Tag Archives: Sam Peckinpah

Great Directors: Sam Peckinpah

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 19, 2014

Sam Peckinpah

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“Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle.”–Pauline Kael.

“I want to be able to make westerns like Akira Kurosawa makes westerns.”–Sam Peckinpah

David Samuel Peckinpah was born in 1925 and grew up in Fresno, California.  The strongest influence on him during his youth was said to be his maternal grandfather Denver Church, a judge, congressman and one of the best shots in the Sierra Nevadas.  Sam enlisted as a Marine in 1943 during World War II but did not see combat.  On his return from the war, he graduated from Fresno State in 1948 with a degree in drama.  He and his new wife moved on to USC, where he received a masters degree in performing arts in 1952.

Eventually he got a job working as an assistant to director Don Siegel in several films, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which he also appeared briefly as a meter reader.  He became a scriptwriter for such television programs as Gunsmoke (1955) and The Rifleman (1958).  Eventually he created his own short-lived television series The Westerner (1960, only 13 episodes), starring Brian Keith.  Keith had a box office success with Maureen O’Hara in The Parent Trap, and when O’Hara sought out Keith for a western production in which they would again co-star, he suggested Peckinpah as a director.

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The Deadly Companions was not a success.  The only reason it is remembered today is because it was the first movie Peckinpah directed.  It was a very low-budget film, on which O’Hara’s producer brother Charles Fitzsimmons would not allow Peckinpah to re-write or participate in its editing.  Fitzsimmons also forgot to copyright the film, so it was in the public domain and for decades was seen, if at all, only in very poor quality prints and transfers.  But it was a directing credit and got Peckinpah started in film directing.

His second effort was one of his two masterpieces:  Ride the High Country, the last movie for aging western star Randolph Scott and the last significant movie for Joel McCrea.  It was also his first project with his favorite cinematographer, Lucien Ballard.  Since it was made economically with a relatively low budget in just 26 days, it did not get much attention in the U.S. on its release.  It was not promoted heavily; an MGM executive was heard to comment that “it didn’t cost enough to be that good,” and on MGM’s books it lost $160,000 domestically.  But it was taken more seriously in Europe, where it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival; and it received the grand prize at the Brussels Film Festival (beating Fellini’s 8 ½).  Even in the U.S., and notwithstanding its lack of studio promotion, the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962.  Peckinpah was on his way ….

Until he crashed and burned on his next film, Major Dundee (1965), during the making and post-production of which he demonstrated not only some of his brilliance as a filmmaker but his inability to control his use of alcohol and pot or to get along with other egos among his stars and, especially, his producers.  On location in Mexico, his abrasive manner, compounded by heat, excessive drinking and marijuana use, caused star Charlton Heston to threaten to run him through with a saber.  The movie ran significantly over budget and way behind schedule.  However, when the studio, in the person of producer Jerry Bresler, threatened to shut the production down, Heston impulsively offered his own salary to offset the budgetary overages, and Bresler accepted.  Heston essentially made the movie for free. 

PeckinpahDundeeHeston Directing Charlton Heston in Major Dundee.

The conflicts with the producers and Columbia continued in post-production, and the movie was taken away from Peckinpah, resulting in a disjointed cut and disappointment at the box office.  Legends continue that Dundee is a lost masterpiece, and an extended cut was released on DVD in 2005, long after Peckinpah’s death.  However, even the extended cut appears to be evidence that Peckinpah’s overindulgences prevented him from finishing his script or telling a very coherent story.

Peckinpah:  “Any script that’s written changes at least thirty percent from the time you begin preproduction:  ten percent while you fit your script to what you discover about your locations, ten percent while your ideas are growing as you rehearse your actors who must grow into their parts because the words mean nothing alone, and ten percent while the film is finally being edited.  It may change more than this but rarely less.” 

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Peckinpah’s directing career hit the skids in the wake of this debacle and he was replaced as director on his next film, The Cincinnati Kid (1965), with Steve McQueen.  He began to rehabilitate his reputation through a strong television production of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine (1966), which he adapted for the small screen.  It was enough to get him direction of his second masterpiece, this time for Warner Brothers:  The Wild Bunch (1969).  It is the film for which he is best remembered, although there are those who still prefer Ride the High Country.

The Wild Bunch, with its dazzling cinematography (again with Lucien Ballard) and visual compositions, its nihilistic outlook and stepped-up violence, follows a band of aging outlaws who have outlived their time, as they take on one last job in Mexico.  They go out in an explosion of gore and show-motion violence, in a final battle that is sometimes called “the Battle of Bloody Porch.” The film is brilliant, and it resulted in Peckinpah’s nickname “Bloody Sam.”  It rejuvenated his career and sent him into the ups and downs of the 1970s.  And the action and violence in westerns have looked different ever since.

PeckinpahWildBunch On the set of The Wild Bunch.

During the 1970s he directed The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970, a kind of flower-child western that was said to be one of Peckinpah’s own favorites among his work), Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972, a modern rodeo-based western with Steve McQueen), The Getaway (1972, a crime drama on which Peckinpah introduced Steve McQueen to Ali McGraw), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, his last western, with James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson as the title characters and non-actor Bob Dylan), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977) and Convoy (1978).  He continued to be the subject of controversy because of his use of graphic, some would say excessive, violence.  He also continued to fight with studios, producers and his own demons (to which he had added cocaine).  His last solid effort was the World War II anti-war epic Cross of Iron, about a German unit fighting on the Russian front, with Maximilian Schell, James Mason and James Coburn.  Peckinpah actually brought the picture in successfully despite severe financial problems.  His last film was The Osterman Weekend (1983), a less-than-notable adaptation of a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Peckinpah’s own views on the violence of his films?   “Well, killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple.  It’s bloody and awful.  And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere.”

He lived another six years without significant career achievements.  He died of a heart attack at 59 in 1984, his body worn out by his overindulgences over the years.  Actor Robert Culp may have been right when he said that the surprising thing about Peckinpah was not that he only made fourteen pictures, but that he managed to make any at all.  In terms of awards, Peckinpah received only one Academy Award nomination in his career, for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Wild Bunch.

PeckinpahGetawayMcQueen With Steve McQueen.

Peckinpah:  “The end of a picture is always an end of a life.”.

Thirty years after his death, his best-remembered films are his westerns.  The two very best of them feature old-timers finishing out a string as best they can, according to a code that may be obsolete.  Peckinpah himself may have been born out of what he felt to be his time.  His legacy as a director is both brilliant and disappointing.  Current directors who show his influence include Walter Hill and Quentin Tarantino.

“Sam Peckinpah’s life, like many of his movies, ended in a kind of apocalyptic debacle.  Too many arguments with producers, too much alcohol-fueled misbehavior and (always the real problem) too many disappointments at the box office had rendered the director of The Wild Bunch (1969) effectively unemployable by the time he died in 1984, at 59.”–Dave Kehr

“The Western is a universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.”–Sam Peckinpah

The most comprehensive biography of Peckinpah currently is If They Move …Kill ‘Em!  The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, by David Weddle (2000).  There is an interesting documentary on Peckinpah and his films, especially his westerns:  Sam Peckinpah’s West (1994).

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Peckinpah Essentials:  Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch

Second-Rank Peckinpah:  The Deadly Companions, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Peckinpah Non-Western Essentials:  The Getaway, Straw Dogs, The Killer Elite, Cross of Iron

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The Deadly Companions

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 24, 2014

The Deadly Companions—Brian Keith, Maureen O’Hara, Chill Wills, Steve Cochran, Strother Martin (1961; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

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A low-budget revenge western, this is Sam Peckinpah’s first movie after an apprenticeship as a writer and director of television westerns.  Mostly it’s slow moving, with a minimal guitar score for music. 

Yellowleg (Brian Keith) was a Union soldier in Missouri during the Civil War.  A rebel sergeant tried to scalp him, and he’s been hunting for the rebel for the five years since the war ended.  He also has a rifle ball near his collar bone which impairs the functioning of his right (shooting) arm.  In the movie’s opening scene, he saves Turkey (Chill Wills) from being hung as a card cheat, and persuades Turkey and his gunslinger companion Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran) to join him in robbing the new bank in Gila City, Arizona Territory. 

Once in Gila City, they find another gang in the process of robbing the bank.  In the ensuing shootout, Yellowleg’s impaired arm causes him to accidentally shoot and kill the son of saloon girl Kit Tildon (Maureen O’Hara).  She feels rejected by the respectable elements of Gila City and is determined to bury her son next to his father in the ghost town of Siringo in Apache country.  As penance Yellowleg determines to help her and dragoons Turkey and Billy into joining him.  Kit understandably despises them all. 

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When Billy attacks Kit, Yellowleg drives him away, and Turk slips away, too.  Yellowleg is forced to steal a horse from the Apaches, and one of them starts hunting him, killing his horse.  Eventually Kit kills the Indian with a shotgun, and Kit and Yellowleg finish carrying the boy’s coffin to Siringo.  There Turk and Billy get the drop on them, now having robbed the bank in Gila City themselves.  Kit tries to talk Yellowleg out of taking his revenge on Turk, who is the rebel he’s been hunting.  Eventually, Turk and Billy shoot each other, and Yellowleg almost scalps Turk.  But he quits in disgust, just as the Gila posse shows up to take possession of the increasingly deranged Turk.  (Billy’s dead.)  Yellowleg and Kit complete the burial and ride off together. 

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Brian Keith was cast as the lead in this because of his success with Maureen O’Hara in The Parent Trap.  He had also starred in Peckinpah’s short-lived western television series The Westerner, and he used his influence to bring in Peckinpah as director.  Maureen O’Hara and her brother Charles Fitzsimons had a role in producing the film, and that’s O’Hara singing the film’s theme song over the opening and closing credits.  Peckinpah did not get on well with Fitzsimons, beginning his well-earned reputation for avoiding and clashing with producers.  Peckinpah at first thought that Fitzsimons was hiring him to do work on the script and arrived at their first meeting with pages of edits, only to be told that changes were not wanted.  The first-time director also tried to minimize some of the more obvious flaws of the script, such as the problem of carting a dead body for five days across a hot desert.  He said: “At least I kept off [the dead body] enough that we weren’t too conscious off it.  To do it realistically would, I suppose, have been a lot of fun.  You’d have buzzards flying all over them and wearing masks and so on.”

Similarly, Peckinpah was not allowed to participate in the film’s final edit.  The editing’s a little disjointed in places, and there are some strange camera angles.  Sometimes the action is hard to see in the dark, and the music seems cheap.  The plot takes a back seat to the development of the relationship between Yellowleg and Kit.  Strother Martin is the preacher in Gila City.  The violence here is more muted than would be the case in future Peckinpah westerns.  The movie is kind of slow and gloomy in tone.  Cinematography is by William Clothier.  In color. 

This is notable at all only because it was directed by Peckinpah.  Peckinpah’s second film, Ride the High Country, would be clearly superior in just about every respect—one of his two masterpieces, in fact.

Because producer Fitzsimons forgot to put a copyright notice on the film, it slipped into the public domain.  That’s the reason that, until recently, it was available only on a variety of awful DVDs.  As of May 2013, a new edition released by VCI Entertainment and produced by the archivist Cary Roan had the best picture quality and sound for this film yet seen on home video.  The picture is much better, but the sound still has a lot of hiss on the track.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Major Dundee

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 6, 2013

Major Dundee—Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Senta Berger, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates (1965; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

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Made between Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, this film is a commentary on the question:  What does it mean to be macho?  A study in male hubris, director Sam Peckinpah is giving free rein to certain of his proclivities:  a love for Mexico, drinking and roistering, and for fighting with studios over film budgets which he has wantonly disregarded.  Filmed on location in Durango, Peckinpah initially thought he could escape the scrutiny of studio overseers, but not for long.  He theoretically planned it as an epic, only to end up with a chopped-up and not terribly coherent version of his vision.

The plot doesn’t hang together very well, leading to the suspicion that Peckinpah was making this one up as he went along.  Late in 1864 in the waning days of the Civil War, Major Amos Dundee (Heston) is in disgrace, stationed out west (in Arizona Territory?  Texas?) with custody of uncooperative captured Confederate prisoners (led by Richard Harris as Capt. Benjamin Tyree[n]) who are continually trying to escape.  Dundee has some personal history with the Confederate leader, who was once an officer in the same pre-war regiment as Dundee. 

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Dundee is attacked–by Apaches, not by Senta Berger’s Austrian doctor.

Dundee takes a group of Union soldiers and unsavory volunteers, augmented by Confederate prisoners who hope to earn their freedom, into Mexico in pursuit of renegade Apaches who have abducted a pair of Hispanic children after killing their parents.  In the course of the movie, he has multiple fights not only with Indians but also with various groups of the French soldiers then occupying Mexico.  He has to deal with racial strife in his own ranks between his Buffalo soldiers and the Confederates.  In a Mexican village, Dundee encounters and develops a relationship with an improbable Austrian female doctor (Senta Berger, apparently just thrown in for a voluptuous romantic interest).  Along the way, he gets the children back, defeats the Apaches, is wounded and has a debauched and impatient recuperation under the noses of the French, deals with further rebellion among the Confederates and has to fight his way back into U.S. territory against vastly superior numbers.  And he loses a lot of men.

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Dundee’s Confederates, led by Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris).

Early in his career, Harris routinely had trouble with other male leads and authority figures while working on movies, and this production was no exception.  It was also troubled in other ways, particularly by Peckinpah’s battles with the studio (in the person of producer Jerry Bresler) over funding and oversight.  Heston apparently believed in the production and Peckinpah enough to contribute his own salary during a financial battle, although Peckinpah was abusive to him and others on occasion.  In fact, Heston convinced the studio not to fire Peckinpah, although by Heston’s account he (Heston) took over the direction in the later part of the film when Peckinpah was incapacitated by various forms of debauchery.  It is said that the studio ended the shooting early, before some planned scenes were filmed.

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One result of the troubles was that the studio took the final cut away from Peckinpah, and the theatrical release was supposedly truncated.  Erratic editing is more obvious in the second half of the film.  One reason for that is that the script was never more than two-thirds finished.  In 2005 a new cut of the movie was released in a longer 136-minute version and with some different music, apparently an attempt to reconstruct what Peckinpah had in mind before the studio took it away from him.  The twelve added minutes apparently include some drunken recuperation angst by Dundee and rounding out of other characters.  Billed as Peckinpah’s lost masterpiece, this cut may have been lost for 40 years, but it is still not a masterpiece.  It’s worth watching, though.  This movie will probably remain what it has been in legend:  a supposed masterpiece destroyed by a short-sighted studio with an eye only for profits.  Apparently 30 minutes of Peckinpah’s version of the film remain lost.

Harris’ histrionics (on screen and off) notwithstanding, Heston’s performance carries the movie.  Heston was unparalleled for portraying moral rectitude, certainty and strength on screen, even when the script in this case occasionally doesn’t have him doing very well in the rectitude department.  Berger didn’t have much of a career in American movies, and her role here seems thrown in, but she’s all right in it.  James Coburn plays a one-armed Indian scout with alarming eyebrows.  Slim Pickens is an alcoholic muleskinner.  Jim Hutton is a by-the-book artilleryman stuck in the cavalry who nevertheless finds ways to incorporate artillery in the action.  In addition, there are a number of Peckinpah regulars:  L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are among the Confederates, and R.G. Armstrong is a Bible-bashing volunteer smiting the heathen.  Australian actor Michael Pate is again an Apache leader (Sierra Chariba), as he was in Hondo.

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Producer Bresler wouldn’t allow Peckinpah to use Lucien Ballard as his cinematographer, and Sam Leavitt’s work is workmanlike.  Major Dundee bombed at the box office, and Sam Peckinpah became more or less unemployable.  He worked his way back via television (notably with a masterly adaptation of Noon Wine with Jason Robards and Per Oscarsson) and returned four years later with The Wild Bunch.

If you’d like to read more from somebody who has researched the movie and its missing footage more than almost anybody, see Glenn Erickson’s consideration of the DVD.  He takes more the “lost masterpiece” view of the film.   His comments are at http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s1700dund.html

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Ride the High Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 6, 2013

Ride the High Country—Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, James Drury, R.G. Armstrong, John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler, Edgar Buchanan (1962; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

This was director Sam Peckinpah’s second movie, one of the two that are counted his very greatest, and one of the first notable passing-of-the-old-west movies.  As aging former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into a town in California’s Sierra Nevada at the turn of the century, he hears cheers from the citizenry lining the streets.  He sees no one else and figures the cheers must be appreciation for him and his earlier career, and he tips his hat.  Then he is rudely shooed out of the way by a policeman, as a camel and horse race around a corner and toward a finish line.  The cheers were for the racers.

In fact, Judd and his career are largely forgotten.  He’s been getting menial work where he can to survive, but time and the west itself have passed him by.  He finds old friend and fellow former lawman Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) working a shooting booth at a carnival, billed as the Oregon Kid.  Judd has been lured here by the offer of a good-paying job escorting $250,000 in gold down from a remote mining camp to the bank in town.

It turns out that expectations are too high on both sides of the deal.  The father and son who run the bank (Percy Helton and Byron Foulger, very good in bit parts) were unaware of how old Judd now is; and in fact there’s only about $20,000 in gold.  Judd is to get $20 a day, plus another $20 to be split between Westrum and his headstrong and girl-crazy young partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

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Contemplating the limited rewards of a life spent in law enforcement.

The dialogue between Judd and Westrum as they ride the high country toward the camp of Coarse Gold has several recurring themes:  lost loves and disappointments of the past, the way that a career in law was too dangerous and didn’t pay enough to get married and have a family, and an easy way with scripture.  They come to a farm, where they seek lodging for the night with Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong), a man even more given to spouting scripture than they are.  His daughter Elsa (the luminous young Mariette Hartley) is anxious to experience more of life than is available on her mountain farm with an oppressive father.  She goes so far as to encourage Heck’s attentions.  It turns out she fancies herself engaged to a miner in Coarse Gold, and she sneaks off to follow Judd’s small band when they leave the next day.  And it also turns out that the gold isn’t all that’s coarse in the mining camp.

Her miner is Billy Hammond (James Drury in his pre-Virginian days), the most presentable of the five despicable Hammond brothers (John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Chandler Davis are the others).  Longtree deposits Elsa with the Hammonds with considerable misgivings, while Judd and Westrum conduct their business in the camp, where the people are as coarse as what they mine.  That night Elsa, Billy and the Hammonds go to Kate’s Place for her to be wed to Billy by the inebriated Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan).  Immediately after the wedding, she discovers that marriage with a Hammond is not at all what she was expecting.  Judd rescues her, and the small band retreats from Coarse Gold amid threats from the Hammonds.

highcountryhartley Mariette Hartley in her first movie.

Indeed, they are bushwhacked by the Hammonds on the trail while Judd is discovering that Westrum plans to make off with the gold himself.  Heck and Judd fight off the Hammonds, killing two of them (Sylvus, played by L.Q. Jones, and Jimmy, played by John Chandler Davis).  As they approach the Knudsen farm, they find that the three remaining Hammonds have made it there before them and killed Joshua.  Heck and Judd both take bullets, and, after a standoff, Judd and Westrum decide to take on the Hammonds “straight on, just like always.”  It’s a powerful ending. 

This movie contains one of the great lines in a western, a line that a surprising number of people know.  As the aging Steve Judd and Gil Westrum talk about what they’ve learned and where to go from here in their lives, Steve says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He doesn’t explain more than that, but it resonates.  It’s what gets him to the end of movie, and we know that he does indeed enter his house justified—whatever that means.  (See Luke 18:14 in the New Testament, where the line comes at the end of a parable on the difference between conventional righteousness and the real thing.  The line was apparently added by director Peckinpah from something he’d heard his father say.)

This was not a pretentious or large-budget film when it was made.  Peckinpah was known mostly for directing television westerns (Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and his own brief series, The Westerner).  But he makes the elements come together here superbly to form one of the great westerns.  First is the casting:  Joel McCrea at 57 and Randolph Scott at 64 were near or even past retirement, but one can’t imagine any one else in their roles.  Scott has much more dialogue than we’re used to hearing from him, and he handles it with considerable dry humor.  The supporting characters are well-written and well differentiated.  The screenplay was written by N.B. Stone Jr., known mostly for television writing but also for the excellent Man With a Gun.  Its Old Testament flavor and dry humor play very well with the two principal characters.  Stone even has the drunk Judge Tolliver stand in a whorehouse and give a rather touching speech on marriage. 

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“Straight on, just like always.”

Elsa:  “My father says there’s only right and wrong–good and evil.  Nothing in between.  It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  “No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.”

Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, and his work was remarkable, as usual.  Note the use of the actual Sierras in the Inyo National Forest, and the way that bits of the story are told by means other than dialogue or the faces of the actors, as when Westrum makes a move for the gold and Judd catches him at it.  That part of the story is told with the camera just showing legs and feet, and it works very well.  And in the final shot, the dying Judd is shown from a very low angle against the looming mountains, almost as if he were one of them.  He slowly rolls over and out of the frame, and the camera doesn’t follow him.  It’s like watching a mountain crumble.

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Steve Judd enters his house justified.

This was Randolph Scott’s last film and Mariette Hartley’s first; it was also Joel McCrea’s last film of any consequence.  In some ways, this is a throwback to the kinds of roles Scott played in the early 1940s, when his character was often trying to decide whether to be a good guy or an unusually ethical bad guy (Western Union, Virginia City).  Gil Westrum and his choices are central to the movie.  The one cast member who is less than optimal is Ron Starr as Heck Longtree.  He’s irritating for the first half of the movie, but he is convincing enough in making his character’s changes as the movie progresses.  It’s just that he’s working here with giants (Scott and McCrea) in the principal roles and with extraordinary character actors.  Hartley outclasses him, too.

The high country of the title, in the end, is not just the magnificent mountain scenery in which this film takes place.  It’s also the moral ground on which the unyielding Steve Judd makes his stand.  And perhaps it’s the place he’ll meet Gil Westrum in a while.  Westrum’s last line, spoken to Judd, is “I’ll see you later,” which seems to bear much more meaning than it usually would.  Hartley said that after the last scene with McCrea, she turned to Scott to find him with tears streaming down his face.  For many, this and not The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s masterpiece.

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Ride the High Country was shot in just 26 days; Peckinpah was not yet as self-indulgent as he would quickly become.  As with Shane, the studio had no great confidence in this mid-budget western and did not promote it heavily.  Screenwriter William Goldman said he spoke to an MGM executive at the time who said the film had tested strongly, but they felt the film “didn’t cost enough to be that good.”  According to MGM records, the film made a loss of $160,000.  Notwithstanding the lack of promotion, the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962; it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival; and it received the grand prize at the Brussels Film Festival (beating Fellini’s 8 ½).  Europeans loved it before American film audiences recognized what a classic this is.

A word of warning:  This has been shown on Encore’s Westerns channel, but the print they’re showing is a bad one that gives no no sense of how magnificent the cinematography of Lucien Ballard is or of the clear beauty of the panoramic vistas in the mountains.  Nor do they show it in widescreen, which is how it was shot and how it looks best.  It’s amazing how much these problems reduce the enjoyment of watching a great movie.  Look for a good DVD or Netflix instead.  This is one classic that is crying out for a Criterion Collection blu-ray treatment.

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The Wild Bunch

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 26, 2013

The Wild Bunch—William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Bo Hopkins (1969; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

In Peckinpah’s earlier Ride the High Country, two former lawmen were playing out their string in a corrupt turn-of-the-century west.  In The Wild Bunch, there’s no hiding the fact that the protagonists are a gang of bandits and savage killers coming to the end of their time in an even more corrupt revolutionary Mexico.  Eventually they find unexpected humanity, even heroism, in that end.  “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times.  The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico.  The strange thing is you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.”  That’s what director Peckinpah says he was trying to do, but it’s more than that.

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The title notwithstanding, this doesn’t deal with the outlaw group historically known as the Wild Bunch—that was Butch Cassidy’s gang of bank and train robbers.  Like Butch Cassidy and, to some extent, True Grit in the same year, this is an end-of-an-era western.  The outlaw gang has reached the end of its time and knows it.

It is 1913, just before World War I—an era of multiple revolutions in Mexico.  The fictional outlaws in question are led by Pike Bishop (William Holden, in one of his last good roles).  Other members of the gang are played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien and Jaime Sanchez.  Robert Ryan is Deke Thornton, a former member of the gang captured and forced by the authorities to help track down his onetime comrades.  The movie opens with a memorable image of several children torturing a large scorpion with ants as the gang rides into a town, and the analogy of the scorpion to the gang will become obvious.  In the town, the gang botches a train station robbery, is shot up and then looks for a last big score.  They find it south of the border, agreeing to steal U.S. military weapons from a train for the benefit of Mexican revolutionaries.  However, there is a falling out with their employers on this job, and the climax of the movie involves a long shoot-out between the outlaws and the corrupt revolutionaries, which the outlaws cannot possibly win. 

wildbunchletsgo “Let’s go.”

The shoot-out scene is reminiscent of the final scene of Butch Cassidy, released the same year.  Both involve outlaws in a final fight against overwhelming odds south of the border.  A major cinematic difference, however, is that Butch Cassidy ends with a freeze frame of Butch and Sundance emerging from their cover and firing at the Bolivian army.  In a sense, they never really die because we don’t see the effects on them of the hail of bullets we hear.  The famous end of the fight in The Wild Bunch features extended slow-motion violence as each member of the gang is cut down while slaughtering as many Mexicans as possible.  In that slow-motion violence, it also has much in common with the end of Bonnie and Clyde from two years earlier.  Some felt that The Wild Bunch glorified violence too much, and it certainly influenced the way violence has been shown in westerns ever since.  That’s why most of the good westerns in the last two or three decades have R ratings.  Butch was lighter and more enjoyable; The Wild Bunch was more influential among cineastes. 

Playing Pike Bishop is one of William Holden’s best performances ever.  The role was originally slated to go to Lee Marvin, but he dropped out to make Paint Your Wagon (bad career move).  Holden made this at a time when drinking and hard living were taking their toll on his appearance and acting skills, but here he was still very good.  As with central characters Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (earlier Peckinpah movies), the movie depends on Holden’s ability to keep our interest and sympathies.  He does it well.  Ernest Borgnine is excellent as Dutch Engstrom, Bishop’s principal support in the outlaw band. 

This is also one of the last roles for Robert Ryan, who plays Deke Thornton, conflicted as he leads a group of despicable bounty hunters in tracking down his former friends (much like the John Vernon role in The Outlaw Josey Wales).  Few actors in westerns played conflicted as well as Ryan (see Day of the Outlaw and Lawman, for example).  As edited for the film’s theatrical release, Thornton’s principal function is as audience surrogate, telling us what to think about what are actually repulsive-seeming outlaws, but are in many ways more admirable than the other characters with whom they come in contact:  railroad executives and detectives, bounty hunters theoretically on the right side of the law, corrupt Mexican revolutionaries, even German militarists.  Everybody’s corrupt, it seems to say; you just get to choose the direction and the degree of your corruption. 

wild-bunch-machine-gun Pike Bishop goes big.

The film also has good supporting performances from Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson and Warren Oates (as the outlaw Gorch brothers), Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as sleazy bounty hunters, and Bo Hopkins in his first role as a feeble-minded gang member abandoned and killed in the early railroad office holdup.  Edmond O’Brien is the old horse wrangler for the gang.  There are no significant female roles in the film, but even those few females are less admirable in their way than the outlaws who are their customers.

The depiction of many of the Mexicans now seems a little dated, but it’s still powerful.  They’re mostly caricatures and prostitutes.  Jaime Sanchez as Angel, the Mexican member of the outlaw band, may have deserved better.  Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico, a favorite Peckinpah location as well as the actual setting for this movie’s action.

Most would see The Wild Bunch as Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  Others prefer the earlier Ride the High Country, as a purer story.  The Wild Bunch certainly has a lot more moral ambiguity; there are no purely admirable characters, just strong ones and weaker ones.  There are some themes of honor and loyalty, but it’s not certain what they mean or exactly how they apply.  The Wild Bunch shows some development in cinematic abilities from High Country (the memorable scorpion image, for example) and it’s near the peak of Peckinpah’s depiction of male bonding and love of violence.  Even in this great movie, however, there are signs of the self-indulgence that marred much of the director’s career.  Decades later, the violence still seems savage and excessively gory.  The glorification of drunken roistering as central to male bonding seems somewhat misplaced, although it fits with Peckinpah’s own views and life.  As with some earlier Peckinpah movies (notably Major Dundee), and almost all later ones, Peckinpah had continual battles with the studio over his inability or unwillingness to control the film’s budget and shooting schedule.  This one is a great western and a strong one, but it’s also one of those, like Unforgiven and even The Searchers, which can be easier to admire than to watch again, mostly because of their emotional roughness.

The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is marvelous.  There’s a brilliant shot, for example, of an exploding bridge dumping a dozen horsemen into the Rio Grande, and another of horses and their riders tumbling down sand dunes where you can taste the sand and dust.  The movie has many memorable images, but not a lot of memorable lines.  The lines you do remember seem unremarkable by themselves; it’s the situations which cause you to remember them.  When Bishop says to his gang, “Let’s go,” for example, you know then (and you sense that they know) they won’t survive, and you remember that feeling.  Bishop’s ethos is expressed in his rationale for not breaking up the gang:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  But it isn’t like it used to be, and the suggestion is that it probably never was.  They are finished, and they’re just trying to find a way to play it out.  The screenplay and Jerry Fielding’s score were nominated for Oscars; they didn’t win.

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In the DVD age, there is a director’s cut of the film (144 minutes), released in 1994, although Peckinpah was long dead by then.  It includes more of the relationship between Pike Bishop and Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton, giving the Thornton character more weight than he had in the theatrical release.

This movie did not spring fully-grown from nowhere.  It owes something to The Professionals three years earlier, to the sensibility and look of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and to Bonnie and Clyde two years before.  But it is clearly its own Sam Peckinpah movie, too, and has itself become very influential far beyond westerns.  As a western, its limitations may be that it lies on the fringes of western themes and leaves a feeling of nihilism and discomfort for reasons that can be hard to define.  Roger Ebert referred to it on its release as “possibly the most violent film ever made,” and more than 40 years later that violence has not lost its impact or its controversiality.  And it has influenced just about every western (and many movies in other genres) made since.

This was not just an “end-of-an-era” western; it was also one of several “end of the western” films, supposedly tolling the death of an entire genre of movies.  It was the end of its era in westerns, certainly, and the beginning of another one.  The lover of westerns can find quite a few great westerns in the 40-plus years since this one, including such other “end of the western” movies as The Shootist and Unforgiven.  According to Roger Ebert, one of the film’s stronger proponents, “It represents its set of sad, empty values with real poetry.”  He recommended the restored 144-minute cut.  The Wild Bunch is one of the five westerns listed by the AFI on its list of the 100 greatest American movies, along with High Noon, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. and Unforgiven.  (See http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx.)

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