Sam Peckinpah – A Vision Of Violence

This is an indepth profile I wrote of director Sam Peckinpah, one of my all time favorites. It first appeared in Real Groove magazine several years ago.

Born February 21, 1925, David Samuel Peckinpah became one of the most controversial directors Hollywood has ever known. With fourteen films over the course of twenty-two years he carved out a career for himself that made him both the most admired and reviled director of films in the Sixties and Seventies. He lived hard and died young, a Hollywood legend all the way. Peckinpah is best known for his unusual way of using violence in his films, and it was this characteristic that earned him the nickname Bloody Sam. So who was he, and where did he come from?

Sam Peckinpah’s main interest was in westerns. He was born in Fresno, California and attended Fresno grammar schools and high school. However, he spent much time skipping classes with his brother to engage in cowboy activities like trapping, branding, and shooting. He joined the Marines in 1943 and was soon stationed in China in supportive roles. While his duty did not involve any combat situations, much to his dismay, he was witness to acts of violence in the war between the Republic of China and Japan. After the war he married Marie Selland in Las Vegas in 1947. He completed a B.A. in Drama at the Fresno State College in 1949 and went on to earn an M.A. in 1950 at the University of Southern California. Although his choice of medium changed from theatre to film, he singularly pursued his desire to direct. After a stint as the director and producer in residence at Huntington Park Civic Theatre in California, he worked as a propman and stagehand at KLAC-TV in Los Angeles; then from 1951 to 1953 he worked as an assistant editor at CBS. In 1954 he had the good fortune to work as an assistant and dialogue director to Don Siegel, it was through Seigel that Peckinpah came in contact with the CBS series Gunsmoke and ended up writing several scripts for the show. Thus began the period of Peckinpah’s television work in which he wrote scripts for numerous series including Broken Arrow, Tales of Wells Fargo and Zane Grey Theatre. The “The Knife Fighter” (1958) episode of Broken Arrow was his first attempt at directing. He went on to direct episodes of The Rifleman and between 1959 and mid-1960 he oversaw the production of ten episodes of The Westerner. It was during his television years that Peckinpah began to assemble actors like Strother Martin, R.G. Armstrong and Warren Oates who would later become part of his “stock company”.

Peckinpah was hired to direct his first film, Deadly Companions, in1961. The film received little attention, but he followed it up in 1962 with Ride the High Country, which won the Grand Prix at the Belgium International Film Festival. Peckinpah’s third feature, Major Dundee (1965), marks the beginning of his volatile relations with producers and distributors. Columbia Pictures felt the film was too long and convoluted for general audiences and made numerous cuts. , What came of that was the first of many public outbursts that continued throughout Peckinpah’s working history. He was legendary for his abuse of alcohol, and later drugs, and for his mercurial personality, which once resulted in Charlton Heston threatening him with a cavalry sabre in a disagreement over a scene in Major Dundee.

1969 saw the release of the film that will forever be etched in the memory of filmgoers as Peckinpah’s tour-de-force. The story is that at the first screening of The Wild Bunch, 32 people walked out in the first 10 minutes. The idea, he later said, was to challenge the audience through confrontation. Those who stayed were awed by a poetic ballet so brutal that nothing like it had ever been seen on screen before. It is impossible to determine whether this film is the most violent ever made up to that time, and the question is probably irrelevant. What we can say is that with the newly gained freedom attained through the development of the Code and Rating Administration and in the midst of a volatile cultural mindset brought on in no small part by the raging war in Vietnam, Peckinpah, with the help of the brilliant editor Louis Lombardo and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, developed a stylistic approach that through the use of slow-motion, multi-camera filming and montage editing, seemed to make the violence more intense and raw. Peckinpah, at the time, denounced violence and hoped that his ballet of blood would repulse people so much that peace was the only alternative. Ironically, Peckinpah became pigeonholed as a purveyor of violence. The extreme violence didn’t repulse audiences; it supercharged them. The Wild Bunch set new standards of violence in film. This new style was to be imitated and drawn upon from that time on. He was an important director whose influence is acknowledged by many contemporary filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.

Peckinpah refused to let his new reputation deter him from his vision. He pushed the accepted boundaries of society even further with his film Straw Dogs (1971). Casting Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, an odd little man out of place in the rural English farming town he inhabits on sabbatical with his wife and finds himself drawn inextricably into a violent confrontation with the locals, one man against a raging gang of seven, forced into a bloody and cathartic redemption and not, as some viewers think, revenge. The film becomes a blood-soaked trial where being a man means giving in to baser instincts and refusing to conform to a mindless, brutal society.

Peckinpah’s work between 1972 and 1977 isn’t noted for as much raw violence as he used in The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. He made The Getaway (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), The Killer Elite (1975) and Cross of Iron (1977). These years resulted in an uneven body of work yet too little attention has been paid to how these later films evolve from Peckinpah’s earlier work and reflect the continuous development of his concerns about society. Violence was only an ornament, only a metaphoric means to an end. What he was interested in was freedom, passion, and the individual’s right and responsibility to run their own life.

Although Peckinpah had many fans during his lifetime, after his death in 1984 the name and the distinctive work of the great director fell into oblivion. For the next 10 years, Peckinpah’s name seemed to have never existed. It was not until March 23rd, 1995, when a release of a renewed director’s-cut of The Wild Bunch provoked fresh interest in Peckinpah’s work that he was once again remembered as the visionary he was. The sheer amount of mindlessness violence in movies that The Wild Bunch in part helped spawn has done much to reveal the profundity of Peckinpah’s achievement. His imitators missed the moral passion, the psychological depth, and the true subversiveness of his achievements, imitating only the externals. Peckinpah’s films are always character-driven and the violence is initiated by and derived from their isolation and inability to cope with their environment.

Peckinpah lived hard and full. He drank and abused drugs, producers and collaborators. Many scandalous and strange facts from the director’s life were frequently published by the critics, but Peckinpah always emphasized the fact that he appreciated humanity, courage, morals and law. Being considered for the Stephen King-scripted The Shotgunners, he died from heart failure in Mexico at age 59. At a gathering afterwards, James Coburn remembered the director as a man “who pushed me over the abyss and then jumped in after me. He took me on some great adventures”. A remarkable legacy for a director who will long be remembered.

Filmography

1961 The Deadly Companions
1962 Ride the High Country
1965 Major Dundee
1969 The Wild Bunch
1970 The Ballad of Cable Hogue
1971 Straw Dogs
1972 The Getaway
1972 Junior Bonner
1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
1974 Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
1975 The Killer Elite
1977 Cross of Iron
1982 Jinxed! (uncredited)
1983 The Osterman Weekend

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