By Vivaan Shah
The images from Sam Peckinpah’s films seem to bubble and swell out of the filmmaker’s subconscious – what Freud called ‘the dream state’. Time and again he abandons chronological continuity and traditional film grammar in favour of the figurative. He has non-linear sequences instead of non-linear narratives, and deconstructs the very medium of cinema itself in an aggressively proto-Godardian fashion. Like Scorsese, he was very much an editor’s director. Both filmmakers practiced a fractured and splintered film syntax, using editing to provide psychological nuance. One particular instance leaps to mind – the opening of the 1972 film, The Getaway, which in one expertly extended montage presents the monotonous horrors of prison life. Steve McQueen’s Doc McCoy sits silently in the isolation of his prison cell and Peckinpah cuts to an extreme close-up of his lover Ali McGraw caressing the back of his neck. It’s a deeply sensual moment, and it only adds to the torment. Although this technique had reached the American mainstream by 1967 in full force with the one-two punch of Point Blank, and Bonnie and Clyde, it is with Peckinpah and Scorsese that these newfound European techniques fully flowered and seeped into mainstream audience sensibilities.
They broke down the fragmentary editing patterns introduced by filmmakers like Godard and Alan Resnais, or even British ones like Richard Lesterand, filmmakers from the American underground such as Shirley Clarke, Amos Vogel, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brakhage, and applied them to Hollywood genre fare. Notions of time and space began to change. The combining of two shots when put together in a certain way would yield a third additional shot in the mind’s eye with an additional meaning all its own. As the classic example goes – if you have a man glowering at the ground and you cut to a dog drinking water (which is what he’s looking at) it means that he is probably thirsty, whereas if you cut instead to a dead body that changes the entire meaning and also alters the expression on his face. In essence, this was what Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s montage theory was all about. This later gave way to the MTV montage style, keenly appropriated by music videos. The Eisenstein-ein audacity of Peckinpah’s editing however is probably wilder and more primordial, almost guttural. Which is probably why it is harder to appreciate, because of how close to the bone-marrow of consciousness it is.
First and foremost, Peckinpah loves lizards and the light brown arid terrain of the American Southwest. He often tends to cut freely to whatever catches his fancy in the folly of the passing moment. The intuitiveness of Peckinpah’s filmmaking stands out – even amongst august New Hollywood company like Altman, Ashby and Penn – bordering almost on the stream of consciousness, what Pauline Kael referred to as a ‘cinema sense’. It’s safe to say that I got the same kicks out of Peckinpah that most people get out of Godard. There’s something deeply broken and bruised about him and his films. They are not pleasant. It’s not quite the Cinema of Unpleasantness as practiced by Scorsese, Fritz Lang and Samuel Fuller, or the feel-bad cinema of William Friedkin, but perhaps something equally troubling. There’s no logical sense to why Peckinpah shows you what he does show you. His free associating has often baffled critics and audiences alike. Like Sergio Leone, he completely transformed the traditional American Western into a thing of sordid ugliness. His outlaws donned grime-stained apparel, picking the gold teeth out of carcasses, beating vultures to the chase. The gruff beards and aggressively unkempt hair evoked a post-Altamont Hippie nightmare. Bodies writhe in slow motion, their deaths elongated beyond the point of despair and common human science; horses crash through glass windows collapsing on genteel, frill-laced, manikins, and ornamental accoutrements. A body falls through time and space from a roof to the floor in a period which seems to feel like eternity, elevating the entire bloody ritualized massacre into the realm of the Gothic.
Despite the fierce modernity of these films, there is also something determinedly old Hollywood about them. Like Kubrick, Ken Russell, Altman, Ashby, Penn, and Roger Corman, Peckinpah belonged to the pre-hippie generation, the World War II generation, those born in the 20s. So by the time the glorious 60s came around, they were already middle-aged and white-haired – not exactly The Rolling Stones or The Beatles embodiments of youth. You can see Peckinpah’s affection for the stubbornness of William Holden’s steely-eyed old establishment values. The growling Edmond O’Brien in The Wild Bunch is one of the quintessential Peckinpah characters. A crusty, tobacco-toothed old timer obsessed with gold – a curmudgeon worthy of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The gormful graces of Robert Ryan… the watchful assertiveness of Ben Johnson (a pillar of the Old West)… Robert Preston’s rambunctiousness and not to mention the quiet coquetry of Ida Lupino. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is filled with such types from Jack Elam to Slim Pickens, old hands of the West, real cowboys who cut their teeth on the Hollywood mill, playing heels, henchmen and second and third bananas.
The ghost of Old Hollywood Past hovers unassumingly over Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And even though there’s Dylan and Kristofferson, they both look on at Coburn like he’s some heroic hyena from long gone combat days, a senior in school, and a structure of elderly agility. Coburn’s grins sometimes carry the cretinous coyness of Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters, his voice at times resembles Lee Marvin’s leering lilt. But anyone who has grown up watching him in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, will place him instinctively in the pantheon of old-guard new-time action stars like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Jason Robards, and Oliver Reed. These guys had toughness and wounded masculinity that’s impossible to articulate. Out here the old guard is represented by such fossils as Chil Wills, Gene Evans, R.G Armstrong, Barry Sullivan, Richard Jaeckel and even Paul Fix – in a particularly moving bit of casting, considering Peckinpah’s collaboration with him on the 50s television show, The Rifleman. But this was and still remains, through and through, one of the formative counter cultural Westerns along with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. They had Leonard Cohen, this film has Dylan, whose soulful compositions double up as background score and source music, in one particularly elegiac scene in which ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is deployed over a death scene. The melancholy of the scene derives from the perfect harmony of the vocal, the visual and the aural. L.Q Jones’ lines, Dylan’s strumming, Slim Pickens’ and his wife Katy Jurado’s (a fascinating character and even more fascinating bit of casting) tearful yearning – it all synthesizes together in one of the more transcendent moments in the cinema, anticipating similar usages of acoustic longing in the films of Wes Anderson – the direct line to which can be found in the acoustic scores of this film and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, which contains Cat Stevens’ music. Both Dylan’s and Stevens’ scores in these films are haunting and ballad-like.
Watch this film and surrender to its languid rhythms and cadences. It’s slow but it’s surreptitiously steady. A restored cut of it is available. Apparently the studio had mutilated it upon its original release and Peckinpah even famously urinated on the screen after a screening of it. The opening sequence of this movie contains its essence. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the history of the cinema, and is truly abstract in a way that is unique to this medium and no other. It’s a precursor in many ways to Oliver Stone and Robert Richardson’s aesthetic digressions, as is the scorpion opening of The Wild Bunch or the Iguana at the onset of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Study these in relation to Stone’s openings of Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. There’s definitely a cinematic blood relation. One could also study these openings in relation to the brutal Blind School opening sequence of Don Siegel’s 1964 film The Killers, which is in many ways a precursor to Pulp Fiction.
The cinematographers Lucien Ballard and the editor Lou Lombardo were Peckinpah’s key collaborators. With a sepia-tinged prologue, we go backwards and forwards in time, as Pat Garrett is shot through the chest and brought back to life via virtuoso editing. Billy the Kid takes a shot in 1881 at a bunch of chickens and it hits Pat Garrett in a horse carriage in 1909. When Garrett’s actual assassin takes aim from his rifle it hits Billy’s chickens in 1881. It sets the intent of the tale right away – Pat Garrett’s persistent pursuit of Billy the kid and Billy’s ambivalence and ultimate sadness towards it. The love-hate relationship, the careless camaraderie of the men – all great provincial, rumpled outlaws assembled aside Kristofferson’s beautifully melancholic performance. And, the gentle finger picking of a guitar over shots of gruesome violence, the lyrical and the lacerating. It’s the quintessence of Peckinpah. Peckinpah believed in violence as a purging of the sickness – in the Greek tradition of Catharsis, that the viewer by being subjected to the carnage would be sickened by it. Out here as Pauline Kael said, “he pours new wine into the old bottle of the Western and explodes the bottle.” She described his searing visions as ‘imagery as ambivalent as Goya’.
To me it’s important that Don Siegel was Sam Peckinpah’s mentor. There are aesthetic similarities as well as thematic resonances. He could have been as the wiser old brother, ultimately less wild, but equally if not more brutal. Siegel’s violence hurt the flesh whereas Peckinpah’s tortured the soul. It wasn’t fun and games, Cowboys and Indians going ‘Bang Bang’. They wanted to give the viewer a sense of what violence actually does to the human body, but not in a gratuitous or exploitative way. There was a Wagnerian weight to their imagery and their sounds. Don Siegel was definitely the successor to Raoul Walsh and although Peckinpah was seen as heir to John Ford, he seemed to be more enthusiastic about Michael Curtiz and John Huston. The tough guy no-nonsense Warner Bros breed of action directors definitely informed and influenced Peckinpah’s aesthetic and he also shared with them their sense of adventure. Major Dundee is the closest we can get to a Peckinpah swashbuckler. In fact he was planning a Pirate picture or a remake of Rudyard Kipling’s Soldiers Three with the drummer of The Who and Keith Moon. One of his first films Ride the High Country was seen as a culmination of the Ranown Westerns, but surprisingly he wasn’t too hot on Budd Boetticher. I am sure he loved the vistas of Anthony Mann, the dramatic distortions of Samuel Fuller (see Forty Guns), Howard Hawks’ team work, George Stevens’ pioneering and prospecting, Wild Bill Wellman’s wanderings in the wilderness, and just as Robert Aldrich can be seen as Sergio Leone’s stylistic Godfather (see Vera Cruz and The Last Sunset) Raoul Walsh, Don Siegel, and John Huston also represent different aspects of the Peckinpah psyche. He is the culmination of the wild old west, drawing equally from the literary traditions of Bret Harte, Jack London, B Traven, and Herman Melville. One of the old world prospectors who came to tinsel town to seek gold and found ground.
He seemed to also to be fascinated by and carry a deep-seated affection towards rural Mexican culture. His use of mariachi ballads, and traditional folk imagery have a warmth that is not usually associated with his work. Think also of his association with Emilio Fernandez, one of the foundational forces of the Mexican film industry. There are evocations also of the cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa, whom Huston was fortunate enough to have gotten to work with. To them both – Peckinpah and Huston, Mexico represents liberation – spiritual and transformative as well as redemptive – from America, from the studio front-office, perhaps even from themselves. For as others have noted Peckinpah often tended to be his own worst enemy as the cliché goes. Even his later works like The Osterman Weekend and Cross of Iron carry the guttural groans of Peckinpah’s essential torment. He was a deeply self-destructive person. And he often put his phantoms up onto the screen uninhibitedly. The demolition of Junior Bonner’s house by a bulldozer is a Proustian daymare of Peckinpah’s past, as is the concluding image of Pat Garrett firing at his own reflection in a mirror. If there is one sentence which sums up Peckinpah it’s a line from the opening sequence of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which finds James Coburn telling Kris Kristofferson a paraphrased version of Dylan’s “The times they are a changing”, to which Kristofferson replies, “Times maybe, not me.”
Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently, he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.
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