Truest Grit

Andrew Hultkrans on the films of Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah, Straw Dogs, 1971, still from a color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes. Amy Sumner (Susan George).

“Times have changed,” says newly elected sheriff Pat Garrett to his erstwhile partner, Billy the Kid, at the beginning of the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film that bears their names. “Times, maybe, not me,” replies the Kid. It’s as good a summation of Peckinpah—the work and the man—as any critic’s encomium. Best known for his “revisionist” westerns, mostly set in the early twentieth century, Peckinpah evoked an America that had run out of frontier, doubled back on itself, and was beginning to fence land, pave roads, and enforce laws. This was the country where his characters—Billy the Kid, the Wild Bunch, Cable Hogue—tried to shoot or scheme their way out of anachronism, almost always to fail; the country where technology and “progress” took the Wild out of the West and made it safe for organized capitalism, much like an industrious colony of ants smothering a scorpion.

Peckinpah is an American maverick who makes Clint Eastwood look like John McCain. His legion of imitators—has there ever been a director whose style has been so shamelessly, and shallowly, lifted?—mistook the bloodshed for bloodlust, deep melancholy for cheap comedy. For every Martin Scorsese, there’s three or more pale riders—Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and Robert Rodriguez, say—whose balletic orgies of violence go no more than skin deep. You can laugh (I have) at a cop getting his ear sliced off or at Bruce Willis with a discipline ball in his mouth in a Tarantino film. You can also laugh at Warren Oates in Peckinpah’s 1974 classic Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (I certainly have), losing his clip-on tie while trying to talk tough with the big boys or having his tête-à-tête conversations with Al’s severed head in the passenger seat. But in Tarantino, laughter is all that’s warranted. In Peckinpah, you’re laughing to keep yourself from crying.

“To live outside the law, you must be honest,” Bob Dylan, a bit player in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, once said. This is true for Peckinpah’s honorable antiheroes, who would rather commit suicide in an apotheosis of futile bloodletting than live within the law in an institutionally corrupt “civilization.” His films speak to us more now than they did in the ’70s. Who today will refuse to shut up and take the money, like Oates at the end of Alfredo Garcia, even if it means his certain death? Who today will simply say no? Peckinpah puts us all to shame.

“Sam Peckinpah: Blood Poet” screens at Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA, from September 5 to September 12. For more information, click here.