The softer side of Sam Peckinpah

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Sam Peckinpah’s reputation as the master of mayhem was forged in films like ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Straw Dogs’, and by his reputation as an alcoholic, womanising control freak with a mile-wide violent streak. But there was another side to Bloody Sam: a love of whimsy and elegiac nostalgia and a real empathy for humanity, in all its flawed glory. As a new retrospective season begins at the BFI, the Time Out team pick out a few of Peckinpah’s gentler moments

Ride the High Country (1962): The death of Steve Judd

In Peckinpah’s magnificent, mournful lament for the passing of the West, Joel McCrea's stern and stately Judd symbolises the morals and manliness of the ‘old ways’. His quiet, dignified and lonesome death, gutshot in a farmyard but keeping his eyes fixed on the distant mountains, stands for the passing of an era.

The Wild Bunch (1969): ‘It ain’t like it used to be…’

Nine men who came too late and stayed too long: bad tempered, debauched and delighting in carnage throughout, Peckinpah’s signature film would at first glance seem to deny any glimmer of sentiment. But if the sight of Robert Ryan sitting spent and alone in the darkling desert after presiding over the last days of his former compadres doesn’t bring a lump to the throat, you’re already in Boot Hill.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970): 'Butterfly Mornings'

Audiences were dumbstruck by Peckinpah’s follow-up to ‘The Wild Bunch’: a loopy Western ‘comedy’ with birth-of-a-nation undertones. The film’s soppiest moment is a musical montage in which lovestruck pioneers Jason Robards and Stella Stevens duet on a dire hippy-dippy folk ballad, despite the fact that neither of them can sing a note.

Junior Bonner (1972): The whole darn shootin’ match

The West is changing again, but instead of getting lost in the smoke from his own blazing pistols, flat-broke modern day rodeo has-been Steve McQueen merely pulls his most cockeyed grin and gets back on the horse. The entire film is as sweet and light as a prairie wind and not even cinema’s least convincing bar-fight can puncture the moseyin’ mood.

Pat Garrett

In a film shot through with loss, regret and epic tragedy, levity is understandably hard to come by. The jolliest moment comes when Kris Kristofferson’s Billy and his taciturn sidekick Alias (Bob Dylan) stumble across a field full of wild turkeys, and decide to go on a rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ spree, soundtracked by a frisky and upbeat bluegrass number.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974): The proposal

Despite its reputation as Peckinpah’s grimmest, most nihilistic outing, ‘Alfredo’’s central relationship between Bennie (Warren Oates) and Elita (Isela Vega) is perhaps the most loving and reciprocal in all his films, at least until her brutal murder. The film’s sweetest scene takes place in a grassy meadow, as Elita finally convinces an initially reluctant Bennie to pop the big question.

Cross of Iron (1977): Death of the Bolshevik Christ-child

‘It's all an accident, an accident of hands. Mine; others; all without mind...’, says shellhole philosopher Sgt Steiner (James Coburn), freeing an angelic boy soldier amid the woodland mist. Peckinpah's push to the Wild East makes room for elegiac moments on the Russian Front of 1943; that the child is soon to be slo-mo smeared across the forest floor by his own side does nothing to diminish this moment of noble peacenik sentimentality that sets the tone for the entire movie.

Convoy (1978): Love in the boot

Something of a damp squib after the gritty trench bickering of ‘Cross of Iron’, ‘Convoy’ – Peckinpah’s enjoyable, if throwaway smelting of Teamster propaganda and Southern police-chase hokum – is probably most notable for containing very little in the way of gut-churning violence or slow-mo Sten gun action. It sees Kris Kristofferson’s long-time tyre-jockey ‘Rubber Duck’ fighting against Ernest Borgnine’s corrupt local sheriff when all he wants to do is deliver his load and take a little lady (here, it’s Ali MacGraw sporting an ill-advised 14-year-old schoolboy haircut) into the back of his cab. Interesting sidenote: ‘Convoy’ is Peckinpah’s only film based on a song (CW McCall’s ‘Convoy’).
Click here for tickets to the BFI Peckinpah season

Author: Adam Lee Davies, Paul Fairclough, David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston



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