It’s certainly ironic that Sam Peckinpah is getting a complete New York retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center the same month that the city’s rep houses have devoted themselves to the late Chantal Akerman. But Peckinpah himself would have relished the idea of the boozy American cowboy of artful bloodshed getting lost amid the meditative work of the Belgian feminist. Out of step, outgunned, outnumbered — such was his natural state. As Dustin Hoffman, the star of the director’s enduringly controversial cause célèbre Straw Dogs (1971), once said, “Sam Peckinpah is a man out of his time, a gunfighter in an age when we’re going to the moon.”
Did Peckinpah ever actually belong anywhere? His preferred genre, the western, was in its death throes during his late Sixties/early Seventies heyday, a fact at times reflected in his narratives. He might even have helped kill it, a little, with the poetic ultra-violence of 1969’s The Wild Bunch. In his masterful second feature, Ride the High Country (1962), two aging gunfighters (Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott), one of them reduced to appearing in Old West parades, head out for a lucrative opportunity in a remote mining community, only to discover that the days of the gold rush are long gone. In the elegiac The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), an outlaw abandoned in the desert by his partners winds up creating his own idyllic outpost; he sticks it out as the world modernizes around him — and winds up getting run over by a motorcar.
Even in his non-westerns, Peckinpah’s characters evince the rootlessness of lonesome cowboys: In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a decrepit piano player (Warren Oates) goes off looking for a wanted man and finds himself crowded out in a world of corporate hitmen, renegade hippies, and moneyed mobsters. In Junior Bonner (1972), Steve McQueen plays a has-been rodeo star who returns to his hometown to discover that his opportunistic brother is turning the family ranch into a retirement community. In Convoy (1978), a group of long-distance truckers with no use for the law or any kind of organization are pursued by a corrupt sheriff. “At least we got one thing in common,” says Ernest Borgnine’s crooked cop to Kris Kristofferson’s renegade trucker, when the latter reveals he doesn’t want any part of a union. Kristofferson corrects him: “Two. There ain’t many of us left.”
The troubled, runaway production of Convoy — which saw the cocaine-addicted, alcoholic director often incapacitated on set and the film taken out of his hands in the editing room — pretty much destroyed what was left of Peckinpah’s Hollywood career. The film nevertheless became one of his biggest hits, and it’s not hard to see why: It’s a fascinatingly stupid movie with some real dash. Still, it rarely gets shown nowadays. This retro offers a chance to catch up with that as well as some other infrequently screened titles, such as his debut feature, The Deadly Companions (1961), a mess of a western shot through with moments of grim beauty, and the wonderfully intense Cross of Iron (1977), a stylized WWII action-tapestry with James Coburn as a German soldier whose code of honor feels (surprise!) out of place in a world of rampant careerism and murder.
For all that elegizing, nostalgia was never Peckinpah’s thing. Rather, his work is infused with a kind of existential regret: Revisiting the films, I was struck again by how they lament a bygone world that never actually existed. And they’re a far cry from the optimistic melancholy of John Ford, whose grizzled holdouts leave the world better than they found it. Peckinpah’s men aren’t being abandoned for civilization and progress, but for regimentation, authority, and mechanized forms of bloodshed. Maybe the world was going to the moon in real life. But on Peckinpah’s screen, it was going to hell.
‘Bring Me the Head of Sam Peckinpah’
March 31–April 7, Film Society of Lincoln Center
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