Sam Peckinpah

Film still for Sam Peckinpah

Dead men walking

Peckinpah's Mexico, as in 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia', was a promised land and living hell, writes David Thomson

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) was made in the gap between the first two parts of The Godfather, so it was noticeable at the time that both it and the first part of Coppola's trilogy concluded with baptism services. In The Godfather (1972), the liturgy was emphatically neat and pretty; it was the bow tied on to the dark picture, more a gift than a bomb. After all, anyone could get the lip-smacking irony with which Coppola did baptism to the rhythms of execution. It didn't leave anyone feeling good, exactly. You worried at the time how legitimate it was for that picture to be so tidy.

The baptism at the close of Bring Me the Head is a lot more confusing. Two men are face to face: El Jefe, carrying the bundle of his granddaughter in her christening robes, and Bennie, who has the past-prime head of Alfredo Garcia, the father of the honoured babe, attended by flies but steaming from ice blocks. Is it a trade, a negotiation? Is the head worth $1 million? True enough, after Bennie has obeyed the bleak instruction of the child's mother (El Jefe's daughter Theresa) and shot the Mexican chief, he does remember to scoop up the briefcase and its money. But he knows how little time he has left, and he knows there's no comforting link - let alone dramatic arc - between El Jefe's outraged starting demand, "Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia", and the macabre destiny that has coaxed Bennie away from noodling at the piano for tourists in a Mexico City bar. Bennie sees that it is insane to order the death of the guy who made love to your daughter while cherishing the offspring of that illicit union. In Peckinpah's film, the bodies wrapped in white are inscrutably at odds with each other. Their juxtaposition concedes that stories will happen - just don't expect moral tidiness or reliable bows.

How will the film look now as Bring Me the Head is revived as part of the BFI's Sam Peckinpah tribute? On the back page of Monthly Film Bulletin in February 1975, the New Statesman, the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard indicated a single black bullet of antipathy towards it (a relevant image: the muzzle of a gun lurks beneath the credit "Directed by Sam Peckinpah"), while Tom Milne and Chris Petit gave it four stars each (I don't know if good film critics matter, but they are detectable).

The film is now 35 years old in a world where much has changed since its first release. So why do Mexico and America still seem becalmed? If you read the story of Hank Quinlan and Miguel Vargas (from Touch of Evil) in tomorrow's paper, of a Yankee tyrant trying to smother Mexican justice, you'd sigh, "Same old Mexico", though maybe it's the same old USA, suckering the Mexicans in to cut the grass, pick the fruit, watch over the playgrounds and shovel the shit, and then turning on them in spasms of paranoia. You can still believe, as in the ruinous romances of Malcolm Lowry and Sam Peckinpah, that Mexico is the place where American artists and turistas go to have their fever dreams - or is it simply a matter of getting drunk on cheap tequila where the bottle comes pre-packed with its metaphorical worm?

Mexico's festival of the dead

Sam Peckinpah (Californian, of pioneer stock), found his Mexico - "old Mex" he often called it - as a young man. It was after his Marine service in China that he went exploring in Mexico; about the time when John Huston was down there looking for gold, and close to the publication of Lowry's novel Under the Volcano (1947). Like many Yankees, Peckinpah thought he saw a land so cheap that life itself was treated like small change. He saw political corruption, military despots, idyllic peasants and the beautiful haze of pipedreams and booze hanging over the lawless roads. A romance began that sometimes fixed on actual Mexican women, tequila and getaways where an outlaw soul might feel at home (it is the past itself in Out of the Past, with Jane Greer coming to the bar at dusk). "Mexico has always meant something special to me," he would say later. "My Mexican experience is never over."

It shows in the work. Don't forget that Peckinpah once wrote Villa Rides (1968), making it so dark and murderous that Yul Brynner (playing Pancho) told the studio to get rid of the writer; the replacement was Robert Towne. Before that, Peckinpah had led the eponymous Major Dundee south of the border in his 1964 film in which Apaches and Mexican soldiers were equally dangerous - if you wanted to read that border as southeast Asia, well, that was fine. We hardly need reminding that The Wild Bunch (1969) uses the same border as a kind of Grandmother's Footsteps. Or the enchanted image that toughies like Pike and Peckinpah retain of a simple village life where liquor, women and macho clichés are passed around like weed. Of course, The Wild Bunch is also Peckinpah's meeting with Emilio Fernández - General Mapache on the way to being El Jefe in Bring Me the Head.

In The Getaway (1972), Doc McCoy and his shaky wife Carol are running headlong to the El Paso-Juarez border. Their final escape is in a load of trash that will be emptied out in Mexico. (Incidentally, this saves them from the excursion to hell that ends Jim Thompson's original novel, a sequence you'd need to be very sober to film.) In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), the Kid can feel the call of "old Mex" as well as its sanctuary, and Fernández plays a benign Mexican friend who is murdered by the wicked ranchers. And then there is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where Bennie is first seen wearing a garish brown buckskin jacket on which the phrase "Viva Zapata!" has been embroidered - strictly tourist graffiti.

We know little about Bennie (he has no back story and no United States). He plays piano and contrives to look and sound a lot like Sam Peckinpah, no matter that Warren Oates was getting paid for the work. By then, Oates was on his fourth feature film with Peckinpah and had had time to study the emerging wreck in the director. He had played unwashed, redneck and flat-out stupid for the boss, so he had paid enough dues to go to town on the snarly, meandering soliloquies of the director and the gloomy passion he had for slow-mo slaughter. Moreover, Bennie is a gringo who is not going home: he drinks white rum throughout the picture; he has this fatal feeling for Elita (Isela Vega), but can't get it into his head that she's a whore; he knows that Americans in Mexico often make for the worst news.

But do Bennie or Peckinpah really like Mexico? You take your choice. There is a picnic scene intruded on by rape… and then something nearly worse than rape. There is the opening view of El Jefe's kid daughter Theresa, pregnant and bathing her legs in a milky river. But then, in moments, to get the truth out of the girl, El Jefe has her stripped naked in front of strangers. I don't think that would happen in Mexico, where disgrace is a subtler curse. And it might not happen in America either, except in a film studio. But in Peckinpah films, women must expect to get stripped to their white, brave breasts now and then - so long as they are not Ali McGraw. It comes with the territory, like being smashed in the face.

In all the stories of Peckinpah's violence and misogyny, he is generally the worse for booze or drugs. But what kind of sentimentality uses that as an excuse? One of the best things about Bring Me the Head is the notion of the women being left in charge of El Jefe's world - the daughter's quiet decision to have her father killed, and the mother's fluttering pleasure at it, are just some of the delicate touches the drunk could manage. There's also something more than tragic as Bennie wakes up in the grave of Alfredo Garcia (which he has planned to rob) with only the clinging corpse of Elita as company. Oates plays that scene with rising panic - it's claustrophobia, but also the realisation that his way of thinking has been far too blunt for Elita. She has outstripped him in exactly the way that Pat Garrett's Mexican wife tears him to shreds in the scene you must insist on being included in any adequate retrospective of Peckinpah. No matter how savagely the director treated women, here is a moment where his most elegant hero is told he is dead already.

Across the border

So there's not a hint of redemption in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia for either stricken Mexico or the crippled male heroism the director clings to. Peckinpah remains a deeply problematic figure; no matter that his code of withered male integrity has been passed on in mainstream American cinema to boys. Still, he is as important and as readable as Hemingway, that other artist who hardly set a work in his own United States. For 30 years Hemingway's men roamed Europe looking to be tested: they fought the fascists, they hunted game and they fucked impossibly pliant Italian aristocrats in the swaying shells of gondolas. And sometimes the writing was as flat-out glorious as the filming can be in Peckinpah's work. For what it's worth, every dead end in Michael Mann - maybe the best maker of movies in America today - is foreshadowed in those sublimely beautiful scenes from Peckinpah where you can smell not just the napalm, but also the cooking of the bodies. It's the victory that is missing.

Bennie goes on a mission to make $1,000 or $1 million, along the way meeting a couple of women whose honour may be his to save. But you can tell in the exultant grimace of Warren Oates that it's the death of the man, the maker, that he is after. The Wild Bunch kid themselves about survival, having a good time and bags of gold, but they seek their own destruction. That's why Holden says "Let's go" and Oates answers "Why not?" when they foresee the massive slaughter that could be their funeral. Billy and Garrett want death at the other's hands. They are willing accomplices because they have no taste for the changing times. Does anyone think the McCoys in The Getaway can trust each other for more than 20 seconds? Or that Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch - the noblest traitor in Peckinpah - inherits Pike's gun for less than the last days of wild men in the West?

Of course, that's where Hemingway and Peckinpah parted company. Hemingway wanted to think well of himself and his work and believed that prose as clear as stream water would do it. So his heroes stay resolute and, in Across the River and Into the Trees, Colonel Cantwell writes out the precise instructions for his remains in the stricture of heart attack. In Peckinpah, the 'prose' becomes molten, gassy, toxic; the style turns to vinegar the way it can in wine. But the murderous instinct has found its true and deserving target - the self - and that's why in the end Peckinpah could only make films that turned the movie-making business into a version of Sappinsley and Dobbs from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: executive producers looking for a project or a corpse.

The final film director

It's easier to see now how Peckinpah stands for the end of the film director as a Hemingwayesque figure - that fraternity who had seen action, flown planes, driven their best cars, ridden horses, and pursued gold and pretty women. Most of them had been desperate gamblers. It is a group that includes Ford, Hawks, Hathaway, Fleming, Wellman, Fuller, Boetticher and Huston. They liked to believe that they had behaved with grace under pressure, and they flourished in an era when few questioned the heroic code as an American movie. What makes Hawks the outstanding figure in the group, of course, is that he saw the comedy in such men's men being humbled by pratfalls and the nagging talk of smart women.

We hardly have such directors today - apart from Michael Mann perhaps (but don't ask him to make a decent picture, as opposed to a beautiful movie) - let alone the male stars to serve as figureheads. What's so appealing in Peckinpah is the way he dumped the class system for actors (the celebration of Cooper, Cagney, Grant, Stewart, Wayne, Peck, Gable) and replaced them with what was truly a wild bunch, unruly, unwashed, uncouth, uningratiating: supporting actors like Borgnine, Oates and Johnson, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, Gig Young and Robert Webber, and that Fort Sumner rowdies reunion (Harry Dean Stanton, Elisha Cook Jr, and an always present no-name bum). James Coburn and William Holden - those inescapable, God-granted stars - managed to observe the frolic and the farting of this mob with pious disdain (or was it arthritis?).

Meanwhile, of course, there is a real Mexico, a thriving way of life not too far from reconquering southern California. It's also a place that makes more and more interesting films, with plenty of signs that beyond that delicious, daft couple in Hawks' Rio Bravo (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez and Estelita Rodriguez as Carlos and Consuela) some Mexicans are funny, sad and difficult, as handsome as Fuentes but as tricky as Buñuel. Finally, let us not forget that grave joke at Peckinpah's expense, the exquisite The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), where the matter of how to keep a corpse fresh and interesting is a test for man's lugubrious ingenuity. I wish Peckinpah had made that film, felt the passive aggression of Tommy Lee Jones, or been capable of the insouciance with which Marlowe, in The Long Goodbye, goes all the way back to "old Mex", finds Terry Lennox and knocks him off with one old-fashioned shot.

Read more on Peckinpah in the February issue of Sight & Sound where David Weddle explores the director's work for television.'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia' screens as part of a season of Sam Peckinpah films running at the BFI Southbank, London, throughout January

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012