By Christopher Sharrett.
The label “master of violence” was long ago affixed to director Sam Peckinpah. Books on Peckinpah with titles like “Bloody Sam,” and studies comparing the director’s films to Kubrick’s icy-cold vision in A Clockwork Orange, insist that we separate uses of violence – an element of drama – from dramatic context. The situation is worsened as we are asked to consider Peckinpah’s “heirs,” like the repugnant, vacuous Tarantino, as offering new variations on the “blood ballets” that supposedly became Peckinpah’s stock-in-trade. It is true that Peckinpah broke new ground in portraying violence in cinema. He insisted, during his years in film and television, that Code-era cinema offered ridiculous delusions about human affairs, and avoided the horror and consequences of violence to the point that bloodletting was usually portrayed as trivial. The massacres that opened and closed his 1969 masterpiece The Wild Bunch sickened audiences, and the many unthinking critics of the day, with their massive carnage and their sense that once violence is unleashed there is no stopping it until all perish. His combination of slow motion and rapid cutting – borrowed from Eisenstein – captured the sense (experienced by Peckinpah in his lifetime) of the violent moment beginning and ending quickly, but also elongated, as if frozen in horrific time.
Many accused Peckinpah of aestheticizing and “enjoying” violence simply because of the style used in its rendering. One has only to look at the final moments of The Wild Bunch to test such assertions. We see an endless number of the dead, both Mexican soldiers and the remains of the Bunch, blood, turning black, on the walls of the adobe compound where the battle took place. Women clad in black shawls move among the dead, praying as they look for their loved ones. Vultures, human and avian, descend on the village in search of carrion and abandoned money. The dark chords of Jerry Fielding’s score fill the soundtrack. It is a remarkably well-achieved moment, but are we meant to enjoy this? Did Peckinpah? Do we enjoy it in the same way that we enjoy, say, a piece of candy? There is a level of enjoyment to be sure, but of a fully human, meditative sense that evokes something close to grief, that allows us to enjoy Goya’s The Fourth of May, or Guernica, or the photographs of Robert Capa, or Resnais’s Nuit et Brouillard. Peckinpah reminds us of the need to think less of crass enjoyment – the sort that is the main criterion in the age of multiplex cinema – and more of enrichment and recreation, that is re-creation of one’s selfhood, of seeing and being. We enjoy his work since we (I must qualify “we” of course) admire its value as an utterly uncompromised vision.
At every point of his work Peckinpah deprives violence of its traditional function as catharsis – he isn’t Shakespeare, but he displays an intelligence worthy of Shakespeare’s by undermining the ancient device. Pike Bishop’s sacrifice at the end of The Wild Bunch, to redeem a wasted life and fight Angel’s revolution for him, is rendered as too little too late, and a miscalculated, insane destruction of life, which gives the scene and film their tragedy. Pat Garrett’s murder of Billy at the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is subverted in the ingenious montage/flash-forward behind the opening credits of the film, where Garrett’s assassination is portrayed as his suicide, a logical outcome to a violent, amoral life. Stransky’s pursuit of the Iron Cross – in Cross of Iron – is simply ludicrous, made especially so in the film’s coda by Steiner’s near-maniacal laughter as we see a Brecht quote, and pictures of starved children and other victims of wars past and present, including Vietnam.
Peckinpah was always self-interrogating on the subject of violence, never more so than during the scene in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia when Bennie shoots one of El Jefe‘s gunmen. He stands over the body, emptying another round into it. Then he asks: “Why? Because it feels so goddamn good!” The moment shows Warren Oates’s fine intelligence, and Peckinpah’s remarkable intelligence as he intervenes as dramatist. The “Why?” is posed entirely seriously, Bennie’s face tormented as he confronts a situation that seems profoundly absurd and at the dark heart of humanity. But in the phrase that follows Bennie dismisses his question, returning to what pleasures him – and what brings money. The moment is not only Peckinpah’s interrogation but his self-condemnation.
Bennie’s violence is notable as a fantastical expression of rage, which figures heavily in the the fantastic cinema of the 1970s and 80s (e.g., Cronenberg, The Fury, etc.). Rage, signifying both frustration and intolerable pressure applied upon the subject by an impervious foe (society), takes violence into the realm of nightmare, madness, fantasy. Bennie’s (temporary) triumph over his enemies has nothing to do with Hawks’s male professionalism (the notion of being “good,” with those who are “no good” necessarily immoral), nor the “imperative” of Straw Dogs, where the math professor is suddenly master of all things, fusing his scientific knowledge with the will to power as he takes control of hearth and home, subduing the female in the process (“I’ll break your neck!”). On the contrary, Bennie’s assertions of violence precede his mental deterioration, and finally his own destruction.
It is worth recalling that Sam Peckinpah mounted Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine for television’s ABC Stage 67, a feat that I suggest would be impossible (at least with any of his sensitivity) for most of the postmodern cynics who make up the ranks of the current production industry, and who make some claim to Peckinpah. Noon Wine allowed Peckinpah to return to cinema after the “catastrophe” (read, studio destruction) of Major Dundee. This “master of violence” looked with a deeply-felt compassion at the aging process in many of his films, most notably Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. In Junior Bonner, he is able both to dismiss the family and show its absolute centrality to individual self-concept.
Peckinpah was a conscientious artist, and an accomplished dramatist who gave himself precise moral responsibilities in attempting to realize a fully-achieved vision. It is worthwhile comparing a film such as The Wild Bunch to Django Unchained, or The Walking Dead, or any number of contemporary films, to see not only that Peckinpah’s lessons about violence and its consequences have long been forgotten, but that an interest in maintaining the fabric of drama has likewise been discarded. Is Django Unchained, for anyone with the benefit of a fairly good middle-class education and humane temperament, anything more than a pastiche of action cinema of the 1970s, and with a considerable degree of disrespect for the decade at that? Does it have anything like Peckinpah’s sympathetic interest in actual human beings? Does not a film such as Mandingo (1975) have far more to say than Django Unchained on the meaning of slavery, and with more commitment and integrity? Django Unchained, in fact, is too much a smug comedy to have any concern whatever for the real horrors of the slavocracy (or anything at all), yet current audiences seem to accept Tarantino’s rubbish, with only the occasional complaint about the use of the word “nigger.”
The new cinema of evisceration (there are any number of better phrases, no doubt, that capture the barbarism of what now transpires in cinema, all of which are the consequence of the social decline of the 80s/90s/2000s) represents the awfulness of an American civilization that sanctions the invasion and destruction of nations; climate change, which will destroy the planet itself; neoliberal economic policies that destroy this nation and all other countries partaking of the system; and the unraveling of the remains of democracy, beginning with a war on the rights of women, racial minorities, and the electoral process. Sam Peckinpah, who would be appalled by the tendencies I have just adumbrated, now seems like a quaint fabulist, and a very tender-hearted one.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: Some Sources
I want to comment on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Peckinpah’s most personal work, one of his three masterpieces of the 1970s (the others are Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid , and Cross of Iron  – I still see Straw Dogs  an exercise, and one far too influenced by the crackpot ideas of screenwriter-turned-anthropologist Robert Ardrey, and The Getaway  too marred by many things, especially the casting of Ali McGraw). We should be grateful to Twilight Time, an invaluable resource, for restoring this film and presenting it in a new Blu-ray release. I comment on this film since it displays Peckinpah’s profound humanism as he engages in self-assessment (which, unfortunately for him, would be a substitute for needed psychotherapy). One might be puzzled by the use of humanism when describing Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, often seen as an odd, grisly indulgence, but I use this term and precisely this, rather than “humane” or some variation. Peckinpah continues a commitment to traditional humanism – that is, a belief in the paramount importance of the human subject as the only source for understanding that which we value. The outlook was not uncommon in the best work of the Old Hollywood, especially those directors from Europe who brought with them philosophies of the human race unencumbered by the American Puritan heritage.
Alfredo Garcia is also by far Peckinpah’s most experimental film; the clearest influence here is Buñuel – Peckinpah praised Los Olvidados in various locations, although overt surrealist cinema, especially L’Âge d’Or (1930), is also relevant as we understand the film as iconoclasm, and especially a self-inflicted trauma unveiling some core parts of his self-concept. Alfredo Garcia reminds us of Peckinpah’s place – at the time of the film’s making and certainly since – in the international cinema. When producer Dieter Schidor wanted to adapt Jean Genet’s Querelle de Brest for the cinema, the publisher Gallimard required him to produce for Genet a letter from a prominent filmmaker. Schidor heard somewhere that Genet admired Peckinpah. Peckinpah had a passing knowledge of Genet but never heard of Querelle (interesting, since his films, focused on criminal outsiders, the male group and repressed homoeroticism, have something in common with Genet, which the writer no doubt noted); he nevertheless supplied a letter. Querelle (1982) was the last film made by Rainer Fassbinder.
The structure of Alfredo Garcia is profoundly modernist, a collage that must be called a nightmare journey through the world of capitalist patriarchy, with Peckinpah looking back into history, and at his own moment and his own mind. The film opens with an image that seems taken from Manet: we see a pond with wildfowl afloat, a young, very pregnant woman in a long white dress dipping her feet in the water. The serenity is broken by two caballeros with a strong note of the drugstore, clad in cowboy hats and too-noisy spurs, with six-guns and holsters noticeably Hollywood (but the film was shot in Mexico, with Peckinpah cared for by his friend and executive producer Helmut Dantine, who plays “Max” in the film). The men take the woman to the huge hacienda of El Jefe (the renowned actor/director Emilio Fernandez, who worked several times for Peckinpah). The camera studies the paintings on the walls of the don’s stateroom – they are of patriarchs dating to Mexico’s colonization by Spain. El Jefe demands of the young woman, who is his daughter, the name of the man who made her pregnant. She is tortured until she relinquishes the name, which provokes the porcine El Jefe’s command that is the title of the film.
A question: why does the don wait until so late in her pregnancy to demand the name? Perhaps he tortured her throughout her pregnancy. But the more reasonable answer, as the film progresses, is that this moment (like much of the film) is presentational and highly stylized, even Brechtian, as we witness the grotesquerie of the world of the film. The sense of artifice is everywhere in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, from the often casual editing to the equally casual acting, which sometimes looks like performance from the French nouvelle vague, although the film’s improvisations gives it a realist spontaneity. Peckinpah, like the other occasional Brechtian, Godard (in the 1960s), demolishes illusion so that ideas remain prominent. And the film has much in common with the Latin American Boom – it could be called Peckinpah’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, or Terra Nostra, especially since El Jefe seems the Primal Father policing the Primal Horde in a world outside of historical time.
There is a radical cut after the daughter’s interrogation. We see men on horseback, in expensive automobiles, then, suddenly, an airplane appears, then shots of Mexico City, and finally the carport of a hotel, where dapper, American-looking men in suits snap their fingers to make a row of hookers get on their feet. The film’s modernism comes through first in its disjointed continuity. The men we see checking into a hotel are then suddenly still on the veranda. Peckinpah’s use of montage, especially during his signature scenes of violence, disorients us; here the disorientation is a constant, including at the level of plot. What is the relationship of the Anglo businessmen to El Jefe? How were they employed by him? The dismally corrupt officialdom of 1970s America suddenly jibes with an antique, eternal patriarchy. We are regularly thrown into mythic space as the film as fable becomes obvious.
“Guantanamera” and the Fate of Art
Eventually the hallucination takes us to Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-and-out piano player (why he is regularly referred to as a “bartender” escapes me) in an after-hours dive where he leads tourists in rousing choruses of “Guantanamera,” whose first verse reads in English: “I am a truthful man/from where the palm tree grows/but before dying I want/to let out the verses of my soul.” The verses speak of the desire to evoke “the soft green and flaming crimson.” This piece of once-omnipresent 1960s pop is actually both poignant and political, and might be read here as a clever epitaph gracefully inserted by Peckinpah into the film. Popularized by The Sandpipers, “Guantanamera” (“The Woman from Guantanamo”) was written by the great Cuban revolutionary hero Jose Marti, its proud status intricately tied to Cuban identity. In the last verse, Marti’s narrator pledges himself to the poor people of the earth, making the song popular in the repertoire of folk singer Pete Seeger. Guantanamo is known, of course, as a site of contention between the U.S. and Cuba from the Cold War to the present (right now it is a concentration camp fully expressive of U.S. contempt for human rights). Pete Seeger made the song an emblem of the U.S. protest movement, before it was transformed into pop. It is an energetic ballad, a song of solidarity at the time of the U.S. assault on Cuba and especially the Cuban Missile Crisis. But “Guantanamera,” is also a ballad about the sexes, and a deceitful man and his (supposedly) unreasonable woman.
In Peckinpah, as with any distinguished artist, nothing is incidental or accidental. As with “La Golondrina,” (a theme of The Wild Bunch), the story of a swallow that has flown away and the one who prepares a home for it, Peckinpah makes use of a folk song from tradition, attracted both by its romanticism and radical potential, in other words expressive of Peckinpah’s sensibility. Bennie’s raucous version of “Guatanamera” becomes one symbol among many of the callous degradation of art in the Age of Nixon, that is, the current age, for which Nixon is a basic symbol. One of the most evocative, comprehensive scenes in the film shows the executive/gangster Max having a pedicure by two secretaries, his trousers off, as he reads an issue of Time magazine with a famous cover story on Nixon and Watergate. So much is contained in the quick scene: the gangster nature of capitalism; the subjugation of women; the irrelevance of modesty and other bourgeois manners (and the superego) when power holds sway; the kitsch nature of modern journalism, which spectacularizes the crimes of empire as it simultaneously makes a handy scapegoat out of capitalist agents (it was easy with Nixon). Fine art prints on the paneled walls of the American hoodlums’ offices suggest the rise of art as decoration, as a vaguely-observed camouflage for the barbarism of the capitalist state. This trope is obviously crucial to Peckinpah; Bennie’s abuse by the stronger-willed of the story allegorizes Peckinpah’s abuse by the film industry, self-serving perhaps, but heartfelt and honest. In Peckinpah biographies and documentary films, it is apparent that he was the younger boy left home with his mother; he filled his life with various literature, including Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” which, as he said, he simply remade over and over. He was the frail intellectual who later overcompensated with macho posturing, until he produced in himself a deadly and untreated mental pathology.
By now we have heard many times that Bennie is supposed to be Peckinpah himself, or at least one manifestation of him. If we accept the premise (I do), the film becomes a kind of psycho-autobiography. There is a chilling aspect to this. Many years ago I interviewed the late actor/director Robert Culp relative to another project. Culp was Peckinpah’s best friend in Hollywood until the 1970s, when Peckinpah’s self-medicating with alcohol and cocaine could no longer be tolerated by Culp and other friends. Culp begged his friend to see a psychiatrist. Peckinpah eventually agreed, and arranged sessions with Culp’s own psychiatrist. But it was a sham. Peckinpah went only once. Years later the psychiatrist told Culp that Peckinpah had some deeply-rooted (aren’t they always?) problems that he could cope with only in fantasy.
Whatever lay at the heart of these problems we can only know by looking at the “fantasy” of the director’s art, and in particular Alfredo Garcia, which indeed makes sense – with its refusal of continuity and most of the rules of the American film industry – only as a heaving-up of psychological distress, particularly a massive statement of self-loathing at various levels. And the contempt for Hollywood and American ideology becomes easily readable.
Peckinpah’s chief collaborator in the project is of course Warren Oates, who by the 1970s was a more-than-credible character actor appearing in several Peckinpah films. He was known as a self-effacing man, and by no means a big-ticket actor with numerous neurotic demands. He becomes a vessel for his good friend Peckinpah, who in turn allows Oates the greatest latitude he ever enjoyed as actor (yes, that includes the nice performance in the otherwise execrable right-wing shoot-‘em-up, John Milius’s Dillinger ). There is enough evidence (the omnipresent sunglasses, the mustache, the gravelly voice, the flashes of bad temper) to say that Oates is indeed “channeling” Peckinpah, but we should note the amount of hyperbole Peckinpah applies here as he gestures toward self-derision.
Bennie is a caricature of Peckinpah, with his badly mismatched clothes, and affectations of a dandy: his white Palm Beach suit becomes nearly black with dirt over the course of the film, suggesting his moral and psychological descent prior to his literal and symbolic resurrection. In the initial scene at the piano bar, Bennie’s clothes recall Peckinpah’s love of Western/Native American gear, but here it is all reduced to kitsch; Bennie wears a brown jacket tastelessly embroidered with six-guns and sombreros.
Most important is Bennie’s personality. Although he tends to bluster, occasionally in ways that seem macho to the point of incoherent lunacy (“Stop lookin’ at me with your fuckin’eyes!”), he is basically sheepish and frightened. He is belittled by the American hitmen in their posh office, who allow Bennie to join in the search for Alfredo. One hoodlum calls him a “loser.” Bennie screws up his courage, raises his head and says “Nobody loses all the time.” One already senses that this is a vainglorious remark, and foresees Bennie’s fate. After retrieving the head of Alfredo Garcia from a cemetery, he sits on a dilapidated hotel bed, now alone after Elita’s (Isela Vega) murder. As he loads his .45 semi-automatic, he goes through a range of emotions, from laughter at the insanity of the situation, to tears of self-pity and self-loathing, a remarkable performance by Oates. As he disintegrates, he talks to the decaying head in a fly-covered canvas bag, treating “Al” as a friendly rival (he was once Elita’s lover) who cuckolded him. The hero-as-madman is not a new construct, but rarely has it been achieved in the commercial cinema with such dignity.
Although he is shot to pieces in the denouement, his demise happens after he has dispatched El Jefe and his henchmen, to the glee of the don’s wife and daughter; that Bennie is a skilled marksman seems one conceit that Peckinpah won’t relinquish – the original screenplay has Bennie as a “retired Army officer,” yet there is nothing of the army in his bearing. The skill with a gun is all fantasy (as it always is in cinema), but here it is Bennie/Peckinpah engaging in obliteration of his enemies that is obliteration of the self – the essence of violence.
The Homosexual Text
The reader will note that I call this subheading “The Homosexual Text” rather than “subtext,” the word usually applied when discussing gay sexuality in cinema, for example in Robin Wood’s analysis of Hawks. It is true that the gay element of a work is often “buried” because of censorship fears, denial, or personal anxiety; in the case of Hawks, the gay element seems exceedingly manifest today – thanks in part to Wood’s criticism. And there is the evidence of Joseph McBride’s interview with Hawks; as is fairly well known, the director bristled at the suggestion of gay themes, accusing audiences and critics (presumably this included McBride) of having “filthy minds” if they dared suggest such a thing of his work. I rest my case. Hawks, who in many ways pioneered the American male-oriented action cinema, makes clear above all that the only authentic affection, the only meaningful relationship of any sort, is that shared among men. The shooting matches between Montgomery Clift and John Ireland (described as “mutual masturbation” by Wood) in Red River (1948), and Hardy Kruger and Gerard Blain in Hatari! (1962), turn his obsessions into near-pornography.
Peckinpah’s career was much less productive than that of Hawks, but on the subject of the homosocial/sexual undergirding of male-oriented action cinema, Peckinpah is by far the superior – because more probing, more self-interrogating – artist. The Wild Bunch pivots on the issue of Pike’s failed life, his lost love Aurora, and the “secret” that he shares with Thornton. The secret is involved with Pike’s self-assurance, his boastful line “being sure is my business.” As Pike settles down by a campfire, he recalls a painful moment of many years past at a brothel – the moment undercuts his self-proclaimed assurance. Thornton, at another campfire, has the same memory. Pinkerton detectives raid the brothel of long ago as Pike abandons his friend. The film cross-cuts gracefully, supplely. Pike’s face is embittered; Thornton’s is resigned – one senses that he would never betray his friend, even as he now pursues him.
That the two men share the same memory at the same time suggests obsession, as if the memory of a personal betrayal never leaves them, yet affection endures (Thornton warns the ragtag bounty hunters in his charge that Pike is “the best”). One needn’t read against the grain to argue that the “secret” shared by the two men is a repressed gay love, simply because it is so transparent that the issue is centrally about their love – the genital aspect seems irrelevant. Robin Wood argued long ago that the obsession with the sex act is itself pathological.
There are several scenes illustrative of the sexual politics of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, most crucially Garrett’s return, for a moment, to the domestic household, which is actually surrounded by the prototypical white picket fence. Garrett tentatively opens its gate and walks into his home. It isn’t a minute before Garrett, obviously uneasy, fabricates a row with his wife and creates a lie about his duties that permits him to leave. And there is no irony in Garrett finally assassinating his old friend Billy (who is half naked) in a darkened bedroom; Garrett annihilates what he cannot stand in himself, a point made, as I mentioned, in the film’s complex opening scene.
Cross of Iron is involved to the point of tormented obsession with the sexual politics of the male group; the drama of its investigation is jarring. The aristocratic Stransky (Maximilian Schell), notable for his natty uniform and regular hair-combing, spots an officer caressing a young soldier. In a brilliantly directed sequence, Stransky chats amiably with the two men about the company of men being preferable to women “in any and all circumstances.” It is clear that the chat is an interrogation. When the two men smile and acquiesce, Stransky explodes with rage, telling the two men he will hang them if he catches them in the sex act. The moment becomes most problematical from a moral standpoint, since the two betray Steiner (James Coburn), who in turn kills them. Without pursuing the matter in depth, I will say that their death is another instance of Peckinpah turning the repressed loose only to tamp it down again. But it returns constantly in this film, as in Steiner leaving his hospital nurse (Senta Berger), who proposes marriage to him, to return to his platoon, even though he professes hatred for the Army, Nazism, and “all that the [leadership] stands for.”
I suggest that none of these films partake of the flimsy cover of Hawks’s “it’s great to hang out with the guys.” The seriousness of purpose to Peckinpah’s study of male love, his denial of it, his constant return to it, is unmatched in the American cinema.
Two issues have to be immediately discussed relative to the sexual politics of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The first concerns the two gay gunsels, Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Johnny Quill (Gig Young). They have some indelible forbears, like Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) in The Big Combo (1955), or the exceedingly more degraded Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith) in Diamonds are Forever (1971) whose elimination by James Bond is made comical, and includes a kind of castration. Needless to say that the evil of the gay villain flows less from a criminal drive than his sexuality. We aren’t with the reptilian Sappensly and Quill that long, but they are not far from their sources – yet Peckinpah offers innovation.
There is an especially unnerving moment when they meet Bennie in the bar. A prostitute touches Sappensly on the groin; he responds by striking her hard on the temple with a quick thrust of his elbow. She falls unconscious, the customers walking around her. The moment is stunning in its brutality, and unnerving in the length it goes to repeat the idea of the faggot as destroyer of the heterosexual world. The moment may make sense (and become digestible) if we read it as hypostatizing the director’s anxieties about sexual politics, especially the bizarre scene late in the film, when Bennie – now possessing Alfredo’s head – collides on the road with some peasants who know that Bennie has desecrated Alfredo’s grave – a tourist bus, and the two gangsters, appear out of nowhere. Sappensly and Quill proceed to mow down the peasants with pistols and a submachine gun. Quill is shot in the process. Sappensly notices his fallen comrade. He falls to his knees in tears as Bennie asks for his money. Sappensly, sobbing, draws his pistol, but is shot by Bennie. The wounded Sappensly ignores Bennie, and instead staggers, grieving, over to his dead partner, saying “Johnny… hey Johnny?” The moment is given full emotion, and not a bit of anti-gay derision. It is a remarkable first in the American cinema, as Peckinpah for a moment removes the two characters from their dramatic context, and elicits sympathy as one man realizes his lover is dead. But this director is the one who, after all, elicited sympathy for the demise of savage killers in The Wild Bunch. Sappensly and Johnny Quill, who have already connected themselves to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (an important film to this director), remind us of the understated relationships between Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) in Ride the High Country, or Pike and Thornton, already discussed.
As mentioned, Bennie’s “partner” becomes the decapitated head of the man who cuckolded him. He drives about the dusty roads of Central Mexico with the bloody parcel as his front-seat passenger. He washes and “dresses” the head, at one point packing it in dry ice (“This’ll cool ya off, Al”). He often addresses it: “Let’s go, Al,” “Come on, Al.” He isn’t expressing humor; as he becomes increasingly deranged by the quest, he forms an intimacy with the head. The film could be said to turn Absurdist, but in so doing it reveals Peckinpah grappling with his ability to find valid relationships only with men, and remain loyal to men even as they “betray” him (I can’t help but think of Robert Culp). But it is so very instructive that the inability of Bennie/Peckinpah to come to terms with male relationships drives him insane.
The romance of the film is, of course, with Elita, who is given a special dignity by Peckinpah. She warns Bennie of his fixations. In the early scene in the posh hotel, Bennie is belligerent (“You’re a no-good bitch”), but when they sit down together, he becomes sheepish. The scenes of the two of them on the road contain the most romantic moments in all of Peckinpah, even as Bennie and Elita enter the grueling rural poverty of Mexico (the scenes evoke Buñuel, and most assuredly take us outside the world of the tourist, although “branding” by the U.S. is a constant – rusty red metal chairs at a tumbledown roadside café are embossed with the Coca-Cola logo). Their squalid dwellings suggest the endurance tests Bennie/Peckinpah imposes on women (“You ought to wake up in Fresno, California… this place looks like a palace”).
But the film is one of the very few action films of the era – certainly among Peckinpah’s work – suggesting the possibility of an authentic heterosexual relationship. The film puts one in mind of The Getaway, where the tacked-on happy ending seems of a piece with the dreadful Steve McQueen/Ali McGraw characters and their tough-guy-who-straightens-out-the-broad relationship. By contrast, Elita is the film’s prophet while also suggesting all that is good about Bennie, and the possibility of Bennie’s moral redemption. She is appalled by his plan to decapitate the corpse of Alfredo and take the head to the gangsters. Through tears, she reminds Bennie of the idea of desecration, to which he responds angrily, citing the church’s bizarre practices in culling relics from dead saints (“Well, Alfredo’s a saint… he’s the saint of our money”). Obviously Bennie’s notion of desecration is as narrow as that of the church, that is, as pragmatic ritual, while Elita, as we watch her in the world of the film, has a full sense of the spiritual. Unlike Bennie, her music comes easily, is never vulgar, and is not tied to money. Bennie is a fully middle-class American whose self has been all but obliterated by the drive for wealth. He can conceive of a relationship with Elita only when he sets his mind to acquiring a fortune fast. He is indeed too much the self-deprecating “loser” to start a life in the suburbs, but he is too shaped by a sense of American norms to think of success in any other terms. With the death of Elita occurs the spiritual death of Bennie; the increasing grimness and bizarrerie of the film, including his eventual physical execution, flow entirely from her removal from his life.
In their final hotel room, Bennie opens the curtain on Elita’s shower, then sits on the floor and says “I love you.” Such a direct expression of affection is rare in Peckinpah’s cinema (the scene may constitute the only such expression), marvelously realized by Oates and Vega. It would seem that Bennie has reached a turning point even as his vision of the future is deformed; the two make their way to the cemetery where Alfredo’s body is interred. Elita accepts Bennie’s plan, since it contains the promise of eventual happiness. She is murdered and the two buried; Bennie is “resurrected,” perhaps by the magic of his acceptance of Elita, to fulfill an extraordinary mission that seems to nullify many contentions of genre cinema and patriarchal rule.
By far the most controversial moment of the film is the waylaying of Bennie and Elita by two bikers, played by Kris Kristofferson and Donny Fritts. The bikers appear in the night, accosting Bennie and Elita at their campfire. The first biker (Kristofferson) takes Elita away, while the second biker (Frittes) holds a gun on Bennie. Bennie tries to rescue Elita, but she cautions him, saying “I’ve been here before, and you don’t know the way.” Elita’s life as a prostitute prepares her, so it seems, to survive the moment. Elita slaps the first biker, who in turn slaps her and tears off her blouse, then oddly walks away. Elita follows him. The first biker sits alone. Elita begins to seduce him. Many viewers have been appalled by the idea that Elita apparently wants to be raped. The accurate answer seems to flow from her line to Bennie “You don’t know the way,” that is, Bennie is inept not in sexual dynamics but entirely, with a tough-guy façade that conceals basic naiveté. Her “seduction” of the biker has many aspects. Is he impotent? Is Elita concerned to maintain his interest as long as possible, thus postponing her death? This seems plausible, but the moment must also be read in the context of the triad that haunts the film – Alfredo was Elita’s lover and Bennie’s rival. The sense of deformation that increases within the film is in evidence here, as the idea of a ménage, an unconventional sexual arrangement, finally explodes in Bennie’s mind. He kills both bikers, and with a sense that his body, his view of the world, have been violated. His shooting of the bikers might be read as an act of jealousy, as “Al” grows larger in his imagination both as rival and as companion – and emanation of himself.
Bennie’s story is a station play, but one of degradation rather than exaltation, except for a brief moment just prior to the end. Bennie has a tragic dimension because he indeed doesn’t “know the way.” His is a very American story about the desire to recreate the self, but it is utterly bereft of any social context or sense of responsibility, as Elita regularly reminds him.
Journey and Recovery
The narrative framework of the film is one of the most basic in film history, indeed in the history of narrative. The myth of journey and recovery is foundational to stories of the hero performing a restorative act by bringing back a person or object symbolizing the unity of the community. The Searchers is a point of reference, but the concept reaches to the Grail myth and the origins of narrative drama. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia might be said to reduce the myth to its core, as the hero becomes ludicrous, his quest possessing no restorative function – on the contrary, Bennie’s story is one of disintegration, the signifiers of decay everywhere, beginning with the omnipresent flies on the bloody sack with its totemic “relic,” a grotesque talisman signifying the world it occupies. Rather than aid the community, Bennie helps in its destruction (the massacre of the Mexican poor by Sappensly and Quill). The journey of Ethan Edwards is seen by his community as essentially selfless, if driven too much by revenge. We know that Edwards’s quest is personal, born out of his love of Martha and profound racism. Films such as Apocalypse Now turn the myth ludicrous simply by overt citation of high-brow texts. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia exposes the quest narrative as repugnant, not only because of the talisman retrieved, but due also to its function in fulfillment of the male ego, portrayed as always already deranged. In this, the film seems outright analytical and materialist, depriving the myth of its idealist origins, and its key function in restoring the patriarchal order.
The film concludes with revolutionary acts, the first being Bennie’s annihilation of Max and the other executive/gangsters in the office suite where Bennie was enlisted in the search for “Al.” The killings are an expression of rage – at the death of Elita, at his depraved Nixonized culture, and his own moral breakdown. He asks the hoodlums if he can keep the picnic basket in which he carries the bloody head, reminiscing about the time he and Elita sat by a tree and made their tentative future plans, one of the many improvisational moments of the film, the two people conveying awkwardness, fear of what is to come, and a genuine tenderness between man and woman so rare in American cinema.
The final scene in El Jefe’s hacienda is extraordinary. It is the antique place we saw at the film’s opening, and the contrast with the paneled offices is once again jarring. As Bennie arrives with the decaying head, El Jefe enjoys raucous festivities after the baptism of his grandson (Alfredo’s child). The fete is not unlike the one at the end of The Wild Bunch, complete with fireworks. Bennie enters the stronghold and presents his prize to El Jefe, who in turn give him a satchel of money, telling him to “throw that (the head) to the pigs.” The dialogue becomes increasingly disjunctive, as Bennie says “Sixteen people are dead because of him…and you and me…and one of them was a damn good friend of mine!” At this point he draws a gun from the picnic basket and proceeds to shoot down El Jefe’s guards. Since they are all armed with Winchester rifles (again, taking us into the past), Bennie’s victory seems utterly fantastic. This is, again, a victory of the hero’s imagination, one that serves the narrative line particularly when Bennie, at the daughter’s command, executes El Jefe. An especially effective moment is the entry of El Jefe’s wife into the stateroom – her face has a modest smile of approval.
Before he shoots El Jefe, Bennie makes another elliptical remark, hushed but foregrounded on the soundtrack: “The first time I saw him, he was dead.” He is no doubt referring to Alfredo, but what does this mean? He mourns the fact of meeting his sexual rival too late, or, more likely it seems to me, mourning an encounter with a dead man with whom he now feels empathy, and with whom he might have had an authentic relationship. Bennie kills the man who ordered the execution of the man he never knew, whose presence, one could say, is notable in its absence, but whose dramatic role is nevertheless palpable: Neither Bennie nor Alfredo has a say in the order of things. This isn’t Peckinpah bemoaning castration; rather, it is a deeply-felt concern for the health of the male psyche, for the ability of the male to form non-competitive friendships with other men. In The Chase (1965), Arthur Penn discusses the possibility of a triadic relationship beyond jealousy in the characters of Bubber, Anna, and Jake. That relationship is destroyed by the monstrous bourgeois society of that film. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, it is annihilated in its very conception, leaving behind what might be called the last male product of patriarchy, a madman.
In the chaos following the shootings, Bennie, still carrying Alfredo’s head, turns to the daughter, handing her the locket that has been the only signifier of Alfredo’s life, his role as an active human being. Bennie says: “You take care of the boy and I’ll take care of the father.” Bennie enacts a radical gesture, destroying patriarchy and turning authority over to the female line, as the daughter holds her infant. Bennie will leave with the remains of the old order. But it is not to be, as Bennie is set upon by men firing Winchesters and machine guns – Bennie killed by past and present. His killers refuse to abandon the old order even as the Primal Father is no more. Bennie’s delusions don’t serve him, as the mythic aspect of the narrative returns us to history. The image freezes on the muzzle of a gun aimed at us, a reminder of the persistent, calcified rule of men, and yet…
The end credits roll against a series of still images recalling moments of the film; some are rather abstract, like the back of Bennie’s dirty jacket, seen through a car window. The dark strings of Jerry Fielding’s final theme appear slowly on the soundtrack, then swell and change chords in an expression of what can only be called joy. We see the actors, so the moment might be a curtain call, but the effect is nowhere that vain. The mood is instead melancholic and elegiac, as we observe the magnificent images by cinematographer Alex Phillips, Jr. The elegy is for another civilization, which men like Peckinpah, by his own admission here, have destroyed.
For Pete Seeger, whose voice, if not angelic, was transcendent, and utterly without guile. His was one of the greatest voices of American resistance.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University and a regular contributor to Film International. He is sickened by the regular use of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations to signify madness and perversity, as in the grisly television series Hannibal, and the recent, ludicrous sci-fi blockbuster Snowpiercer. Bach’s masterpiece, which suggests anything but madness, is supposed to convey irony by its current use in the entertainment industry, suggesting that monsters too can have fine taste – a lesson for children, which we are constantly forced into being.
Fassbinder, Rainer Werner (1983), Querelle: The Film Book, New York: Grove Press.
Sharrett, Christopher (1999), “Peckinpah the Radical: The Politics of The Wild Bunch,” in Stephen Prince (ed.), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, New York and London: Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-109
Thurman, Tom (2004), “Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade,” included on The Wild Bunch: The Original Director’s Cut (Warner DVD, 2006).
Wood, Robin (2006), Howard Hawks, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
__(2008), Rio Bravo, London: British Film Institute.