Duels in the Sun


The self-loathing underworld god-king of masculine genre angst and the world’s first genuine action craftsman, Sam Peckinpah made movies that bark at the desert sun, and for all of the ink spilled about him, he is still underestimated and misunderstood. Today, buried beneath 20 years of violent film action as car commercial, he is a forgotten giant whose tortured achievement, exemplified by only four films, dwarfs the many critical attempts to typify it. For real, Peckinpah took the fatalism of noir all the way to the pit, and jacked the feral ethos inherent in the western up to its bloodletting nth. As much as he might legitimately seem the moviemaking personification of testicular havoc himself, his films are stained and bloodied with desperate self-knowledge, and bludgeoning woe.

The Anthology series offers up Sam’s top seven titles in 35mm (and Peckinpah used the whole wide frame, all the time), of which Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and The Getaway (1972) rate merely as fascinating also-rans—the first a mournful, Boetticher-like funeral oater for Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea; the second a misconceived fable-farce; the third a nasty and glum Jim Thompson riff. Things begin boiling with, of course, The Wild Bunch (1969), a protean chop shop that redefined the West as a butcher’s bench, where men with long lives still translate to meat. Such is the graceless heart of Straw Dogs (1971) as well; commonly misread as a brute endorsement of jungle law, it instead bristles at its own obvious revenge scenario, carefully documents the sheer ugliness of impromptu bloodshed, and pities Dustin Hoffman’s grinning nerd his transformation into cutthroat.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) might be Peckinpah’s masterpiece, depending on how you respond to its meta-Leone pathos, lyricism, and historical irony, but salaams should also be made to the derided Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), perhaps the ultimate borderland noir and, with Warren Oates searching for salvation with a severed head in a sack, a rough-hewn black box of metaphors and existential funk you can never finish unpacking.