Inside the Head of Sam Peckinpah
Editor/director/producer/educator Paul Seydor directed and edited (in collaboration with Nick Redman) the Oscar®-nominated documentary short The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996) and the author of Peckinpah: The Western Films – A Reconsideration (1997) and The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film (2015). As an authority on the legendary moviemaker, he participates in the Audio Commentary tracks on Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of Major Dundee (1965) and the forthcoming The Glory Guys (1965) and the soon-to-arrive reissue of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He weighs in below on the revealingly personal connections between the brilliant maverick and the powerful and polarizing Alfredo Garcia.
In the seventies one of the most popular of all film genres, if it can be called such, one that cut across several other genres (Western, crime, police, comedy, adventure, etc.), was the “buddy movie.” In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), director/co-writer Sam Peckinpah took the buddy movie, lacerated it, laying bare its obsessions with death, money, and violence and also its (barely) latent misogyny, and pushed it all the way to psychosis. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), one friend kills another and the film ends. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, one of the buddies – the title character – is dead before the film begins and the other buddy – Bennie (Warren Oates), a piano player in a dive bar in Mexico City, whom Alfredo had cuckolded – eventually claims the head and takes it on the road with him, shares tequila with it, talks to it, argues with it, commiserates with it about their mutual lover, ices it to keep it from stinking, all so that he can claim a reward from a big shot named El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), who wants revenge because Alfredo impregnated his daughter. To that revenge motif Peckinpah added one for Bennie: he winds up putting himself and his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) into a situation that gets her murdered by El Jefe’s henchmen. Bennie eventually gets his vengeance, his reward, and still gets to keep his buddy’s head, which he plans to return to its grave, where it will rest beside the murdered woman they once shared. He is gunned down in the process but not before taking with him a good many of El Jefe’s men in an exciting but hollow climax, the very hollowness of which seems part of the point.
This is the only Peckinpah film in which the main titles are placed at the end, which means that the director’s name comes up first and the image we see under Peckinpah’s is an extreme close‑up of a smoking gun barrel pointed straight at us: so much for the lives of men without women. It is an image that is also widely interpreted as being Sam’s rebuke, his “gift,” as it were, to his stupidest critics and the “Bloody Sam” moniker they long ago saddled him with. This is likely. From Peckinpah’s own admission, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the only film of his that came out exactly as he wanted it to. Bennie, he told his friend the photographer John Bryson, is “Peckinpah’s Everyman,” which means that he is Peckinpah himself in the specific sense that he embodies everything that he worried he had become or was becoming: a drunken sell-out ravaged by festering angers, jealousies, and resentments, willing to take on the most degraded and degrading jobs for money, a man who cannot keep himself from destroying the relationships with those who love him and might offer salvation. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is not just Peckinpah’s most personal film, it is one of the most personal films ever made and one of the bravest in the ruthlessness with which its maker is determined to tell the truth about himself. Many critics couldn’t resist making wisecracks about the title: “Bring me the head of Sam Peckinpah,” at least one of them wrote. It is not the least of the ironies in this devastatingly ironic film that they appear to be unaware how thoroughly the director had handed it to them.
TT hands this intense and influential Jerry Fielding-scored action thriller, also starring Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dentine and Kris Kristofferson, back to eager Peckinpah’s fans when the reissue rejoins the lineup August 16 on hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open July 27.