Perhaps the single most illustrative fact about Sam Peckinpah is that he was developing a script while fighting against the heart disease that eventually killed him at the too-young age of 59. After alcoholism, cocaine abuse and a tempestuous personal life (involving divorce, infidelity and drunkenly shooting guns at the mirrors in his house), Peckinpah refused to stop working despite his terrible health.
He was an artist up until the end, and one steeped in unnervingly realistic violence and gripping dramatic conflict. It was a strong signature that earned him parody by Monty Python, consistent controversy and (strangely) only one Oscar nomination. From the outside, the hard-living and the storied battles with colleagues make it feel like Peckinpah was a man who belonged in the wild west of his stories. A guy born a century too late. But from The Wild Bunch to Straw Dogs to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, this human dust storm left behind some truly amazing movies.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who couldn’t direct sober.
Research and Bum Rush
When asked back in 1978 how a wannabe writer could break into Hollywood, Peckinpah said:
“I think right now it’s a writer’s market. It depends on what form and who it’s for. Look at what is being sold and who is selling and who is buying and what kind of script, and then get the names of who those people are, and lie, cheat, steal, bribe and get in to meet them and con. . . That’s the only way I could do it. I was a dialogue director and a propman; I became a writer because it was a way to become a director.”
It’s no longer a writer’s market, but the rest of the advice seems timeless.
Damn the Man
It’s no secret that a lot of Peckinpah’s work was altered by producers and financiers. ABC Pictures hounded him to keep Straw Dogs below an X-rating (the time’s NC-17 equivalent), MGM fired him from Ride The High Country before it was edited or scored, and Warners even cut The Wild Bunch for time so theaters could show more screenings of it. The list is long, which is probably why the director once said that, “A little judicious censorship is like a little syphilis.”
But apparently his infamous antagonism served at least one noble purpose. According to his former assistant Katy Haber, vilifying the moneymen was partially what drove Peckinpah’s spirit for filmmaking. He needed an enemy, and they were all too happy to play into that role, creating friction that he no doubt imbued his films with.
Be Your Audience
Prepare to Confuse Everyone
It’s natural to think that people either love or hate Peckinpah, so it’s understandable why a Playboy interviewer led with that statement in 1972 while speaking with the filmmaker. Peckinpah’s response:
“Either way, they almost always misunderstand me. To some, Straw Dogs was a work of integrity but not of major intelligence. To others it was a work of enormous subtlety and substantial intelligence but failed on moral grounds. Goddamn it, Straw Dogs is based on a book called ‘The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.’ It’s a lousy book with one good action-adventure sequence in it — the siege itself. You get hired to take this bad book and make a picture out of it. You get handed a scriptwriter, David Goodman, and an actor, Dustin Hoffman, and you’re told to make a picture. You’re given a story to do and you do it the best way you know how, that’s all. So what’s all this shit about integrity and about the picture not being the work of a major intelligence?”
Understand What Your Critics Won’t
From that same interview:
“David Sumner [the main character of Straw Dogs] had recognized in himself the enormous suppressed violence that he had been living with. And once it had come out, there was no going back. You see, he really 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. He was maneuvering himself into a situation where he’d be forced to let the violence in himself out, as a lot of so-called pacifists and supposedly passive people do. You remember reading about that kid who shot 45 people from the top of a tower on some campus? Boy, there was the honor student, the good guy, the boy scout leader who was kind to his mother and small animals. Whether he enjoyed shooting all those people isn’t the issue. The issue is that he did it. He had all that violence in him and he went up into the tower and let it out. Now, you hear all this talk about the violence in Straw Dogs and in some of my other pictures, as if that violence were contributing to the violence of our society. The point is that the violence in us, in all of us, has to be expressed constructively or it will sink us.
I’m a great believer in catharsis. Do you think people watch the Super Bowl because they think football is a beautiful sport? Bullshit! They’re committing violence vicariously. Look, the old basis of catharsis was a purging of the emotions through pity and fear. People used to go and see the plays of Euripides and Sophocles and those other Greek cats. The players acted it out and the audience got in there and kind of lived it with them. What’s more violent than the plays of William Shakespeare? And how about grand opera? What’s bloodier than a romantic grand opera? Take a plot, any plot — brother kills brother to sleep with the wife, who then kills her father, and so on and so on. Want to have some fun? Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When you point things like this out to the New York cats, they tell you it was all art, which is crap. These plays and operas and stories were the popular entertainment of their day.”
Any bets on how often Peckinpah had to explain the history of fictional violence to critics?
Then Be More Than What They Paint You As
It’s easy to focus solely on Peckinpah’s relation to violence. So easy that I couldn’t resist mentioning it in the introduction here. It’s a major part of his work — one that he chalked up to conflict and the nature of storytelling requiring it — but like almost every filmmaker who gets painted with a single word or theme, Peckinpah was more than the sum of one part.
What he refers to as the only movie he ever chose to make himself, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is essentially a comedy set in the West that relies almost entirely on a smart story and strong acting from Jason Robards. There are action scenes, but if you played it for most fans, they’d hardly recognize it as a Peckinpah film (despite it being one he was greatly proud of). So much for auteur theory. Maybe that’s why it’s almost never mentioned when the director’s name comes up.
What We’ve Learned
Mostly that it’s unfair to pigeonhole an artist as phenomenal as Peckinpah. But also that it’s fair to love his films while still knowing he was a giant asshole. His personal life was marred by the abuse he brought up on himself and doled out to others, and that echoed inside his movies. Fortunately his films also had a potent sense of grace and poetry to them that hopefully he too got to enjoy between all the chaotic bits.
All of these lessons are good, but they amount to a singular idea: to be fiercely independent.
Peckinpah got away with that because he was a genius, so maybe it’s not the best advice for all of us, but insisting on being yourself while understanding the “whoring” nature of the for-hire filmmaking business is a hell of a foundation to start from.