I love films that feel like they have to be made, like the filmmaker needed to tell this particular story or they were going to die. I suppose this is what the French dubbed “the Auteur Theory,” which implied that there was a sense of authorship to movies, even though hundreds of people work on them. While this usually applies to people who both write and direct, sometimes, and I think more frequently than we assume, a director can be an auteur regardless of who gets script credit.
All of this, I believe, applies to the tortured soul that was Sam Peckinpah. Known for his slow-motion approach to often bloody violence, Peckinpah’s films don’t get the credit they deserve for being deep depictions of people at the end of their tether, in a world they no longer fit into. Peckinpah himself felt this way, eventually expatriating from the United States to his beloved Mexico and drinking himself to death. While not every film he did feels specifically like a Peckinpah movie, especially those he made toward the end of his life, there is a definite golden period where just about everything he touched was supremely his own.
Below are my five favorite of his films. I would like to point out that I also love the bittersweet western comedy The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Peckinpah’s personal favorite of his own films), the modern-day family drama set in the world of rodeo riding Junior Bonner, and the gutsy & nihilistic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. So, those would be 6, 7, and 8.
5) Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
This is one of Peckinpah’s fabled “troubled” productions, wherein the studio took the film away from him and recut it themselves. Their cuts removed a lot of the lyrical pacing he was trying for, and messed up the film’s timelines to a degree. The story is about two friends who begin on the same side of the law (the bad one) and end up on opposite sides. Kris Kristofferson is delightfully charming as the roguish outlaw Billy the Kid, and James Coburn is sort of heartbreaking as his former friend turned manhunter Pat Garrett. This is, like a lot of Peckinpah’s westerns, all about men facing the end of their lives, be it their natural life or their professional one. It’s a much more melancholy movie than you might expect. I also love it because of Bob Dylan’s weird performance and his amazing soundtrack, which includes the immortal and perfectly-fitting “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”
4) The Getaway (1972)
One of the few films during this period that Peckinpah didn’t initiate, this film based on the tough-as-nails Jim Thompson novel of the same name had a stellar script by Walter Hill and involved badass Steve McQueen as Doc McCoy, a bank robber recently released from prison, being made to stage another heist in broad daylight. He’s been set-up and double-crossed by everyone involved, except perhaps for his wife, played by Ali MacGraw, who has been doing whatever she has to to survive while Doc’s been in prison. Just like the name suggests, most of the movie is Doc and his wife trying to evade the police and the other robbers on their way to the promised land known as El Rey. Peckinpah’s visual style is perfect for this kind of movie, as there are plenty of action set pieces to make you forget you’re essentially watching a movie about marital strife.
3) Straw Dogs (1971)
This is perhaps Peckinpah’s most notorious and troubling movie. Another title based on a novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams, Straw Dogs is the quintessential movie about a man who literally wants nothing to do with violence and the horrible things that happen when he finally decides to act. Dustin Hoffman famously said he wasn’t fond of this movie and its dark and violent themes, but it’s hard to argue with the results. He plays an American mathematician who travels with his English wife (Susan George) to her small town home for some work. Though he and the wife are happy initially, being back where she grew up starts to take its tole, especially when her big, beefy ex-boyfriend happens to be the one hired to fix the cottage’s roof. Tensions escalate until finally a horrible act occurs, but that isn’t what sends Hoffman’s character over the edge, even though it should. The whole film leads up to our “hero” doing the right thing for the entirely wrong reason. It’s not a feel-good movie at all, and his choosing to defend a child murderer over his own wife (due to circumstances) will certainly not instill much heroism into your heart.
2) Ride the High Country (1962)
Peckinpah’s second feature, this is his most traditionally-Hollywood Western, but still manages to get packed full of all the themes he loved to explore, especially that of aging men of action being forced to accept the reality of the time. Aging screen stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott play gunfighters at the end of the Western Ideal. They can’t see straight anymore, and one of them has become a circus huckster out for a buck. They’re forced to rejoin forces to escort a young woman to her family and a chest of gold to the bank, amid a great many nasty men trying to get hold of both of them. The scenery in this film is gorgeous, full of mountainy vistas and snowy expanses, while McCrea and Scott couldn’t be better. This film contains one of Peckinpah’s most famous lines, even though he didn’t write the screenplay: when asked why he’s taken on this job, even though he’s old, McCrea’s character just says “All I want is to enter my house justified.” That’s sort of all Peckinpah wanted; to be able to go home knowing he’d done something good and important. What more can any of us want?
1) The Wild Bunch (1969)
No big surprise here. Peckinpah’s most lauded movie is also my favorite, and the first I saw of his. Yes, it’s a very, very violent film, classified as an X rating for a long time as a result, but it’s also a rollicking adventure and a fond farewell to the West. Fittingly, this came out the same year as Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West and it’s interesting to compare the two. While Leone’s film deals with the dwindling days of the West before the railroad changed everything, it’s much more a farewell and tribute to the Western as a genre. By contrast, Peckinpah’s film is specifically about NOT saying goodbye to the west, even in the face of progress (there are cars in this movie, for Pete’s sake), and reliving the glory days while you can. The eponymous Bunch are outlaws who are trying to steal a crate of guns to sell to a Mexican general for a buttload of cash following some less-than-profitable robberies. All the while, a former member of the gang has been hired to help track them in order to stave off a lengthy prison sentence. The whole movie is about that “one last walk”, and staying true to your friends, even when it means the end of everything. A gatling gun is involved in the grand finale, so you can pretty much guarantee nobody’s living happily ever after. But in their own way, they do. Even though Peckinpah was only 44 when he made this, he’d lived a life, and it feels like the work of a much older man.
So there we have my 5 favorite films by a filmmaker who is still mostly underrated for being as deep and lyrical as his films were, despite all the gunfire and slow motion.