David Samuel "Sam" Peckinpah (February 21, 1925 – December 28, 1984) was an American film director who achieved iconic status following the release of his 1969 Western epic The Wild Bunch. He became one of the major filmmakers of the 1970s with his innovative and explicit depiction of action and violence, as well as his revisionist approach to the Western genre.
Peckinpah's films generally deal with the conflict between values and ideals, and the corruption of violence in human society. He was given the nickname "Bloody Sam" due to the violence in his films. His characters are often loners or losers who desire to be honorable but are forced to compromise in order to survive in a world of nihilism and brutality.
Peckinpah's combative personality, marked by years of alcohol and drug abuse, has in many ways overshadowed his professional legacy. Many of his films were noted for behind-the-scenes battles with producers and crew members, damaging his reputation and career during his lifetime. Several of his films, including The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), remain controversial to this day.
Peckinpah's ancestry is firmly rooted in California pioneer history. His great-grandfather, Rice Peckinpaugh, was a merchant and farmer in Indiana before moving to California in the 1850s to Humboldt County and changing the spelling of his family's last name to "Peckinpah." The family settled down in the area to participate in the logging business. Peckinpah Meadow and Peckinpah Creek, where the family ran a lumber mill on a mountain in the High Sierras north of Coarsegold, California, have been officially named on U.S. geographical maps. Peckinpah's maternal grandfather was Denver Church, a cattle rancher, Superior Court Judge and a United States Congressman of a California district including Fresno County. Peckinpah and several relatives often claimed Native American ancestry, but this has been denied by surviving family members. Sam Peckinpah's nephew is David Peckinpah, who was a television producer and director, as well as a screenplay writer. Peckinpah's parents were David Edward Peckinpah and Fern Louise Church.
David Samuel "Sam" Peckinpah was born February 21, 1925, in Fresno, California, where he attended both grammar school and high school. He spent much time skipping classes with his brother to engage in cowboy activities on Denver Church's ranch including trapping, branding and shooting. During the 1930s and 1940s, Coarsegold and Bass Lake were still populated with descendants of the miners and ranchers of the 19th century. Many of these descendants worked on Church's ranch. At that time, it was a rural area undergoing extreme change and this exposure is believed to have affected Peckinpah's Western films later in life.
He played on the junior varsity football team while at Fresno High School, but frequent fighting and discipline problems caused his parents to enroll him in the San Rafael Military Academy for his senior year. In 1943 he joined the United States Marine Corps. Within two years, his battalion was sent to China with the task of disarming Japanese soldiers and repatriating them following World War II. While his duty did not include combat, he claims to have witnessed acts of war between Chinese and Japanese soldiers. According to friends, these included several acts of torture and the murder of a laborer by random sniper fire. The American Marines were not permitted to intervene. This reportedly deeply affected Peckinpah and may have influenced his depictions of violence in his films.
After the war he attended Fresno State College where he studied history. While a student, he met and married his first wife Marie Selland in 1947. A drama major, Selland introduced Peckinpah to the theatre department and he became interested in directing for the first time. During his senior year, he adapted and directed a one-hour version of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. After graduation in 1948, Peckinpah enrolled in graduate studies in drama at University of Southern California. He spent two seasons as the director in residence at Huntington Park Civic Theatre near Los Angeles before obtaining his master's degree. He was asked to stay on another year, but Peckinpah began working as a stagehand at KLAC-TV in the belief that television experience would eventually lead to work in films. Even during this early stage of his career, Peckinpah was developing a combative streak. Reportedly, he was kicked off the set of The Liberace Show for not wearing a tie and refused to cue a car salesman during a live feed because of his attitude towards stagehands.
In 1954, Peckinpah was hired as "dialogue director" for the film Riot in Cell Block 11. His job entailed acting as a gopher for the movie's director, Don Siegel. The movie was filmed on location at Folsom Prison. Reportedly, the warden was reluctant to allow the filmmakers to work at the prison until he was introduced to Peckinpah. The warden knew his family from Fresno and immediately became cooperative. Siegel's location work and his use of actual prisoners as extras in the film made a lasting impression on Peckinpah. He would work as an assistant to the director on four additional films including Private Hell 36 (1954), An Annapolis Story, (1955, and co-starring L. Q. Jones), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956). Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which Peckinpah appeared in a cameo as Charlie the meter reader, starred Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. It would become one of the most critically praised science fiction films of the 1950s. Peckinpah claimed to have done an extensive rewrite on the film's screenplay, a statement which remains controversial to this day. Nevertheless, Peckinpah's association with Siegel established his career as a budding screenplay writer and potential director.
Throughout much of his adult life, Peckinpah was plagued by alcoholism and later drug addiction. According to some, he also suffered from mental illness, possibly manic depression or paranoia. It is believed his drinking problems began during his service in the military while stationed in China, when he would frequent the saloons of Tientsin and Peiping. After divorcing Selland in 1960, the mother of his first four children, he would eventually marry the Mexican actress Begoña Palacios in 1965. A stormy relationship developed, and over the years leading up to his death they would marry three separate times. They would have one daughter together. His personality reportedly often swung between a sweet, soft-spoken, artistic disposition, and bouts of rage and violence during which he verbally and physically abused himself and others. An experienced hunter, Peckinpah was fascinated with firearms and was known to shoot the mirrors in his house while abusing alcohol, and this image occurs several times in his films. Peckinpah's reputation as a hard-living brute with a taste for violence, inspired by the content in his most popular films and in many ways perpetuated by himself, has overshadowed his artistic legacy. His friends and family have claimed this does a disservice to a man who was actually more complex than generally credited. Throughout his career, Peckinpah seems to have inspired extraordinary loyalty in certain friends and employees. He used the same actors (Warren Oates, L. Q. Jones, R. G. Armstrong, James Coburn, Ben Johnson, Kris Kristofferson) and collaborators (Jerry Fielding, Lucien Ballard, Gordon Dawson, Martin Baum) in many of his films, and several of his friends and assistants stuck by him to the end of his life.
Peckinpah spent a great deal of his life in Mexico after his marriage to Palacios, eventually buying property there. He was reportedly fascinated by the Mexican lifestyle and culture and he often portrays it with an unusual sentimentality and romanticism in his films. Four of his films, Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), were filmed entirely on location within the country, while The Getaway (1972) concludes with a couple escaping to freedom in Mexico.
Peckinpah was seriously ill during the final years of his life, as a lifetime of self-abuse began to catch up with him. Regardless, he continued to work until the last months before his death. He died of heart failure on December 28, 1984. At the time, he was in preparation for shooting an original script by Stephen King entitled "The Shotgunners".
On the recommendation of Don Siegel, Peckinpah established himself during the late 1950s as a scriptwriter of Western television series of the era, selling scripts to Gunsmoke, Have Gun - Will Travel, Broken Arrow, Klondike and Zane Grey Theater. He also wrote a screenplay from the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a draft that would eventually evolve into the 1961 Marlon Brando film One-Eyed Jacks. His writing would lead to directing, and he would helm a 1958 episode of Broken Arrow (generally credited as his first official directing job) and several 1960 episodes of Klondike (co-starring James Coburn, L. Q. Jones, Ralph Taeger, Joi Lansing, and Mari Blanchard).
In 1958, Peckinpah wrote a script for Gunsmoke that was rejected due to content. He reworked the screenplay, titled The Sharpshooter, and sold it to Zane Grey Theater. The episode received popular response and became the television series The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors. Peckinpah would direct four episodes of the series (with guest stars R. G. Armstrong and Warren Oates), but left after the first year. The Rifleman would run for five seasons and achieve enduring popularity in syndication.
During this time, he also created the television series The Westerner, starring Brian Keith and John Dehner. From 1959 to 1960, Peckinpah acted as producer of the series, having a hand in the writing of each episode and directing five of them. Critically praised, the show ran for only 13 episodes before cancellation mainly due to its gritty content detailing the drifting, laconic cowboy Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith). Despite its short run, The Westerner and Peckinpah would be nominated by the Producers Guild of America for Best Filmed Series. An episode of the series eventually served as the basis for Tom Gries' 1968 film Will Penny. The Westerner, which has since achieved cult status, further established Peckinpah as a talent to be reckoned with.
After cancellation of The Westerner, Brian Keith was cast as the male lead in the 1961 Western film The Deadly Companions. He suggested Sam Peckinpah as the director and producer Charles B. Fitzsimons accepted the idea. By most accounts, the low-budget film shot on location in Arizona was a learning process for Peckinpah, who feuded with Fitzsimons (brother of the film's star Maureen O'Hara) over the screenplay and staging of the scenes. Reportedly, he was also refused by Fitzsimons to give directions to O'Hara. Unable to rewrite the screenplay or edit the picture, Peckinpah vowed to never again direct a film unless he had script control. The Deadly Companions passed largely without notice and is the least known of Peckinpah's films.
His second film, Ride the High Country (1962), was based on the screenplay Guns in the Afternoon written by N.B. Stone, Jr. Producer Richard Lyons admired Peckinpah's work on The Westerner and offered him the directing job. Peckinpah did an extensive rewrite of the screenplay, including personal references from his own childhood growing up on Denver Church's ranch and even naming one of the mining towns "Coarsegold." He based the character of Steve Judd, a once-famous lawman fallen on hard times, on his own father David Peckinpah. In the screenplay, Judd and old friend Gil Westrum are hired to transport gold from a mining community through dangerous territory. Westrum hopes to talk Judd into taking the gold for themselves. Along the way, following the example of Judd, Westrum slowly realizes his own self respect is far more important than profit. During the final shootout, when Judd and Westrum stand up to a trio of men, Judd is fatally wounded and his death serves as Westrum's salvation - a Catholic tragedy weaved from the Western genre. It would become a major theme in many Peckinpah films to come. Starring aging Western stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in their final major screen roles, the film initially went unnoticed in the United States but was an enormous success in Europe. Beating Federico Fellini's 8½ for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival, the film was hailed by foreign critics as a brilliant reworking of the Western genre. New York critics also discovered Peckinpah's unusual Western, with Newsweek naming Ride the High Country the best film of the year and Time placing it on its best-ten list. Peckinpah, the eventual "enfant terrible" of the cinematic world, had arrived. Today, the film is admired as one of Peckinpah's greatest works.
Peckinpah's next film, Major Dundee (1965), would be the first of the director's many unfortunate experiences with the major studios that financed his productions. Based on a screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, the film was to star Charlton Heston. Peckinpah was hired as director after Heston viewed producer Jerry Bresler's private screening of Ride the High Country. Heston liked the movie and said to Bresler, "Let's use him." The sprawling screenplay told the story of Union cavalry officer Major Dundee who directs a New Mexico outpost of Confederate prisoners. When an Apache war chief wipes out a company and kidnaps several children, Dundee throws together a makeshift army, including unwilling Confederate veterans, and takes off after the Indians. Dundee becomes obsessed with his quest and heads deep into the wilderness of Mexico with his exhausted men in tow. Peckinpah's first big-budget film had a large cast including, Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn, Senta Berger, Jim Hutton, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, R. G. Armstrong and L. Q. Jones. Filming began without a completed screenplay, and Peckinpah chose several remote locations in Mexico causing the film's budget to skyrocket. Intimidated by the size and scope of the project, Peckinpah reportedly drank alcohol heavily each night after shooting. He also fired at least 15 crew members. At one point, Peckinpah's mean streak and abusiveness towards the actors so enraged Heston that the normally even-tempered star threatened to run the director through with his cavalry saber if he did not show more courtesy to the cast. By the time filming ended, 15 days over schedule and $1.5 million over budget, Peckinpah and producer Bresler were no longer on speaking terms. The movie, detailing themes and sequences Peckinpah would master later in his career, was taken away from him and substantially reedited. An incomplete mess which today exists in a variety of versions, Major Dundee performed poorly at the box office and was thrashed by critics (though its standing has improved over the years). Peckinpah would hold for the rest of his life that his original version of Major Dundee was among his best films, but his reputation was severely damaged.
Peckinpah was next signed to direct The Cincinnati Kid, a gambling drama about a young prodigy who takes on an old master during a big New Orleans poker match. Before filming started, producer Martin Ransohoff began to receive phone calls about the Major Dundee ordeal and was told Peckinpah was impossible to work with. In addition, Peckinpah decided to shoot in black and white and was hoping to transform the screenplay into a gritty saga about a kid surviving the tough streets of the Great Depression. After four days of filming, which reportedly included some nude scenes, Ransohoff disliked the rushes and immediately fired him. Eventually directed by Norman Jewison and starring Steve McQueen, the film went on to become a 1965 hit. Peckinpah found himself banished from the film industry for several years.
He caught a lucky break in 1966 when producer Daniel Melnick needed a writer and director to adapt Katherine Anne Porter's short novel Noon Wine for television. Melnick was a big fan of The Westerner and Ride the High Country, and had heard Peckinpah had been unfairly fired from The Cincinnati Kid. Against the objections of many within the industry, Melnick hired Peckinpah and gave him free rein. Peckinpah completed the script, which Miss Porter enthusiastically endorsed, and the project became an hour-long presentation for ABC Stage 67. Taking place in turn of the century West Texas, Noon Wine was a dark tragedy about a farmer's act of futile murder which leads to suicide. Starring Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, the film was a critical hit, with Peckinpah nominated by the Writers Guild for Best Television Adaptation and the Directors Guild of America for Best Television Direction. Robards would keep a personal copy of the film in his private collection for years as he considered the project to be one of his most satisfying professional experiences. A rare film which can only be viewed at the Library of Congress and the Museum of Broadcasting, Noon Wine is today considered one of Peckinpah's most intimate works, revealing his dramatic potential and artistic depth.
The surprising success of Noon Wine laid the groundwork for one of the most explosive comebacks in film history. In 1967, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts producers Kenneth Hyman and Phil Feldman were interested in having Peckinpah rewrite and direct an adventure film. An alternative screenplay written by Roy Sickner and Walon Green was the western The Wild Bunch. At the time, William Goldman's screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had recently been purchased by 20th Century Fox.
It was quickly decided that The Wild Bunch, which had several similarities to Goldman's work, would be produced in order to beat Butch Cassidy to the theaters. By the fall of 1967, Peckinpah was rewriting the screenplay into what would become The Wild Bunch. Filmed on location in Mexico, Peckinpah's epic work was inspired by his hunger to return to films, the violence seen in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, America's growing frustration with the Vietnam War, and what he perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time. He set out to make a film which portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period, but the crude men attempting to survive the era. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Edmond O'Brien, the film detailed a gang of veteran outlaws on the Texas/Mexico border in 1913 trying to exist within a rapidly approaching modern world. The Wild Bunch is framed by two ferocious and infamous gunfights, beginning with a failed bank robbery and concluding with the outlaws battling the Mexican army in suicidal vengeance due to the death of one of their members. Irreverent and unprecedented in its explicit detail, the 1969 film was an instant classic. Multiple scenes attempted in Major Dundee, including slow motion action sequences (inspired by Akira Kurosawa's work in Seven Samurai), characters leaving a village as if in a funeral procession and the use of inexperienced locals as extras, would be perfected in The Wild Bunch. Many critics denounced its violence as sadistic and exploitative. Other critics and filmmakers hailed the originality of its unique rapid editing style, created for the first time in this film and ultimately becoming a Peckinpah trademark, and praised the reworking of traditional Western themes. It was the beginning of Peckinpah's international fame, and he and his work would remain controversial for the rest of his life. The film would be ranked No. 80 on the American Film Institute's top 100 list of the greatest American films ever made and No. 69 as the most thrilling, but the controversy has not diminished. When The Wild Bunch was re-released for its 25th anniversary, it received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, proving the film's continued impact after so many years. Today, the film is considered the zenith of Peckinpah's turbulent career.
Defying, as he often would, audience expectations, Peckinpah immediately followed The Wild Bunch with the elegiac, funny and mostly non-violent 1970 Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Utilizing many of the same cast (L. Q. Jones, Strother Martin) and crew members of The Wild Bunch, the film covered three years in the life of small-time entrepreneur Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) who decides to make a fortune after discovering water in the desert. He opens his business along a stagecoach line, only to see his dreams end with the appearance of the first automobile on the horizon. Shot on location in the desert of Nevada, the film was plagued by poor weather, Peckinpah's renewed drinking and his brusque firing of 36 crew members. The chaotic filming would wrap 19 days over schedule and $3 million over budget, effectively terminating his tenure with Warner Bros.-Seven Arts. In retrospect, it was a damaging career move as Deliverance and Jeremiah Johnson, critical and enduring box office hits, were in development at the time and Peckinpah was considered the first choice to direct both films. Largely ignored upon its initial release, The Ballad of Cable Hogue has been rediscovered in recent years and is often held up by critics as exemplary of the breadth of Peckinpah's talents. They claim that the film proves Peckinpah's ability to make unconventional and original work without resorting to explicit violence. Over the years, Peckinpah would cite the film as one of his personal favorites.
His alienation of Warner Brothers once again left him with a limited number of directing jobs. Peckinpah was forced to do a 180-degree turn and traveled to England to direct Straw Dogs (1971), one of his darkest and most psychologically disturbing films. Produced by Daniel Melnick, who had previously worked with Peckinpah on Noon Wine, the screenplay was based on the novel The Siege at Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams. It starred Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a timid American physicist (his wife at one point attempts to erase Einstein's field equations from his blackboard) leaves the chaos of college anti-war protests to live with his young wife Amy (Susan George) in her native village in Cornwall, England. Resentment of David's presence by the locals slowly builds to a shocking climax when the mild-mannered academic is forced to defend his home. Peckinpah entirely rewrote the existing screenplay, inspired by the books African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey, which argued that man was essentially a carnivore who instinctively battled over control of territory. The character of David Sumner, taunted and humiliated by the town locals, is eventually cornered within his home where he loses control and kills several of the men during the violent conclusion. Straw Dogs deeply divided critics, some of whom pointed to its obvious artistry and the bravery of its confrontation of human savagery, while others attacked it as a misogynistic and fascistic celebration of violence. Much of the criticism centered around Amy's complicated and lengthy rape scene, which Peckinpah reportedly attempted to base on his own personal fears rooted in past failed marriages. To this day, the scene is attacked by critics as an ugly male-chauvinist fantasy, claiming it serves as an example of Peckinpah's (and Hollywood's) debasing of women. The film was for many years banned on video in the UK, although some critics have come to hail it as one of Peckinpah's greatest films.
Despite his growing alcoholism and controversial reputation, Peckinpah was extremely prolific during this period of his life. In May of 1971, weeks after completing Straw Dogs, he returned to the United States to begin work on Junior Bonner. The lyrical screenplay by Jeb Rosenbrook, depicting the changing times of society and binding family ties, appealed to Peckinpah's tastes. He accepted the project, at the time concerned with being typed as a director of violent action. The film would be his final attempt to make a low-key, dramatic work in the vein of Noon Wine and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Filmed on location in Prescott, Arizona, the story covered a week in the life of aging rodeo rider Junior "JR" Bonner (Steve McQueen) who returns to his hometown to compete in an annual rodeo competition. In addition to McQueen, the cast included Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Joe Don Baker and Ben Johnson. Junior Bonner was marked by sharp character development, colorful location detail and unusually tender scenes between Preston and Lupino as Bonner's estranged parents. Promoted as a Steve McQueen action vehicle, reviews were mixed and the film performed poorly at the box office. Peckinpah would remark, "I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it." The film's reputation has grown over the years as many critics consider Junior Bonner to be one of Peckinpah's most sympathetic works, while also noting McQueen's earnest performance.
Stinging from the failure of Junior Bonner but eager to work with Peckinpah again, Steve McQueen presented him Walter Hill's screenplay to The Getaway. Based on the Jim Thompson novel, the gritty crime thriller detailed lovers on the run following a dangerous robbery. Both Peckinpah and McQueen needed a hit, and they immediately began working on the film in February of 1972. Peckinpah had no pretensions about making The Getaway, as his only goal was to create a highly-polished thriller to boost his market value. McQueen would play Doc McCoy, an imprisoned mastermind robber whose wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) conspires for his release on the condition they rob a bank in Texas. A doublecross follows the crime, and the McCoys are forced to flee for Mexico with both the police and criminals in hot pursuit. Replete with explosions, car chases and intense shootouts, the film would become Peckinpah's biggest financial success to date earning more than $25 million at the box office. Though strictly a commercial product, Peckinpah's creative touches are scattered throughout, most notably during the intricately-edited opening sequence when McQueen's character is suffering from the pressures of prison life. The film remains popular and was remade in 1994 (The Getaway), but its critical reputation has diminished as many Peckinpah admirers consider it a minor work.
The year 1973 would mark the beginning of the most difficult period of Peckinpah's life and career. While still filming The Getaway in El Paso, Texas, Peckinpah sneaked across the border into Juarez in April of 1972 and married Joie Gould. He had met Gould in England while filming Straw Dogs, and she had since been his companion and a part-time crew member. Peckinpah's intake of alcohol had increased dramatically while making The Getaway, and he became fond of saying, "I can't direct when I'm sober." He began to have violent mood swings and explosions of rage, at one point assaulting Gould. After four months, she returned to England and filed for divorce. Devastated by the breakup, Peckinpah fell into a self destructive pattern of almost continuous alcohol consumption, and his health would be unstable for the remainder of his life.
It was in this state of mind that Peckinpah agreed to make Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Based on the screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer (who had previously penned Two-Lane Blacktop, a film admired by Peckinpah), the director was convinced that he was about to make his definitive statement on the Western genre. The script offered Peckinpah the opportunity to explore themes that appealed to him: two former partners forced by changing times onto opposite sides of the law, manipulated by corrupt economic interests. Peckinpah rewrote the screenplay, establishing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as friends, and attempted to weave an epic tragedy from the historical legend. Filmed on location in the Mexican state of Durango, the film starred James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in the title roles, with a huge supporting cast including Bob Dylan (who would compose the film's music), Jason Robards, R. G. Armstrong, Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam, Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, L. Q. Jones, Slim Pickens and Harry Dean Stanton. From the beginning, Peckinpah began to have clashes with MGM and its president James Aubrey, known for his stifling of creative interests and eventual dismantling of the historic movie company. Numerous production difficulties, including an outbreak of influenza and malfunctioning cameras, combined with Peckinpah's growing problems with alcohol, resulted in one of the most troubled productions of his career. The film finished 21 days behind schedule and $1.6 million over budget. Enraged, Aubrey severely cut Peckinpah's film from 124 to 106 minutes, resulting in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid being released in a truncated version largely disowned by cast and crew members. Critics complained that the film was incoherent, and the experience soured Peckinpah forever on Hollywood. In 1988, however, Peckinpah's director's cut was released on video and led to a reevaluation, with many critics hailing it as a mistreated classic and one of the era's best films. Filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, have praised the film as one of the greatest modern Westerns.
In the eyes of his admirers, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) would be the last true "Peckinpah film." The director himself claimed that it was the only one of his films to be released exactly as he intended it. A project in development for many years and based on an idea by Frank Kowalski, Peckinpah wrote the screenplay with the assistance of Kowalski, Walter Kelley and Gordon Dawson. An alcohol-soaked fever dream involving revenge, greed and murder in the Mexican countryside, the film featured Warren Oates as a thinly disguised self-portrait of Peckinpah, and co-starred a leather bag containing the severed head of a gigolo being sought by a Mexican patrone for $1 million dollars. The macabre drama was part black comedy, action film and tragedy, with a warped edge rarely seen in Peckinpah's works. Most critics were repulsed, and it was listed in the book The 50 Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. One of the few critics to praise the film was Roger Ebert, and in fact, the film's reputation has grown in recent years, with many noting its uncompromising vision as well as its anticipation of the violent black comedy which would become famous in the works of such directors as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. While a failure at the box office, the film today has a devoted cult following. In 1991, UCLA's film school organized a festival of great but forgotten American films, and included Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in the program.
His career now suffering from back-to-back box office failures, Peckinpah once again was in need of a hit on the level of The Getaway. For his next film he chose The Killer Elite (1975), an action-filled espionage thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. Filmed on location in San Francisco, Peckinpah allegedly discovered cocaine for the first time thanks to Caan and his entourage. This led to increased paranoia and his once legendary dedication to detail deteriorated. Producers also refused to allow Peckinpah to rewrite the screenplay (for the first time since his debut film The Deadly Companions). Frustrated, the director spent large amounts of time in his on-location trailer, allowing assistants to direct many scenes. At one point he overdosed on cocaine, landing himself in a hospital and receiving a second pacemaker. Through it all, the film was completed and did decent box office business, though critics panned it. Today, the movie is considered one of Peckinpah's weakest films, and an example of his decline as a major director.
Still renowned in 1975, Peckinpah was offered the opportunity to direct the eventual blockbusters King Kong (1976) and Superman (1978). Interestingly, he turned down both offers and chose instead the bleak and vivid World War II drama Cross of Iron (1977). The screenplay was based on a novel about a platoon of German soldiers in 1943 on the verge of utter collapse on the Crimean Peninsula. The German production was filmed on location in Yugoslavia. Working with James Hamilton and Walter Kelley, Peckinpah rewrote the screenplay and screened numerous Nazi documentaries in preparation. Almost immediately, Peckinpah realized he was working on a low-budget production, as he had to sink $90,000 of his own money to hire experienced crew members. While not suffering from the cocaine abuse which marked The Killer Elite, Peckinpah continued to drink heavily causing his direction to become confused and erratic. The production abruptly ran out of funds, and Peckinpah was forced to completely improvise the concluding sequence, filming the scene in one day. Despite these obstacles, the film's war footage was stunning and James Coburn, in the lead role of Rolf Steiner, would give one of the finest performances of his career. Co-starring James Mason, Maximilian Schell, David Warner and Senta Berger, Cross of Iron was noted for its opening montage utilizing documentary footage as well as the visceral impact of the unusually intense battle sequences. The film was a huge box office success in Europe, inspiring the sequel Breakthrough starring Richard Burton. Cross of Iron was reportedly a favorite of Orson Welles', and he would say after All Quiet On The Western Front it was the finest anti-war film he had ever seen. The film performed poorly in the U.S., though today it is highly regarded and considered the last gasp of Peckinpah's once-great talent.
Hoping to create the elusive blockbuster, Peckinpah decided to take on Convoy (1978). His associates were perplexed, as they felt his choice to direct such substandard material was a result of his renewed cocaine use and continued alcoholism. Based on the hit song by C.W. McCall, the film was an attempt to capitalize on the huge success of Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Addictions or not, Peckinpah still felt compelled to turn the genre exercise into something more significant. Unhappy with the screenplay written by B.W.L. Norton, Peckinpah tried to encourage the actors to re-write, improvise and ad-lib their dialogue. In another departure from the script, Peckinpah attempted to add a new dimension by casting a pair of black actors as members of the convoy including Madge Sinclair as Widow Woman and Franklyn Ajaye as Spider Mike. Filmed on location in New Mexico and starring Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw and Ernest Borgnine, Convoy would turn out to be yet another troubled Peckinpah production. The director's health became a continuing problem, so James Coburn was brought in to serve as second unit director, and he would film many of the scenes while Peckinpah remained in his on-location trailer. The film wrapped in September of 1977, 11 days behind schedule and $5 million over budget. Surprisingly, Convoy was the highest-grossing picture of Peckinpah's career, notching $46.5 million at the box office. But his reputation was seriously damaged. For the first time in almost a decade, Peckinpah finished a picture and found himself unemployed.
For the next three years, Peckinpah remained a professional outcast. But during the summer of 1981, his original mentor Don Siegel gave him a chance to return to filmmaking. While shooting Jinxed!, a comedy drama starring Bette Midler and Rip Torn, Siegel asked Peckinpah if he would be interested in directing 12 days of second unit work. Peckinpah immediately accepted, and his earnest collaboration was noted within the industry. For the final time, Peckinpah found himself back in the directing business.
By 1982, however, Peckinpah's health was in poor shape. Producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer were undaunted, as they felt that having Peckinpah's name attached to The Osterman Weekend (1983) would lend the suspense thriller an air of respectability. Peckinpah accepted the job but reportedly hated the convoluted screenplay based upon Robert Ludlum's novel (which he also disliked). Multiple actors in Hollywood auditioned for the film, intrigued by the opportunity. Many of those who signed on, including John Hurt, Burt Lancaster and Dennis Hopper, did so for less than their usual salaries for a chance to work with the legendary director. By the time shooting wrapped in January of 1983 in Los Angeles, Peckinpah and the producers were hardly speaking. Nevertheless, Peckinpah brought in the film on time and on budget, delivering his director's cut to the producers. Davis and Panzer were unhappy with Peckinpah's version, which included a grossly distorted opening sequence of two characters making love. The producers changed the opening and also deleted other scenes they deemed unnecessary. The Osterman Weekend had some effective action sequences and some strong supporting performances, but Peckinpah's final film was critically panned. It grossed $6 million domestically and did extremely well in Europe and on the new home-video market.
Peckinpah's last work as a filmmaker was undertaken just two months before his death. He was hired by producer Martin Lewis to shoot two music videos featuring Julian Lennon - "Valotte" and "Too Late For Goodbyes." The critically-acclaimed videos led to Lennon's nomination for Best New Video Artist at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards.
Peckinpah's films generally deal with the conflict between values and ideals and the corruption and violence of human society. His characters are often loners or losers who harbor the desire to be honorable and idealistic but are forced to compromise themselves in order to survive in a world of nihilism and brutality.
The conflicts of masculinity are also a major theme of his work, leading some critics to compare him to Ernest Hemingway. Peckinpah's world is a man's world, and feminists have castigated his films as misogynistic and sexist, especially concerning the shooting of a woman during the final moments of The Wild Bunch, the rape sequence in Straw Dogs and Doc McCoy's physical assault of his wife in The Getaway. His defenders point out that, while the women in his films are generally seen through men's eyes, it is the men who are abusive, corrupted and violent. The women are either victims of the brutalities of men or survivors attempting to eke out an existence in the unforgiving world created by men.
Peckinpah's approach to violence is often misinterpreted. Many critics see his worldview as a misanthropic, Hobbesian view of nature as essentially evil and savage. In fact, Peckinpah himself stated the opposite. He saw violence as the product of human society, and not of nature. It is the result of men's competition with each other over power and domination, and their inability to negotiate this competition without resorting to brutality. Peckinpah also used violence as a means to achieve catharsis, believing his audience would be purged of violence by witnessing it explicitly on screen (one of the major inspirations for his violent sequences in The Wild Bunch). Peckinpah later admitted that this idea was mistaken, and that audiences had come to enjoy the violence in his films rather than be horrified by it, something that deeply troubled him later in his career.
Peckinpah, who was born to a ranching family that included judges and lawyers, was also deeply concerned by the conflict between "old-fashioned" values and the corruption and materialism of the modern world. Many of his characters are attempting to live up to their expectations of themselves even as the world they live in demands that they compromise their values. This is most explicitly stated in the famous exchange from Ride the High Country in which Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) states that "All I want is to enter my house justified." Many believe that this line is taken directly from a common expression used by David Peckinpah, the director's father.
This theme is most evident in Peckinpah's Westerns. Unlike most Western directors, Peckinpah tended to concentrate on the early 20th century rather than the 19th, and his films portray characters who still believe in the values of the Old West being swept away by the new, industrial America.
This persistent theme has led many critics to view Peckinpah's films as essentially tragic. That is, his characters are portrayed as being prisoners of their fates and their own failings who nonetheless seek redemption and meaning in an absurd and violent world. The theme of longing for redemption, justification, and honor in a dishonorable existence permeates almost all of Peckinpah's work and has helped to elevate his reputation from that of a skilled director of action films to one of the greatest cinematic artists of his era.
Peckinpah's influence on modern cinema is enormous and pervasive, perhaps greater than any of his contemporaries. However, this influence is also often shallow and purely aesthetic in nature, ignoring some of Peckinpah's greatest strengths in favor of pure imitation of his stylish approach to cinematic violence.
Peckinpah's greatest influence is upon the modern action film and the modern approach to action sequences. His signature combination of slow-motion, fast editing, and the deliberate distension of time has become the standard depiction of violence and action in post-Peckinpavian cinema. The approach to action in movies can be divided between before Peckinpah and after Peckinpah. While films before The Wild Bunch had used similar techniques, especially Bonnie and Clyde and Seven Samurai, Peckinpah was the first to use them as a distinct style rather than as specific set pieces. Directors such as Martin Scorsese have acknowledged Peckinpah's direct influence on their approach to film violence. John Woo derived his techniques extensively from Peckinpah, adding his own touch of choreography and action concepts. Additional filmmakers who have noted Peckinpah's influence have included Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, John Milius, Quentin Tarantino and Park Chan-wook.
Peckinpah's themes have also been influential on other filmmakers and other Western films. Clint Eastwood's films High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven also take up Peckinpah's themes of the dangers of revenge, the nature of human violence, and men seeking to be honorable in dishonorable surroundings. The theme of the passing of the West into history and the destruction of the Western way of life by modern industrialism has also been taken up by many post-Peckinpah Westerns.
In many ways, Peckinpah's greatest legacy lies in his aggressive breaking of taboos. He allowed a new freedom to emerge in cinema, not only in the depiction of violence, but also in editing styles, narrative choices, and the willingness to portray unsympathetic or tragic characters and stories. His notorious reputation has often overshadowed the depth of his influence on modern film.