Alfredo Garcia and Other Peckinpah Tales

By Lee Hill

bring-me-the-head-of-alfredo-garcia-sam-peckinpah.jpgBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974

In today’s over-mediated popular culture, it is difficult to imagine a film director as brilliant, idiosyncratic, self-destructive and erratic like Sam Peckinpah managing to sustain a 25 plus year career. The prodigal son of a notable California pioneer family, Peckinpah’s gift (or weakness, depending on your point of view) for pushing boundaries was quickly established with a trilogy of elegiac Westerns – The Deadly Companions, Ride The High Country and Major Dundee. After being famously fired in 1965 during the early days of shooting The Cincinnati Kid (and replaced by Norman Jewison), Peckinpah spent four years on a studio blacklist until returning with Noon Wine, an uncharacteristically gentle TV adaptation of a Katherine Anne Porter short story, and The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch, with its famous massacre/last stand between the anti-heroic gang of robbers and Mexican soldiers, became Peckinpah’s first hit despite alienating almost as many critics and viewers as it won over. Most directors in his position would have consolidated that success with a series of safe, respectable choices. Instead Peckinpah created a fortress around himself, protected by sympathetic friends and collaborators like James Coburn, LQ Jones, Kris Kristofferson and Kate Haber. Peckinpah revelled in a confusion of life, art and commerce memorably detailed by historians and biographers as Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Marshall Fine. Regardless of the unevenness of many of his films (even in their much lauded restored versions), the chaos that surrounded Peckinpah gives his films an energy and conviction .

The reissue of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia by Park Circus Films and accompanying retrospective at the BFI Southbank in January are welcome reminders of how Peckinpah explored characters seeking redemption in landscapes constantly shaken by violence, corruption and disillusion with a potent blend of irony and passion. Much imitated and parodied (most famously in Monty Python’s Salad Days sketch), Peckinpah has never been an easy director to pigeonhole. Despite the admiration of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary and Christopher McQuarrie, Peckinpah’s work is the antithesis of the self-referential, hyperconscious and emotionally adolescent obsessions of these filmmakers. If he were alive, Peckinpah would likely have found Death Proof, Killing Zoe or Year of The Gun ridiculous in their faux machismo. As cynical as Convoy was (and as dire as Peckinpah’s condition was during its production), one can watch the end result without the pretence of it being a homage.

Despite its disastrous reception in 1974, one reason that Alfredo Garcia fascinates is because the Mexico of corrupt political and social milieus it depicts has changed very little in spite of the expansion of the middle class. Peckinpah was no documentarian, but like a good storyteller he captures the essence of a human problem that won’t go away. Bennie, an ex-US soldier turned into expat cocktail piano player (embodied with terrifying perfection by Warren Oates), is a man who has given up on caring, but the chance inquires of two Americans hired to kill the title character bring him back to a kind of life. Bennie intends to race the hit men and bring back Alfred Garcia’s head to the wealthy rancher he has wronged himself. His reasons are both noble and ugly. He believes the blood money will allow him to take Elita, his prostitute girlfriend to a better life. Of course, given the conflicted reasoning, things go horribly wrong and Benny’s dream disintegrates into a desire for mere revenge by the film’s end.

bring-me-the-head-of-alfredo-garcia-sam-peckinpah-2.jpgBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974

Even by the standards of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, Alfredo Garcia is a bleak film. Peckinpah began work on the film in a state of profound loss and anger. His previous film, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, had been heavily edited by MGM and released indifferently. In its restored form, the western is now considered by many to be the definitive take on the story of the two friends who are forced to become enemies. However, at the time Peckinpah was so drained by the ordeal, he decided to make his next film with as little studio involvement as possible.

Working with a largely non-union crew and drawing in favours from the likes of Oates, Gig Young and Kristofferson, Peckinpah shot the film for $1.5 million in the manner of an underground/independent film. The lighting is erratic, the sound muddy and the overall ambiance is a few notches above that of a snuff film, but after a few moments, the film takes on a strange grandeur. Scenes such as Bennie a grim roadside encounter with bikers, surviving a live burial, and confronting the rancher’s suited henchmen in a luxury hotel share the quality of daytime nightmare that Bunuel brought to his films. It isn’t the gunplay that is most disturbing in the film, but near total absence of any character, aside from Bennie and Elita, who aren’t indifferent to the most basic forms of empathy and concern for their fellow human beings.

Understandably, even in the less marketing driven world of Hollywood filmmaking in the mid-70s, Peckinpah was almost vilified upon the film’s release. The economic clout he had achieved in the wake of The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and The Getaway was weakened by the poor reception to Pat Garrett and the near revulsion with which mainstream audiences and critics greeted Alfred Garcia. Peckinpah’s next film, The Killer Elite, a strange mix of CIA conspiracy and martial arts spectacular, was a typical attempt by the director to play by studio rules, which of course, by Peckinpah’s perverse standards, no real attempt at all. Whatever its flaws, it never takes itself as seriously as Kill Bill. His next film, Cross of Iron, financed by a German producer of soft porn, found Peckinpah struggling with a poorly conceived budget and the pressures of working with a multi-lingual cast and crew to complete a complex World War II epic set on the Russian front. Much to everyone’s surprise, Cross of Iron turned out to be a remarkably convincing and harrowing look at the futility of war.

bring-me-the-head-of-alfredo-garcia-sam-peckinpah-3.jpgBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974

Peckinpah’s drug and alcohol abuse and indifference to the usual niceties of on-set diplomacy accelerated his reputation as a difficult director. Alas, Convoy became better known for its production chaos than for Peckinpah’s efforts to depict the distinct American sub-culture of truckers in mythic terms. It was a good five years before he was allowed to helm The Osterman Weekend, a claustrophobic adaptation of a Robert Ludlum novel, which, for the presence of closed circuit cameras and illusion vs. reality antics might be charitably described as his 81/2. It was at the very least, an entertaining mess, but one suspects Peckinpah was slightly disgusted by the end result. As the years of hard living took its toll and financial problems grew, Peckinpah spent the last few months of his life writing what he hoped would be his return to the western and traffic managing two rock videos by Julian Lennon.

Even more so than contemporaries like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah made violence his subject. Although he has been celebrated in recent years for all the wrong reasons, watching his films back to back it is clear Peckinpah was a man desperately searching for some kind of peace in his life. Many of the finest moments in Peckinpah films are those where characters look at each other in an occasional moment of calm – a young couple relaxing in a Cornish cottage in Straw Dogs, William Holden reminiscing about the old days in The Wild Bunch or even Bennie in Alfredo Garcia blithely promising his girlfriend a better life oblivious to the doom he has already condemned her to. Great artists embody contradiction in their work and transcend it. On that basis, his films were not always perfect, but they were often great.

Lee Hill is a writer and consultant based in London.