Tag Archives: wild bunch

Sam Peckinpah in Retropsect

2 Jul

Settle In For A ‘Summer Of Sam Peckinpah’ At The Somerville Theatre

The canon of Sam Peckinpah’s blood letting mastery will be on display July and August as part of the Somerville Theatre’s “Summer of Sam Peckinpah” series which will showcase 10 of the 14 feature length films the maverick director notched during his tumultuous career.

The program could alternatively be titled, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” At the height of his career, Peckinpah transformed the western genre with gritty gray depictions of morality and balletic orchestration of extreme violence that were at once, disturbing and poetic. At his nadir, Peckinpah had creative control wrested away by studios believing his vision had gone amok. And there were those later endeavors, where the director was too high on coke and alcohol to assemble competent and comprehensive results — though there were always the old flashes of brilliance. In there too, sprinkled between disaster and crowning achievement, were the quirky off-kilter oddities that bordered on cult status and defied genre while polarizing filmgoers and critics alike. Were they visionary masterpieces, or more of Sam firing off into a maelstrom of misanthropic misery propelled by a pint of tequila and contempt for his producers?

Sam Peckinpah in 1964 Los Angeles. (AP)

If you’re familiar with Peckinpah and his works, you can probably fill in the titles next to each category with relative ease. If the name is new to you, or somewhat vague, then you’re in for a taste bud awakening and cinematic treat. That said, most all of Peckinpah’s films bristle with machismo, hyper violence and perverse, sexually charged situations — not everyone’s cup of tea.

Historically, Peckinpah’s been viewed as the gateway filmmaker who set the stage for the dark, iconic works of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in the ‘70s and more contemporarily, Quentin Tarantino. The Monty Python skit “Salad Days,” where a nice English picnic in the country turns into a blood gushing hell, got at the mainstream perception of Peckinpah and his films at the time, but what made his vision resonate with critics and audiences during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as over time, were the visceral themes of being caught out of time and out of place. They felt dislocated, disenfranchised and desperate — but in those desolate backdrops were always soulful wafts of loneliness and the unwritten code of loyalty.

The Somerville Theatre’s program runs the 10 films in tight, near chronological order. “Ride the High Country” (1962), Peckinpah’s second feature begins the two-month-long tribute on July 1. Peckinpah had cut his teeth as a TV director with “The Rifleman” series and was also a longtime assistant to Don Siegel (“Dirty Hairy” and “The Killers”) in the ‘50s — he had five bit roles in Siegel’s conformist horror classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Peckinpah’s first feature, “The Deadly Companions” (1961) was mostly viewed as a transition piece, as it starred Brian Keith, the lead of “The Westerner” TV series, which Peckinpah also directed. The piece never quite gelled in the new format, but that theme of redemption and the notion of setting things right (Keith played an ex-army officer looking to make amends to a woman whose son he had killed) would echo loudly in “Ride the High Country” and infuse many of the director’s subsequent works.

When Peckinpah set out to make “High Country” many derided his choice of casting Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as his leads. They were aging actors but personal favorites of Peckinpah and precisely what the script called for, old school westerners confronted by the amoral corruption in a mountain high mining town impervious to the influence of outside law and custom. The movie casts shades of “Shane” and floats the specter of Robert Altman’s brilliant and yet-to-be-released, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971).

Peckinpah’s follow up, “Major Dundee” (playing July 8), a Civil War era grudge match with the Apache, was something of a letdown by comparison. Marred by heavy studio paring and a vicious on set feud with star Charlton Heston (the excellent cast also included Richard Harris and James Coburn), Peckinpah was removed from the film before its completion.

Five years later, Peckinpah would deliver his magnum opus, “The Wild Bunch” (July 15, 70mm), seamlessly weaving together the vanishing West, the onset of the First World War, the invention of the airplane and the cruel injustice spreading throughout Mexico and fought against by Pancho Villa. The cast of antihero outlaws and rival bounty hunters would factor in more of Peckinpah’s idols, Robert Ryan and Edmond O’Brien, aging Hollywood A-lister, William Holden and Peckinpah regulars, Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin (“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”), L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. The movie was as much a revelation in cinematic technique (multiple cameras shooting the same action simultaneously, the interweave of slow motion and regular speed action within a sequence and the tight, frenetic cross-cutting that brought it all together with purpose ) as it was a statement about the brutal nature of man and bureaucratic hypocrisy of society in large. The Vietnam War was raging at that time, and some politicized “The Wild Bunch” as an allegory for America’s involvements in other countries’ affairs. Peckinpah would adhere to his intent to tell a simple story about men of fixed ways caught in changing times. The eloquent score by longtime collaborator Jerry Fielding and the script by Peckinpah and Walon Green would go on to receive Oscar nods.

“Straw Dogs” (July 22), Peckinpah’s first non-western, too had the tang of Vietnam attached to it (released in 1971) as it revolved around a college professor (Dustin Hoffman) who relocates to the small English village of his wife (Susan George) in order to extricate himself from the turmoil and protests back home and to focus on his precious mathematical equations. There, conflict and tension come in other forms, the primal power of sex, cowardly acquiescence, pedophilia and class division, all driven by another hauntingly ominous score by Fielding, and culminating in the perfect storm of escalation in a remote enclave where the hand of the law is as ephemeral and effective as it was on the edge of the American frontier. The graphic nature of the pivotal rape scene sparked outrage and controversy at the time and remains equally as provocative and divisive 45 years later.  Continue reading