Icons / September 2016

The Director's Cut: Sam Peckinpah

The Rake continues its celebration of rakish artistry, with a toast to the life and work of the troubled auteur and unofficial king of the posthumous director’s cut.
Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984), US film director, wearing a paisley pattern bandana as he puts his eye to a movie camera during filming, circa 1980. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.

“It was merely a changeover from dishonesty to at least looking at the fact that people do bleed and are hurt,” Sam Peckinpah told Barry Norman in 1976, when the British film critic quizzed him about a reputation for on-screen violence which had furnished Peckinpah with the epithet ’Bloody Sam’. “I made The Wild Bunch because I still believed in the Greek theory of catharsis – that by seeing this we will be purged… and get this out of our system. I was wrong.”

It’s not certain what overturned Peckinpah’s view that violence gilds realism with probity, but the catalyst may well have been the nausea he felt upon learning that his 1969 epic western The Wild Bunch was being shown to Nigerian soldiers to inspire them before battles. Either way, his reputation is reductive - many are surprised to learn that Peckinpah’s reputation as a man not disposed to letting a bucket of theatrical blood go to waste only really stems from a handful of pictures from his 14-movie oeuvre: notably The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – the last of which, admittedly, sees a lone protagonist driving around Mexico with a severed head in a sack. It’s a shame, as his reputation for blood and guts is one that clouds the beauty of his artistry.

"It’s a shame, as his reputation for blood and guts is one that clouds the beauty of his artistry."

Peckinpah’s filmic texts are magisterial in their crafting and guile. The hyper-frenetic action scenes which became one of his many trademarks sometimes involved running several cameras at various frame-rates, then stitching the results together in cuts often less than a quarter of a second in length. (John Woo – one among a list of Hollywood notables who acknowledge Peckinpah’s influence that also includes Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.)

His dissections of the male psyche and brotherly bonds were gritty, adroit and apposite (although his depiction of women furrows the eyebrows more, the further we stride away from the gender politics of the 70s). Meanwhile, by dint of being gentler and more nuanced, many of his better works are the lesser-known of his canon: Junior Bonner, which came between Straw Dogs and The Getaway, is a warm and poetic eulogy to western life eliciting a measured performance from Steve McQueen, while Noon Wine – Peckinpah’s mesmerizing, 50-minute forgotten masterpiece – has a dark and delirious poignancy to it.

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