Sam Peckinpah – “…it’ll do.”
By Bert Ehrmann
2006-02-20 – Twenty-two years ago film director Sam Peckinpah died of a stroke at the age of 59. Though Peckinpah might be gone his work lives on. In his nearly 30-year career spanning the 1950s to 80s, Peckinpah directed 14 feature films and created a television series (The Westerner).
You might be familiar with two of Peckinpah’s movies, The Wild Bunch (1969) and/or The Getaway (1972). In The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah co-writes and directs the tale of a group of American outlaws chased into Mexico after a botched bank robbery with bounty hunters behind and a Mexican warlord ahead. The men literally and figuratively have nowhere to go, the west is changing and all they know is of being outlaws. As the tagline of The Wild Bunch puts it, “Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time.”
The Getaway follows “Doc” McCoy (Steve McQueen), an aging bank robber granted early release by a corrupt official if he agrees to rob one more bank. But when a member of his crew betrays McCoy, it’s a race to the border with McCoy and his wife being chased by (seemingly) the entire state of Texas.
After his death, Peckinpah came to be defined more for what he did behind the scenes than the movies he created. He burned bridges, sometimes unnecessarily, and paid a heavy toll. Peckinpah would alienate studio execs with his perfectionist ways and upset cast and crew with his substance abuse problems. (Reportedly, Peckinpah so upset actor Charlton Heston on the set of Major Dundee (1965) that the actor attacked the director with a prop sword.)
Ultimately, Peckinpah upset so many people that he found it hard to find work. His last few films were b-grade with c-list actors. Still, with Peckinpah at the director’s chair, low budget doesn’t necessarily mean low quality.
Two of his more creative films from late in Peckinpah’s career include Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Cross of Iron (1976). These two movies together had a budget around $7 million dollars – or about what Star Wars Episode I spent in just six minutes of screen time.
In Cross of Iron, German soldiers lead by Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn) are fighting a loosing battle on the frontlines against the Russians during WWII. The men have abandoned any notion of fighting for their country and instead fight for each other and sheer survival. But when Capt. Stransky (Maximilian Schell) is transferred to the front with the purpose of receiving an Iron Cross, a military honor, he’s willing to put everyone’s life in danger if it means attaining his goal.
Cross of Iron is a movie about soldiers fighting a losing battle but still doing their jobs. In the world of Peckinpah, experience is more valuable than rank and loyalty more than regulations.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (yes, that’s really the title), tells the bleak tale of Bennie (Warren Oates) an American expatriate running a bar in Mexico. Bennie learns that a Mexican crime boss is looking for someone to literally bring him the head of Alfredo Garcia, a man who impregnated his daughter, and is willing to pay a large sum of money for the cabeza. Bennie knows that Garcia is already dead and buried after a road accident and sees retrieving the head as easy money.
But Bennie gets so myopic in his task, so shortsighted, that he stumbles into an ambush, is wounded and his girlfriend killed. Garcia is about a man who is willing to pay any cost for the object of his desire, money, until he finally realizes the cost.
Though he might have been relegated to the low budget, Peckinpah never gave up, directing his last movie just a year before his death and working on a script with horror writer Stephen King right up until the end. Peckinpah seemed to live via the line delivered by the character Freddie Sykes in The Wild Bunch, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”