On the 29th December 1984, the day after Sam Peckinpah died at the age of 59, a small obituary appeared inThe New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, “best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence.

So the great director's films are about violence? Not really. Are they about honour? Hardly. In fact, says Rick Moody, Sam Peckinpah offered us realism - albeit of a very particular kind
"Now, most funeral orations, Lord, lie about a man," - so says David Warner, in his memorable turn as Joshua, the fraudulent preacher in Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue, from 1970. The same can be said of most film criticism - that it dissimulates or exaggerates about the film, about the director, about the movement, about the art. So let's aspire in this revisionist essay on Peckinpah to tell the truth

Sam Peckinpah was a paradox who both cultivated and disdained his own legend as one of Hollywood's most difficult directors, his often violent films evoked strong responses and varied, almost contradictory, readings.

The Wild Bunch -- If they move, kill 'em

Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place and desperately out of time...
Suddenly a new West had emerged. Suddenly it was sundown for nine men.
Suddenly their day was over. Suddenly, the sky was bathed in blood...
Nine men who came too late and stayed too long...Born too late for their own times.
Uncommonly significant for ours.

The Wild Bunch (1969) is director/co-writer Sam Peckinpah's provocative, brilliant yet controversial Western, shocking for its graphic and elevated portrayal of violence and savagely-explicit carnage, yet hailed for its truly realistic and reinterpreted vision of the dying West in the early 20th century.

Its unrelenting, bleak tale tells of aging, scroungy outlaws (the 'wild bunch') bound by a private code of honor, camaraderie and friendship, but they find that they are at odds with the society of 1913. The lone band of men led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) have come to the end of the line and no longer are living under the same rules in the Old West. 

They are relentlessly being stalked by bounty hunters, one of whom is Pike's former friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who would rather side with the outlaws if it weren't for the threat of being sent back to Yuma Prison.

The film was screened for some 350 film critics during the weeklong Warner Bros. 7-Arts "international film festival," festival, a showcase for six new Warners' films. The audience reaction was extreme. Some people walked out. Others closed their eyes. When the lights went up, the applause was matched by boos and hisses. And then the arguments started. They are likely to continue all summer, providing fodder for countless articles and talk shows.

The film opens with an extraordinary bloodbath of about seven minutes in length: a temperance parade is caught in the cross-fire between the Wild Bunch and a group of scurvy railroad gunmen led by Robert Ryan. Several civilians are gunned down just for the hell of it. The opening scene is he most violent I've ever seen on the screen--except for the closing scene.

"I have only one question," said the lady from the Reader's Digest. "Why was this film ever made?"
"We wanted to show violence in real terms," Peckinpah said. "Dying is not fun and games. Movies make it look so detached. With 'The Wild Bunch,' people get involved whether they like it or not. They do not have the mild reactions to it."
"Why did everyone bleed so much?" another lady asked.
"Lady," Borgnine said, "did you ever see anyone shot by a gun without bleeding?"
It was party time, not the right venue for what became one of the most controversial films of its time - praised and condemned with equal vehemence, like "Pulp Fiction." At a press conference the following morning, Holden and Peckinpah hid behind dark glasses and deep scowls. After a reporter from Reader's Digest got up to attack them for making the film, I stood up in defense; I felt, then and now, that "The Wild Bunch" is one of the great defining moments of modern movies.
Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984) was a Marine in World War II, apprenticed in Hollywood under the action director Don Siegel, and did more than anyone else to bring the traditional Western into the gloom of a modern, ironic age. He was an iconoclast, warred with the studios, was often drunk, fought even with his actors, but achieved in "The Wild Bunch" and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974) a fusion of the Western myth and the existential hero. I met him twice, once on the set of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), once in a hotel room when he was touring to publicize "Alfredo Garcia," which then and now was not seen as the great film it is. Both times he seemed tremulous, and I had the impression of almost uncontrollable discomfort. He was clearly drunk (on the set in Mexico, he sat on a chair in the sun, shielded by an umbrellas, hat, dark glasses, relaying instructions to his assistant director). I cannot pretend to know what he was thinking, but I look at the films and I surmise that they represent a continuing parable about a professional doing what he does well in the face of personal and professional agony. Certainly that is a theme of "The Wild Bunch."
With a great cast, The Wild Blunch burns up traditional Westerns by focusing on a crude outlaw gang and embracing the violence with slow-motion and multi-angle editing. "It’s no accident that you feel a sense of loss for each killer of the Bunch: Peckinpah has made them seem heroically, mythically alive on the screen," wrote Kael for The New Yorker.


Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah examines the instinctual capacity for violence in his controversial 1971 film, loosely based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm. To avoid the Vietnam-era social chaos in the U.S., American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) moves with his British wife, Amy (Susan George), to the isolated Cornish town where she grew up, but their presence provokes antagonism among the village's men. As the hostilities escalate from routine bullying to the gang rape of his wife, David.

“Straw Dogs,” one of Peckinpah’s strongest films, is a provocative study of violence and its consequences in tense situations.  The movie was shocking at the time of its release for its explicit gore, and for its analysis of the hidden bestiality of presumably civilized 
human beings.

As directed by Peckinpah, the tale’s build-up is taut, and the conclusion inevitable in its fiery explosion. “Straw Dogs” plays with (and manipulates) and against viewers’ expectations to the point where we don’t know where our sympathies lie? 
Do we want the Dustin Hoffman character to execute justice and take the law into his hands, as he does in film’s climax, or not? In other words, what’s the “proper” (and “manly”) reaction to escalating violence? Is society helpful in prescribing and proscribing such behaviour?

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