered this (relatively) quiet gem. The title character is left to die in the desert by his outlaw buddies, but he survives when he finds a waterhole - a precious commodity in such a harsh environment. He proceeds to make a decent living selling the water to travelers, until his old partners in crime show up. Often overlooked because it's sandwiched between Peckinpah's two most controversial films, it's just as entertaining as either - a eulogy for the death of the Old West.
Straw Dogs (1971): This is one fucked-up movie, and in some quarters caused more controversy than even The Wild Bunch. Dustin Hoffman plays a mild-mannered mathematician whose manhood is called into question by a gang of Cornwall thugs, who kill his cat and then rape his wife. Nothing much happens in the first half, because Peckinpah is just setting up the characters so that we can get to know them and care about what happens; when Susan George's character is raped, it sets off the second half like a dynamite fuse. There's less violence here than in most Peckinpah films, but it has more of an impact and makes the viewer much more uncomfortable when it happens. This movie raises some troubling questions, not the least of which is why Peckinpah felt he had to make this kind of explicitly macho, pro-violence statement, and unsettled me more than any other movie I can think of in recent memory. Peckinpah's philosophy is morally repugnant and violently misogynist - no one will seriously argue that. The American Leni Reifenstahl?
Grade: originally an A. However, I've had second thoughts - it's not particularly entertaining. I overrated it because I felt that any movie that profoundly disturbed me in such a way, that drew such an emotional reaction, had to be great movie. Unfortunately, that profound reaction was primarily disgust. Morally, an F; overall, a B- or C+.
The Getaway (1972): A relatively lightweight Peckinpah film, supposedly this was a rush job to satisfy the box office. Nevertheless, it's an excellent action film, if not as epochal as the three preceding films. Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw play an oddly sparkless couple who plan a bank heist; the best scene involves them hiding out in a garbage truck (no doubt the inspiration for that similar scene in Star Wars). Based on the Jim Thompson novel (as was The Grifters), a pulpy '50s noir writer who shares quite a few sensibilities with Peckinpah, and is well worth reading.
Junior Bonner (1972): Another starring role for Steve McQueen, this time as a rodeo star whose life is going nowhere. For some reason I've never cared for this picture, despite a few trademark eye-stopping scenes (the destruction of the house by a bulldozer).
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973): A return to the western genre that Peckinpah does best, this was originally chopped up to fit into two hours at the expense of plot; see it in the uncut three-hour version if you see it at all. While it's not at the level of the brilliant Wild Bunch/Cable Hogue/Straw Dogs trinity (Peckinpah's undeniable peak), it's still a classic. As a bonus, it contains Bob Dylan's excellent soundtrack, including "Knockin' On Heaven's Door".
Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974): A bizarre, gruesome little film. A Mexican druglord puts a price on Garcia's head, which leads to a bounty hunter digging up the grave of the already dead man. After chopping off the head to bring to the druglord, the bounty hunter goes nuts and starts talking to the head as if it were alive. The body count mounts and mounts, everyone double crosses every one else (in a particular arresting scene, an entire family is machine gunned because they don't approve of grave robbing). By the end almost everyone involved is dead; it's not among his best (you never really get to care about any of these people), but it's certainly Peckinpah's weirdest.
The Killer Elite (1975): A serious letdown after a string of firebombs, this one's more of a wet Chinese bottlerocket. The CIA sublets bands of mercenaries through a private corporation (kind of like hiring contractors to build public works), one band of which is hired to protect a powerful Oriental leader during his stay in the U.S. It's a rather average thriller, all things considered; competent but unremarkable, and evidence of Peckinpah's decline.
Cross of Iron (1977): A dark, depressing film from the point of view of a platoon of German soldiers on the Eastern Front during the final days of WWII. One of the best anti-war movies I've seen, as one is dragged alongside the soldiers as they make retreat after retreat, living in hellish conditions. For some reason a lot of critics consider this a minor Peckinpah piece, more evidence of his decline, but I just don't see it. Not a fun or uplifting picture, but I was completely gripped, and the scene involving the tank near the end is nothing short of amazing.
Convoy (1978): As entertaining as it is stupid, this basically amounts to a two-hour Dukes of Hazzard eposide on a Hollywood budget. Based on a novelty hit that cashed in on the CB craze (ah, the ever-tasteless '70s - gotta hate'em), this cartoon deals with the pressing social issue of police harassment of truckers. After engaging in a barfight with some corrupt Arizona policemen (who have the temerity to give truckers tickets for speeding), Kris Kristofferson leads the gang on a chase to get to New Mexico, "where they can't touch us". Upon reaching New Mexico, Kristofferon & Co. are joined by another gang of truckers, and before long a caravan of several hundred vehicles are being lead by the anti-establishment hero. Stick it to the man, Kris. Ali McGraw plays the token babe interest. There are so many holes in the setup that this doesn't bear the slightest bit of scrutiny, but it's trashy fun if you leave your brain at the door. One of my uncles was a cop and another was a trucker, so I can state pretty authoritatively that the whole cop/trucker rivalry played up in several '70s films has no basis in reality (see Smokey and the Bandit for further reference).
The Osterman Weekend (1983): An average spy thriller, based on the Robert Ludlum novel. While entertaining, only a handful of scenes contain that magic touch, and it pales compared to Peckinpah's earlier work. His final film before his death in 1984.
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