Sam Peckinpah (February 21, 1925-December 28, 1984) was the controversial director of The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972). After a successful career as a writer for TV westerns, he broke into movies with Ride the High Country (1962). Capable of producing scenes of astonishing tenderness, he also created violence with shocking intensity, so he became famous for ballet-like action, earning the nickname “Bloody Sam.” A superbly talented filmmaker, who was able to place his personal vision on the screen, Peckinpah’s career was limited by a self-destructive nature. Deeply distrustful of producers, he often picked fights with the studios, so several of his movies were taken away from him and edited without his involvement, including Major Dundee (1965) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and his career experienced lengthy slumps. Alcoholism and drug use ravaged his body until he died at the relatively young age of fifty-nine.
Born the scion of a famous lawyer in Fresno, California, Sam Peckinpah (February 21, 1925-December 28, 1984) lived the life of luxury during the Depression and had his own Model A Ford during high school. However, summers were spent at his grandfather’s ranch, hunting, herding cows and listening to his grandfather and the hired hands as they told stories of crossing the plains and cattle stampedes, soaking in the rhythm of their speech. The tales were fascinating but the pioneers who had carved out homes on the frontier had been brutal men, so any sign of weakness brought contempt. His grandfather constantly criticized Peckinpah for wanting to read, not just hunt and ride.
Peckinpah’s parents grew apart, and he became his mother’s favorite. The family had two sons, Sam and his older brother Denny, and two adopted daughters, Fern Lea and Susan. His mother manipulated people by pretending to be sick, while his father hit his children when they disobeyed, and he absorbed both personality traits. Peckinpah proved to his father and grandfather that he was tough, but he became warped in the process, so he would be unable to tolerate weakness in others. Although his father and older brother had pursued careers in law, Peckinpah quickly fell in love with the theater, to his father’s deep disappointment.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, young men flocked to enlist. Viewed as the weakest member of the family, Peckinpah joined the Marines two days before he turned eighteen, but the war ended before he could see combat. Instead, he ended up in China guarding ammunition dumps for Nationalist troops during the civil war against the Communists, and he saw how badly the Nationalist troops were treated. China meant prostitutes and alcohol to most American soldiers, and Peckinpah ate it up. After witnessing the corruption and casual brutality of Nationalist China, where executions were common, Peckinpah fell in love with a young Chinese Communist, but had to leave her behind when he was posted back to the United States because servicemen were forbidden to marry Chinese.
When Peckinpah returned from China in 1946, he had a broader view of the world, but he did not know what he wanted to do. Living at home proved difficult after a life of few rules in China, but Peckinpah ran into a budding young actress/college student named Marie Selland, instantly fell in love, and followed her to university to study history. When he took a course on directing plays, he learned how to get actors into character, and became heavily influenced by Tennessee Williams. While spending the summer in Mexico, Peckinpah saw the similarity between Chinese peasants and poor Mexicans, and he became fascinated by the Mexican Revolution. Attracted to directing, Peckinpah decided to major in drama.
He married Marie and they lived in a small cabin on the Peckinpah ranch. A voracious reader, Peckinpah tore through books including Shakespeare, Faulkner, Plato, Camus and Chinese history. Although he became part of the theatre crowd, he was also inspired by My Darling Clementine, Red River and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Peckinpah realized that the legends of the American West were part of American mythology, and were filled with grandeur and tragedy.
Peckinpah and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 1948, so that he could attend the Drama Department at the University of Southern California, which was run by Cecil B. DeMille’s brother, who was very traditional and had no interest in the modern playwrights. DeMille was a harsh director, and it rubbed off on Peckinpah. Although he never became a writer, he learned how to rearrange a screenplay until it expressed his vision.
When his wife had a baby in July 1949, he quit school and became a director at a local civic theatre, where he did well enough that he received large raises each year. After a couple of years, he began working at a local TV station.
Televisions had not yet become commonplace in people’s homes, but they were spreading. When TV first started, it was fresh and without rules, unlike Hollywood where the studios still controlled the movie-making process. Many directors, including Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer, Arthur Penn and Robert Altman, started in TV, where they were able to explore the limits of the medium. There was a huge sense of opportunity because people knew that if they had talent, they would be able to move up, and since there was little national product, local stations produced their own programs. The shows were filmed live, so Peckinpah’s background in theater was invaluable. Peckinpah put his energy into writing and putting on shows. Since the studio was only used for six hours, he and other young directors could play with the equipment to make short films during the remaining time.
While he had learned a great deal at the station, he knew that he had reached the limits. Whether he was fired or quit is unknown, but he wanted to move into movies because he thought they were a better story-telling medium. Although traditional Hollywood films were losing ground to the innovative work being done on television, American filmmakers were being influenced by European and Japanese films. At the same time, some directors were producing Westerns for adults, like High Noon, The Naked Spur, and Shane (1953), using horse operas to criticize modern society. Peckinpah embraced these new filmmakers and their ability to put their personal visions on the screen.
Peckinpah’s brother Denny had been Pat Brown’s campaign manager in Fresno County during Brown’s successful campaign for state attorney general, so a grateful Brown agreed to call producer Walter Wanger, thus getting Peckinpah his first job in movies. Wanger was unenthusiastic about Peckinpah but passed him on to director Don Siegel as an assistant on the movie Riot on Cell Block 11 (1954), and Peckinpah would make five films with Siegel. Siegel was the perfect mentor for Peckinpah, since he produced lean, spare movies that criticized society and sympathized with broken-down losers.
He also worked on Seven Angry Men, and when the director, Charles Marquis Warren, was hired as a director of Gunsmoke, he let Peckinpah write a sample script. Seeing an opportunity to bring his love of the West and the frontier to life, Peckinpah threw himself into writing the script, devoting three months to the draft, and Warren was impressed by the realistic feel of his dialogue. Unlike many writers, Peckinpah knew the West and quickly learned to use action not dialogue to tell the story. Peckinpah wrote ten episodes in two years, but much of the authentic dialogue was removed in order to make the show more mainstream. However, he was being paid a very generous salary and he worked for one of the top shows on television. Gunsmoke eventually became limited by its formulaic approach, but it was a breath of fresh air when it first appeared.
The success of Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp sparked a Western renaissance on television, so the number of Westerns jumped from seventeen in 1954 to forty-eight in 1959, and Peckinpah wrote for several of them. He made his first step into movies when he wrote a script based on Custer’s Last Stand that would become The Glory Guys. Shortly after, he wrote the original script for what became One-Eyed Jacks, although it had gone through a number of screenwriters and had changed beyond recognition by then.
Peckinpah wrote the pilot for The Rifleman and became story consultant. Attempting to move the show beyond a formulaic half-hour show, he introduced continuity with only partial success. Peckinpah finally received the opportunity to direct several episodes, where he first used R. G. Armstrong, Warren Oates and James Drury, men who had grown up on ranches and farms, so they shared his tight connection to rural America.
Despite his increasing success, Peckinpah’s relationship with his parents had declined rapidly, which fueled his drinking. When Peckinpah’s grandfather died, his mother sold the ranch, even though her two sons were trying desperately to raise the money to keep it. The decision ended the close bond that had existed between Peckinpah and his mother.
As a story consultant for The Rifleman, who was paid for every episode, regardless of whether he wrote it or not, Peckinpah became wealthy and bought a beachfront property in Malibu, but began to consume serious amounts of alcohol on weekends. The drinking brought out an anger that terrified everyone, especially his children. It was clear that he had a problem and that he would not do anything about it. As a writer of a hit TV series, Peckinpah became part of the fast crowd, but distance was growing between him and his wife, who felt that he was leaving her behind to take care of the kids, while he had all of the fun. The worst part was that he actively discouraged her attempts to restart her career, and she felt that he wanted her to be a traditional wife who stayed at home. Unknown to her, he had started cheating, taking advantage of his status as a rising power in television.
An avid hunter, he went hunting for ten days every fall. During the hunting trips, he and his friends would go to the local bars and whorehouses, where Peckinpah would be able to let go of all of the tension caused by married life and Hollywood.
Tired of repeatedly compromising to satisfy the mainstream views of the producers, Peckinpah eventually walked away from The Rifleman. Dick Powell, head of Four Star Studios, let Peckinpah develop a show where the lead actor was not a hero, but a real human being, drifting in the West, whose own weakness often prevented him from saving the day. Intended for adults, not children, the show was called the Westerner, and Peckinpah had complete control. Fortunately for Peckinpah, Dick Powell wanted to produce higher-quality westerns, so the shooting times were longer and there was more time for the post-production process, which attracted skilled editors and cinematographers. While the freedom was liberating, the heavy responsibility of running a show caused him to suffer panic attacks. Peckinpah gradually put together a crew, including actors Warren Oates and Slim Pickens, and cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Aside from producing the show, he directed five of the thirteen episodes, and he became a more confident director. However, the Westerner did not fit the era of Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, and the head of NBC had always been opposed to the show, so it was cancelled in 1960 after seven episodes. There were forty-six Westerns on TV that year. Four years later, the number had shrunk to eleven.
Eventually, Peckinpah’s marriage dissolved. The pressure of running a show had further increased both his drinking and anger levels, and he had been sleeping around on a regular basis, but could not handle it when Marie had an affair. The relationship ended badly in 1960 and both of them were deeply scarred, so Peckinpah’s films are filled with betrayal. Men betraying friends and women cheating on their men. The repeated scenes in his film of women sexually betraying their men would not win him fans in the women’s liberation movement but the pain had been seared into his soul, so those harsh scenes were how he coped without actually facing the problem. Shortly after he and Marie divorced, Peckinpah’s father had a heart attack and died, depriving Peckinpah of the single authority figure that he respected.
After leaving television, Peckinpah had found it harder than expected to break into film. He directed The Deadly Companions (1961), a low-budget Western with Brian Keith, the star of the Westerner, but he was simply a hired-gun, unable to rewrite the script or edit the film. The resulting movie did not do well, but it still attracted some attention from critics.
An opportunity appeared when Peckinpah was given a script by MGM that became Ride the High Country (1962). The movie’s producer, Richard Lyons, had admired Peckinpah’s work on The Westerner. The script interested him because it was set in the end of the West when cars and uniformed police were replacing horses and tough, independent lawmen, and because Lyons had convinced Western stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea to play the leads. Like their characters, their type of Western heroes were no longer popular, but they were still icons. Peckinpah rewrote the script but kept the underlying theme of good men resentful that their time has passed and they are no longer appreciated despite their sacrifice. Unlike directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks who used a minimum number of shots to reduce the possibility of studio interference in the final cut, Peckinpah employed dozens of camera angles to increase the possibilities. Despite a small budget and little support from the studio, Peckinpah pushed his crew and produced a stunning film filled with the raw beauty of nature and the gritty filth of a mining camp. Loathing the movie, the conservative head of MGM placed it as the second part of a double bill, but it was saved by ecstatic reviews in the New York newspapers, Newsweek and Time. The film came out at the same time as The Misfits (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which addressed the same theme of old cowboys who could not adjust to change.
Fresh off the success of Ride the High Country, Peckinpah enjoyed the life of a swinging bachelor, although his fourth child, a son, was actually born after the divorce. In addition to his own kids, Peckinpah also sponsored several poor kids living overseas, and those relationships deepened as his connection with his own children worsened. In fact, he donated so much money that the Save the Children Foundation gave him the Humanitarian Fellowship Award in 1968.
Attracted by the success of Ride the High Country, Charlton Heston and producer Jerry Bresler hired Peckinpah to rewrite the screenplay and direct Major Dundee (1965). The production hit a major snag when Harry Julian Fink’s script turned out to be much too long, and there simply was not enough time for a complete rewrite. As a result, shooting began without a finished script, instead Peckinpah hoped to tie all of the storylines together while filming. Worse, a change in Columbia’s management meant that they received a much smaller budget. The studio was reacting to a drop in theatre attendance that had been taking place since the mid-1950s, but Peckinpah took the decision as a personal betrayal.
The movie is a rejection of John Ford’s cavalry epics where people would argue but pull together to win the battle. In Major Dundee, everybody hates each other and that’s it. Peckinpah’s tore apart everyone on the set, fired fifteen people and got drunk every night because he was nervous. The production team went further south into Mexico, placing themselves more and more out of reach of the studio, but also into rougher terrain that took a toll on the crew, so people began to crack, just like the characters they played. Executives sent to Mexico to check on him when he went over-budget were driven away with curses. When Columbia threatened to fire Peckinpah, Heston, followed by the rest of the cast, threatened to walk. Peckinpah deliberately burned up Columbia’s money on stunts, just to piss them off. The final budget ended up being what the original budget was and the same shooting schedule, so it was massively over-budget. When shooting ended, there were no hugs, just people making a break for freedom. During the shooting, Peckinpah fell madly in love with Begonia Palacios, a nineteen-year-old Mexican actress.
Columbia had its own editors cut the film and they naturally clashed with Peckinpah, who resented the fact that they were loyal to the studio, not him. When the producers previewed a rough cut to theater chain owners, they said that it was too long, so Columbia’s editors cut out the graphic violence. Peckinpah was informed that he no longer worked for Columbia, and the cuts were done without his involvement. The cuts made the story incoherent. Parts are brilliant and it oozes realism, but as a whole it is a mess. The critics slammed the film and it only grossed $1.6 million. Peckinpah responded by writing all of the major critics to explain how Columbia had destroyed the film, which may have given him a rebellious image but did not endear him to the moguls who financed films, so job offers dried up. The experience definitely increased Peckinpah’s existing distrust of producers.
By that time, Peckinpah had been hired by MGM to film the Cincinatti Kid (1965) as a risque, upbeat film that would be a little shocking like international films but not radical. Peckinpah shot a bleak, gloomy look at the Depression and was fired. Although Peckinpah had signed a multi-picture contract at MGM, the studio simply refused to finance any projects that he suggested, and he had to leave the studio at the end of the year-long contract. The Major Dundee disaster combined with being fired from The Cincinatti Kid meant that he had acquired a reputation as a troublemaker.
Persona non-grata at the studios, Peckinpah’s career took a nose dive. This was particularly frustrating because film was going through a period of innovation in the 1960s as part of the fallout from the anti-Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements. Studios were willing to take chances on small budget films. In 1965, the Directors Guild of America won the right to have one public screening of a film before the studio could edit it, giving directors a freedom that John Ford and Howard Hawks had never had. Arthur Penn was the first to film bloody violence in Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Despite the sudden halt in paying projects, residuals from his television work ensured that Peckinpah was not struggling to survive. In fact, he owned a house in Malibu and a small cattle ranch. He was struggling to create, to see his ideas come to life on the screen. Since Peckinpah loved making movies, basically lived to make movies, it hit him hard. The heavy drinking continued, and he started seeing a psychologist after his eldest daughter admitted that she was so afraid of his temper that she refused to visit anymore, but it did not help. Although he worked hard during the week, the weekends were non-stop parties.
Peckinpah got a break in 1966 when he was hired to write and direct an episode for ABC Stage 67, the network’s new anthology series. Noon Wine was based on a novella of the same name about the breakdown of a family in rural Texas around the turn of the century, and Peckinpah found a number of parallels in the story with his own life. The critics raved about the show, and the success of the Noon Wine episode opened doors again, although Peckinpah’s status was still much lower than before.
Engaged in 1967 to write the script for Villa Rides, he threw himself into researching the Mexican Revolution, finding common themes with China in 1947 and the United States in 1967. In particular, Peckinpah was fascinated by the American mercenaries who had fought for Pancho Villa, a mixture of idealists, professional soldiers and outlaws driven south by the introduction of law and order into the west. However, Yul Brynner, the star of the film, did not like that Villa was portrayed as neither a hero nor a villain, and arranged for Peckinpah to be fired. Brynner had been angered by scenes of Villa breaking down in tears when facing a firing squad and Villa’s henchman Rodolfo Fierro shooting a corral full of unarmed prisoners, even though both events were true. Although he pretended to be strong, the casual dismissal made Peckinpah give up hope that he would ever make another movie.
By that time, Peckinpah went to bed with a bottle of brandy next to his bed and had a sip when he woke up. A star in Mexico, Begonia was not suited to be the housewife and assistant of a tortured artist, especially since Peckinpah lived in a predominantly Anglo environment. Three miscarriages did not help. Fighting constantly, Peckinpah and Begonia divorced and remarried three times in the space of a few months but the third divorce would be final.
The Wild Bunch
Hired to rewrite the Diamond Story, a caper movie about a diamond heist in Africa, for producer Phil Feldman, Peckinpah was given a big office at Warner Brothers, and another chance. While Peckinpah was working on the Diamond Story, Feldman was bemoaning the studio’s refusal to pay William Goldman’s astonishingly high price for the script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which had been sold to 20th Century Fox. Desperate for a similar script, Feldman was thrilled when Peckinpah showed him a script called The Wild Bunch, which dealt with the same gang, moving the action to the Mexican Revolution, not South America. Feldman loved the script, and wanted to use it to beat Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the theaters. The deal-maker was the news that Lee Marvin, hot from the success of The Professionals (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), was interested in the script. Over a period of six months, Peckinpah laboriously transformed it from a spaghetti Western into an epic tragedy. The basic plot never changed, but the struggle was to make the audience like the outlaws. It was a difficult experience but ideas that had been floating around in previous movies and scripts finally crystallized into one single script.
Unfortunately, Lee Marvin pulled out to do Paint Your Wagon (1969) for $1 million. After considering a number of leading men, they finally chose William Holden, whose career was in decline, and was in rough shape from heavy drinking. Peckinpah remained pretty sober, but twenty-two crew members were fired during the shooting. While he was a harsh taskmaster, Peckinpah obtained amazing performances from actors who had had second-rate roles in other movies. It then took six months to edit the film, enough time for Peckinpah to co-write, plan and film The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
The audience preview responses were negative, but Ken Hyman, head of Warner, backed the movie because he knew that people had had a passionate reaction. Although the violence was reduced to win an R rating, the movie did not do as well as expected. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid grossed $46 million, True Grit made $14 million and The Wild Bunch earned $7.5 million, partially because the distribution chief at Warners treated the film like a traditional John Wayne western, and gave it a limited release.
Thanks to the wonders of public relations Peckinpah became a critic’s darling and a celebrity. The head of Warner Brothers’ Wild Bunch Academy Awards campaign launched an intense offensive to promote Peckinpah, arranging retrospectives, interviews with magazines and newspapers, and appearances on the David Frost and Dick Cavett shows. Peckinpah happily reinvented himself as the son of poor ranchers who had grown up in poverty scrabbling for a better life, rather than the son of a rich lawyer who had lived in a safe bubble, protected from the ravages of the Depression. The campaign failed in its initial goal, since The Wild Bunch was elbowed aside by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a safer crowd-pleaser, but it gave Peckinpah a new image. The press campaign’s underlying theme was that Peckinpah was a genius whose vision had been too powerful for the conservative Hollywood studios. Rather than downplay his drinking binges and whoring, he celebrated them, realizing that destructive behavior would be viewed as a sign of artistic genius, not a lack of professionalism, in New Hollywood. Peckinpah became known as Bloody Sam, and critics began to believe that he was only capable of producing balletic violence. Abandoning the control that had got him through the Wild Bunch, he started drinking heavily again and screwed everything that moved, since he was famous, at the height of his power and capable of irresistible charm when he wanted.
Thinking that the Wild Bunch would be a hit, Warners had greenlit The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The movie would cost $3.7 million, almost $3 million over budget. Warners’ distributors saw a rough version and thought that it would flop, so they did not push it, even though the audience reaction cards were very positive. Since it had been greenlit by a previous head of production, the new studio heads did not care, and gave it no publicity, so it disappeared. Cable Hogue’s failure meant that Peckinpah was limited to action movies. Angered by the studio’s lack of support, Peckinpah sued the studio, and although the lawsuit was soon thrown out of court, his relationship with the studio disappeared with the lawsuit. Not only did Warner Brothers cancel Summer Soldiers, which Peckinpah had been planning to make with Robert Culp, but he was rejected as director for both Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Deliverance (1972), even though the writers wanted Peckinpah to direct.
Straw Dogs and The Getaway
Once again, Peckinpah was a free agent, but he could not find a studio or independent producer to back adaptations of any of the books he was interested in because they were not sufficiently bloody. Producer Daniel Melnick offered a job rewriting the script and directing a movie based on The Siege at Trencher’s Farm, a novel about an American professor who moves with his wife to the English countryside and finds himself harassed by a local group of hooligans, which unleashes the meek professor’s savage side. Originally unwilling to make another movie as violent as the Wild Bunch, he accepted because he needed work. Renamed Straw Dogs (1971), Peckinpah wrote the script as American society was confronting its own violent nature: the Manson Family; Charles Whitman, who climbed into a tower on the University of Texas and shot forty-five fellow students; the My Lai Massacre; and the National Guard firing on Kent State students. Aside from drawing on the violence that was surging across the United States and theories that man is violent and territorial by nature, he dipped into his parents’ marriage and his own marriages to Marie and Begonia to give the movie a personal touch. The lead character is a professor who married a younger wife and alienates her by spending too much time by himself in his office, which resembles Peckinpah’s treatment of Begonia. Peckinpah was carousing so heavily during the production that he came down with pneumonia. Producer Martin Baum told Peckinpah he would be fired if he did not get his drinking under control, and Peckinpah cut down his intake of alcohol enough to actually be able to direct. Straw Dogs was a modest success, but Peckinpah was a bankable director again, and a team of lawyers and accountants ensured that he received his share of profits.
The film produced a huge amount of controversy. Peckinpah was attacked as a male chauvinist and as a fascist who praises combat, instead of people realizing that he was just asking questions about violence, and did not have the answers.
While in London, Peckinpah met Katy Haber, who became first his secretary and then his lover. She brought order to his life, organized his business, paid his bills, and bought gifts for his family and friends. She even accepted his need for affairs when he was making a film, so she was able to last seven years with him, despite a number of breakups. Peckinpah had also started a relationship with Joie Gould, a twenty-five-year-old, who he brought to Los Angeles and promptly abandoned to work on Junior Bonner (1972). Peckinpah would bounce back and forth between the two women, driving them away with a savage temper, violent outbursts and blatant cheating, but then win them back with a surprising charm and heartfelt promises to change. And then he would start the whole cycle again.
Tired of movies about violence, Peckinpah’s next project was Junior Bonner, about an aging rodeo star. Despite widespread criticism of the violence in Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner received little attention from movie reviewers even though there was not a single gunshot in the entire movie. A badly handled release simply confirmed to studio heads that he was incapable of making anything other than shocking action pictures.
None of Peckinpah’s movies had been a genuine hit and several had lost money, so his career prospects were limited, until Steve McQueen, the star of Junior Bonner, decided he wanted to make another film with Peckinpah. The project was The Getaway (1972), a slick adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel about a bank robber and his wife who want to make one last score and escape to Mexico. Offered a very generous salary and a ten percent share of the profits, Peckinpah agreed. Aware that both he and McQueen needed a real hit to get the money required to gain control over their careers, Peckinpah told his writing partners Jim Silke and Gordon Dawson that they were simply making a good genre film, and did not have to agonize over the script to give the characters more depth. Although his drinking had remained barely under control during Junior Bonner, that control slipped during The Getaway. Having hand-picked his crew, Peckinpah had ensured that the crew included several enablers, including Haber and his prop man Bobby Visciglia, who carried a tray of liqour, ice and mixers with him all day to satisfy Peckinpah’s needs. Neither the star nor the producer stopped the drinking since Peckinpah still managed to make the film, remaining sharp despite the gradual toll that the drinking took on his body.
While studio heads did not clamor to finance his films, Peckinpah was at the height of his celebrity, and he received more attention than either McQueen or his co-star Ali McGraw, at least until the newspapers found out that McGraw had left her husband, Robert Evans, head of production at Paramount, for McQueen. Retaining his visual brilliance while removing the disturbing element from the violence, Peckinpah produced a slick action film that was his first box-office hit. Accustomed to the creative accounting in Hollywood that was designed to ensure that the studio kept all of the profits, Peckinpah was simply astonished when he actually received his fair share of the profits. McQueen wanted his fair share so the books were kept properly. Suddenly Peckinpah was one of the highest paid directors in Hollywood, an A-list director who could get projects made.
While Peckinpah’s alcoholism would wreak havoc on his body, he had still made five films in four years, and all of them were individual, professionally-crafted films. Having survived so many ups and downs, he seemed poised for a successful career, where he would finally have the ability to make the films he wanted. To cap it off, he had married Joie Gould during the film. She tried to change him, and he would stop drinking for a few weeks, and become a different person as the anger suddenly disappeared, but it never lasted. When he did drink the mood swings and the violence were increasingly severe, so she left him after four months. Peckinpah knew that he needed to change and followed friends’ advice to see a psychologist but he was simply unwilling to face the real causes of his problems, so nothing changed. Worse, he could no longer hope that everything would improve once he had made a successful film, since he had achieved fame and success but his life continued to unravel. Instead of finding release making films, it became harder and harder to summon the energy. Unable to even make it out of bed, he would meet with friends or assistants while in bed with a bottle. His entourage was made up of heavy drinkers who kept him supplied with alcohol, people who did not think that waking up with the shakes was a warning sign.
Peckinpah was offered a similar salary to The Getaway, although without the generous profit points, to direct the script Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, written by Rudy Wurlitzer, a hot, young screenwriter. As Peckinpah rewrote the screenplay for Pat Garrett, he was influenced by the dark side of the American government that had been revealed by Watergate. The various factions whose range war eventually killed both Billy and Garrett were woven into one single group. Since the Garrett part of the story symbolized Peckinpah’s disenchantment with greedy businessmen and the government which cooperated with them, as well as his own regrets, he ensured that Garrett was a richly fleshed character. The same was not true for Billy. Mediocre rewrites of Billy’s character were accepted because his alcoholism had finally blurred his artistic judgement. Peckinpah drank so much that he was only focused for four hours a day, so the movie was naturally uneven, but none of his old friends could get him to slow down.
While the script was uneven and his directing ability had been dulled by a hazardous intake of alcohol, there was a superb cast of supporting actors, since all of the small roles would be played by an astonishing number of veteran Western character actors. Unfortunately, MGM was headed by James Aubrey, a corporate autocrat, who gave too small a budget and not enough time. As conflict between Aubrey and Peckinpah increased, Peckinpah started to deliberately inflate costs to get revenge. It was clear to the studio that Peckinpah’s drinking was damaging the film, but he could not be fired and he refused to follow orders to cut scenes. Aubrey was furious but Peckinpah thought that the battle was over once the film was finished. He was wrong.
Desperate to earn revenue in time for a shareholders’ meeting, Aubrey gave Peckinpah only two and a half months for post-production. Worse, MGM screwed Peckinpah by making him do his two screenings at MGM and only allowing sixteen guests each time but Peckinpah managed to smuggle in Martin Scorsese and Pauline Kael. Aubrey blackmailed Peckinpah’s editors into making cuts by threatening to release a hack version. Even though the prologue, epilogue and several small scenes were cut, the film made its money back in the first year.
Soon after, MGM went under and sold its library to United Artists. Ted Turner later paid for the restoration of the original preview reel that had been stolen by members of the crew, and it made many critics’ lists of top ten westerns when the restored version was released in 1988.
Unfortunately, Peckinpah had followed Pat Garrett with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a bleak, nightmarish movie about a down-on-his-luck bartender who digs up a corpse and cuts off its head to claim a reward. The story was already dark, but the failure of Pat Garrett had broken Peckinpah and taken away much of his fire, so the movie lacked the shocking intensity of his previous films. Furthermore, Peckinpah had lost touch with the optimistic youth who would make up the key target audience for movies, so Alfredo lost money, while the critics who had praised him now deserted him. In fact, he had a reputation as only being capable of directing violence, and a drunk, which further hampered his career. Facing a career slump, he agreed to direct The Killer Elite, a routine espionage thriller, which starred James Caan. Unfortunately, Caan’s dealer got Peckinpah hooked on cocaine, which really screwed up his head. A near-fatal accident when he almost drowned after going for a drunken late-night swim failed to make him sober up.
As Peckinpah’s career continued to decline, he had to accept projects outside the major studios. The producer of Cross of Iron (1977) was a German soft-core pornography producer trying to shift into legitimate movies. The producer was low on cash, so conditions were rough, and the set was often in danger of being closed down by creditors. Peckinpah’s drinking sometimes overwhelmed him and he would not remember what he had filmed the previous day. A film told from the German perspective during WWII on the eastern front, it was a big hit in Europe, but quickly disappeared in the United States, which had been swept by Star Wars mania.
Peckinpah’s last several movies had barely broken even, and although he was well-paid as the director, his addictions combined with a high-flying lifestyle had burned through his savings, so he agreed to make Convoy (1978) in the hopes of producing a hit like Smokey and the Bandit. Convoy was a disaster but it was his biggest box-office hit. However, it had gone over-budget, costing twice as much as it should have, and Peckinpah was removed from the film during the editing stage because he did not finish in time for the summer release.
Peckinpah briefly married a widow but drove her away, just as he had most of his old friends and enablers, leaving only parasites who were interested in him because of his money and drug connections. The drugs and alcohol finally took their toll and he was fitted with a pacemaker after a serious heart attack on May 18, 1979. Despite his doctor’s warnings, Peckinpah started drinking the moment he was released from the hospital. However, he slowed down enough to remain coherent and relatively productive. Although he had become a pariah in Hollywood, he began to reconnect with his children. Enough ability remained for Peckinpah to make The Osterman Weekend, a standard espionage thriller, where the producers kept him on a tight leash. When the movie finished he stopped drinking although he still relied on prescription drugs and cocaine to calm his nerves.
Peckinpah dutifully went to meetings with young producers to pitch his screenplays even though they did not know who he was, just that he used to be somebody. Film schools and critics remembered him, and they began to organize retrospectives of his work in the late seventies and early eighties, while several books were published on both him and his films.
Unfortunately, Peckinpah did not live long enough to enjoy the renewed attention, since he died suddenly from a heart attack on December 28, 1984.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea
Two aging ex-lawmen are hired to escort a shipment of gold from a remote mining camp to a town. Bitter that they have been left behind as the region has become civilized after keeping the peace when it was a dangerous frontier, one of the men plans to betray his partner and steal the gold.
Major Dundee (1965)
Starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris
During the last winter of the Civil War, faced with a tribe of Apaches based in Mexico that regularly cross the border to raid American posts and settlements, the commander of a Union prison leads a force of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and civilians into Mexico to eliminate the Apaches. Unfortunately, the commander’s zeal leads them into French-controlled territory and they have to face French lancers.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine
After a bank robbery ends in bloody failure, an aging group of outlaws rides into Mexico to find their fortune in the Mexican Revolution.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson
Pat Garrett is hired to hunt down Billy the Kid.
Cross of Iron (1977)
Starring James Coburn and Maximillian Schell
An aristocratic Prussian officer, driven by a deep desire to earn the Iron Cross, clashes with a battle-weary German sergeant on the Eastern Front during the German retreat during WWII.
If They Move…Kill’em! The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah-David Weddle, New York: Grove Press, 1994.
Covering much of the same ground as Marshall Fine’s earlier biography on Peckinpah, Weddle gives a more in-depth portrait of Peckinpah, presenting him as a person rather than simply describing his career as a director. In particular, he focuses on the director’s deep yet damaging relationship with his family. Examining his several marriages in detail, Peckinpah emerges as an extremely talented director who lacked the emotional stability to make full use of that talent. The graphic descriptions of Peckinpah’s savage anger and his repeated physical abuse of wives and girlfriends does not make for pleasant reading, but they help explain the constant theme of betrayal that runs through his movies.
It would be easy for Weddle to diverge into a simple tell-all biography but the author is clearly driven by a genuine admiration of Peckinpah, so the disturbing alcoholism, drug addictions and general self-destructive behavior is never permitted to overwhelm the honest appraisal of Peckinpah’s talent. Instead, the discussion of his personal life is used to put his career into perspective, which is vital since he drew on his life so often in his films. After reading the book, I was left with an even greater admiration for Peckinpah’s achievements despite his considerable demons. A vicious drunk, he drove everyone he cared for away. Given the shocking abuse Peckinpah subjected himself to, it is astonishing that he actually managed to make as many movies, each with its own personally-crafted style and filled with raw, unsettling emotions, as he did. As a result, it is not surprising that the level of quality declined rapidly towards the end of his career. A solid work on a very, very complicated man, Weddle’s book sets a high standard.
Bloody Sam: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah-Marshall Fine, New York: University of Michigan, 1991.
The first serious biography of Peckinpah, it is a good book, but Fine pays only cursory attention to Peckinpah’s early life, quickly establishing the key themes of a dysfunctional family, manipulative mother, and grandfather with impossible standards of masculinity, before moving on to the meat, his career as a director. To be honest, most people probably only need to own one of the two books, and Weddle’s book is more recent and up-to-date.