Sam Peckinpah: A taste for blood

Sam Peckinpah’s appetite for real and cinematic violence approached the psychopathic. As a season of his films opens, Geoffrey Macnab assesses the director’s career

Anybody who goes on the Peckinpah trail will come back with the same confused story. Sam Peckinpah, who died 25 years ago (in December 1984) and whose career is celebrated with a season at BFI Southbank this month, was a monster.

Speak to his collaborators and they all describe a man whose behaviour was erratic, sadistic and self-pitying. Peckinpah was unfaithful to the women in his life. He had temper tantrums. He played mind games with his actors, homing in on their vulnerabilities, making them turn against one another. His films are full of men assaulting women and men assaulting men. His cocaine and alcohol binges brought out an underlying malice in his character.

When he was a kid, growing up in Fresno, California, Peckinpah’s greatest pleasure was shooting rats in his father’s barn. His sister, Fern Lea Peter, who held the flashlight while her brother massacred the vermin, has described how the “blood would splatter” everywhere and what intense pleasure that would give him.

In Sam Peckinpah, a new documentary about the maverick film-maker by Italian directors Umberto Berlenghini and Michelangelo Dalto, she also tells a distressing story about her brother cutting his wrist in an accident. Her brother was so obsessed with the sight of his own gurgling blood that he failed to notice he was losing consciousness. His father, a judge, rushed him to the hospital just in time.

The late James Coburn had stories about Peckinpah collapsing drunkenly on the street in London during the editing of Cross of Iron, uncertain even which city he was in. His old editor Monte Hellman once told me that when Peckinpah was in post-production on The Killer Elite, he walked into the editing suite at 10pm and the first thing he did was urinate out of the window.

Berlenghini, who conducted many of the interviews in the documentary, points out that he and Dalto were making their film after Peckinpah’s death. “It’s not polite to talk about a dead man in a bad way,” he notes, adding that, off camera, many of Peckinpah’s collaborators confided that the director was a “true son of a bitch”.

What’s startling, then, is the loyalty and grudging affection Peckinpah inspired in the actors and technicians he treated so badly. “He was a guy who was a genius at least three hours a day, sometimes more, depending on how much he was drinking,” Coburn once said of him.

To many in the 1960s, Peckinpah seemed a throwback but also a beacon of hope. John Ford was at the end of his career. The old-style studio system was breaking up. The western genre seemed anachronistic. Along came this film-maker who brought an extraordinary lyricism and sense of yearning to his work and who also seemed well placed to rescue the western.

His near-psychopathic obsession with violence chimed with the times. (This was the era of the counterculture and the Vietnam war.) However, those scenes of Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott on horseback against mountainous landscapes in Ride the High Country or Coburn’s Pat Garrett exchanging gunshots almost as if they’re a greeting with a homesteader while on a river raft in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid appealed to different emotions.

There was romanticism, an old-fashioned sense of decency and chivalry, to most of the heroes in Peckinpah’s movies. The line with which he is most associated comes in Ride the High Country when Steve Judd (McCrea), the ageing cowboy, tells his friend Gil Westrum (Scott): “All I want is to enter my home justified.” It was a biblical-sounding line that the director used often in his own life.

Peckinpah protagonists are often men out of time. Think of William Holden as grizzled old-timer Pike, calling all his sad captains around him for a final battle to avenge Angel’s death at the end of The Wild Bunch.

The men are outlaws from the old west who can’t accommodate to change and seem almost to be willing their own deaths. “The strange thing is you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line,” Peckinpah said of the doomed anti-heroes of the film. He felt the same perverse affection for them that his collaborators clearly did for him.

Most of Peckinpah’s movies were elegiac. Even a contemporary tale like Junior Bonner, in which Steve McQueen played a long-in-the-tooth rodeo rider, carries an undertow of yearning for an earlier, more innocent time. Peckinpah identified with the losers and the underdogs. Many of his characters carried traces of his own personality. Charlton Heston’s Ahab-like cavalry commander raising his own private army in Major Dundee seemed like a twisted mirror-image of Peckinpah – the film-maker who couldn’t function unless he was embroiled in constant battles. “The war won’t last for ever,” Dundee tells the beautiful widow (Senta Berger). “It will for you, Major,” she replies – a remark that could easily have been levelled at the director. In a more gentle way, the addled old prospector played with such wry humour by Jason Robards in The Ballad of Cable Hogue also reflected Peckinpah, the quixotic dreamer. It was an open secret on the set of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, recognised by everybody but Peckinpah himself, that the star, Warren Oates, had modelled his performance as the drunken bar-room pianist on his director.

One of Peckinpah’s most inspiring and perverse traits was his utter determination to antagonise censors, producers and studio bosses. He was trying to “steal” his art from under their noses. “A little judicious censorship is like a little syphilis,” he once remarked, railing against attempts to tamper with his films. Peckinpah’s former assistant and lover Katy Haber has often said that one way he generated “the passion he needed to work” was defining his paymasters as his enemies. The spats behind the scenes on almost all his films became part of the mythology he wove around himself. “The basic ingredients are the same,” he said of his films late in his life. “It’s cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. Mainly, it’s people in conflict. You cannot have drama without conflict.” Peckinpah seemingly relished battle.

His rebelliousness explains why he holds such appeal for contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann and Tommy Lee Jones, who have all acknowledged a debt to his work. His constant warring clearly took a toll.

It became hard to tell whether alcohol was his refuge after his continual spats with producers and financiers or whether the alcoholism was what caused these spats. He had a ferocious work ethic and often simply fired assistants who couldn’t keep up with him. At the same time, his self abuse must surely have stopped him from functioning effectively.

The BFI retrospective of Peckinpah’s work won’t just focus on his magnificent but often revived masterpieces like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. There will also be screenings of mint and unfaded prints of “lost” films like Cross of Iron, Convoy and of one of Peckinpah’s lesser-known westerns The Deadly Companions. Peckinpah wasn’t always on top of his game. The Osterman Weekend was a film about paranoia made by somebody clearly suffering from the condition. Convoy is cheery enough, but it’s baffling why a film-maker of Peckinpah’s stature would make a dumb movie about truckers with names like Rubber Duck and Cotton Mouth (ironically, it was one of his top grossing films).

What his body of work shows, though, is both extraordinary intensity and craftsmanship. He was never a film-maker to take the easy route when a more difficult one was available.

The most jarring scenes in Berlenghini and Dalto’s documentary about Peckinpah are the interviews in which actress Susan George demurely discusses Straw Dogs. One moment, she is praising Peckinpah’s sense of humour and mischief (“he had eyes that could smile for England”). The next, she is discussing the notorious rape scene in the film. “I did zoom along in the script to find out where I take my clothes off and I did find out that this was quite different from any other script I had ever read before,” she says, adding with monumental understatement that the scene was “quite daunting”.

George, 21 years old when Straw Dogs was made, recognised that the scene was an integral part of the story. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable to film. It was a typical Peckinpah moment: confrontational, violent and disorientating in the emotions it sets out to elicit.

The fact that George is still ready to talk about it 30 years later underlines the affection and loyalty Peckinpah was able to inspire in his collaborators, whatever indignities he heaped on them. As David Warner, who also appeared in Straw Dogs, put it (sounding like a soldier back from a tour of duty): “Anybody who appeared in a Peckinpah movie somehow had a bond.”

Why would actors want to keep on working with such a dysfunctional and seemingly cruel man? The late Coburn pinpointed the answer: Peckinpah enabled them to do their best work. “He may have been a nasty bastard, but at least he was truthful about that. You had to justify everything for Sam... you couldn’t just go out there and play it. It had to come from some place within you.”

The Sam Peckinpah retrospective runs throughout January at BFI Southbank, London SE1 ( Peckinpah’s ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’, starring Warren Oates and Isela Vega, will be at BFI Southbank until 15 January and on certain days this week at Filmhouse Edinburgh, National Media Museum Bradford and other key cities in a restored digital cinema version and new 35mm prints. Call venues for details.

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