February 21, 2014
Director SAM PECKINPAH (1925–84) re-invented and eulogized the American Western in the same cinematic breath. His masterpiece is The Wild Bunch (1969). Based on a true story about a triple-cross between train robbers, a bounty posse, and bandits, Peckinpah and his co-writer Walon Green set the tale in 1913 revolutionary Mexico. The rich railroad men make money off everyone, while the bottom-feeders yank the boots off freshly dead men and squabble over the spoils. Meanwhile, progress — in the form of autos, planes and trains — is steamrolling over men on horses. “Look, unless you conform, give in completely, you’re going to be alone in the world. But by giving in, you lose your independence as a human being,” said Peckinpah. “So I go for the loners. They’re cats who ran out of territory and they know it. They refuse to be diminished by it. They play their string out to the end.” When it was released, the film was called a “blood ballet.” The extreme violence in Peckinpah’s films was literally cathartic; his characters were so tormented that death was a release.
Straw Dogs (1971) sets violence on a slow boil in a contest between a mathematician and the small-town locals who lust after his bra-less, flirtatious wife. At the heart of the movie she is raped by the locals. Peckinpah told Playboy: “He (the husband) set the whole thing up. He could have stopped it any one of a dozen times. He was testing his wife; he was testing himself.” Is it a politically incorrect rape film or is it a straw dog?
Eventually, Peckinpah’s ornery pugilism exiled him in Hollywood. His quotes become self-parodies: “I’m a whore. I go where I’m kicked. But I’m a very good whore.” His later films, such as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), can be seen as revenge fantasies — as if Peckinpah had become one of his own characters. In the end, everyone is complicit.
READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).