Throne of blood
Friday, June 03, 2005So much blood is spilled in any given year on America's movie screens that you hesitate to declare that one man is responsible. But if you did feel the urge to point a finger, Sam Peckinpah would be a reasonable target.
SHAWN LEVYThe Oregonian
Peckinpah was known as "Bloody Sam" for his groundbreaking depictions of violence in such films as "The Wild Bunch," "Straw Dogs" and "The Getaway." He was by all accounts a cantankerous son of a gun, but he was also a cinematic visionary who managed with just more than a dozen feature films to redefine not only the look of screen violence but the moral dimensions of it.
The director's thrilling legacy is the subject of "Sam Peckinpah: Poetry and Tyranny," a collection of nine movies screening at the Northwest Film Center through July 3. As with its recently concluded retrospective of Pedro Almodovar, the film center has once again chosen to present a director's oeuvre in a nonchronological jumble, but the quality and intensity of the work more than compensate for the lapse.
Peckinpah was a strangely in-between sort of film figure, part B-movie craftsman of the studio era, part iconoclastic auteur of the modern age. He put in many hours directing TV Westerns before being given a shot at the big screen with 1961's "Deadly Companions" (not in the series). The following year he broke through with the altogether remarkable "Ride the High Country," one of the best of the elegies for the Western made in that era, with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott giving affecting performances as hired guns on one last job.
As a follow-up, Peckinpah was handed a big project, "Major Dundee" (1965), and he nearly killed his career (and himself) in making it. The story of a bloodthirsty cavalry officer's mission of vengeance against a murderous band of Apaches, it was delayed, chopped up and contested into ignominy not only by the studio, but also by its star, Charlton Heston, who was said to have threatened Peckinpah's life on the set.
It should have been the end of the director's string, but he got the funding and the whiskey and the stars and, most critically, the time to go to Mexico and make one of the greatest films of all time. "The Wild Bunch" (1969) combined the end-of-an-era rue of "Ride the High Country" with the sociopathy of "Major Dundee" and topped them with some of the most explicit and visceral violence ever filmed. The final shootout, in which an aging band of American outlaws takes on a fascistic brigade of Mexican soldiers in a slow-motion orgy of hundreds of camera shots, is one of the most gorgeous and brutal set pieces in movie history.
The film was a controversy and a hit, and for the next decade Peckinpah was busy: nine films from 1970 to '78, when he hit the wall physically and wore out his welcome in the business. He was credited with just one more film before dying suddenly and yet somehow not unexpectedly in 1984 at the age of 59.
Almost every one of the films in the film center series is worth revisiting, even "Major Dundee," which has been restored in a previously unseen director's cut, and "The Killer Elite" (1975), a kind of muddy spy story set in modern times. (Missing, regrettably, are "The Getaway" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue.")
As a body of work, Peckinpah's films have crucially influenced such significant modern directors as John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, for whom Peckinpah serves as a vital link to the traditional Hollywood Western, the action sequences of Akira Kurosawa and the conception of violence as a means of self-realization and self-destruction at once.
Too, they are filled with magisterial craft and an in-the-bones understanding of characters who confront a hostile world as if they have nothing to lose. If you don't know these movies, this is a perfect chance to catch up. WARNER BROS./1969 ERNEST BORGNINE (FROM LEFT), WILLIAM HOLDEN, BEN JOHNSON, AND WARREN OATES In the "The Wild Bunch"