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– Sam Peckinpah (1)

Sam Peckinpah’s personal relationships all seemed to sour and, time after time, so did his cinematic affairs. While his critical reputation has been variable, since his death in 1984 his work has found legitimate respect and his films are a source of influence for contemporary directors. Major reappraisals – such as David Weddle’s 1994 insightful biography “If They Move…Kill ’Em!”: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, Paul Seydor’s 1997 “Reconsideration” of his 1980 text Peckinpah: The Western Films, and Stephen Prince’s Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies (1998) – have all helped to further establish his legacy as a significant director with a rich artistic vision (2). Most of these publications have also helped to sustain his personal mythology as unpredictable, hot-tempered and impulsive. The late sixties and early seventies were Peckinpah’s most productive period and with the release of The Wild Bunch (1969), he acquired his moniker “Bloody Sam”. At the time of the film’s release, many of the major film magazines, including Cinema, Cineaste, Cinema Journal, Films and Filming, Film Quarterly, and Sight and Sound, and newspapers and magazines such as Entertainment, The New York Times, and The Village Voice, all engaged in debates regarding the film’s violence and its effect on audiences. Straw Dogs, released in 1971, fomented the outrage – Peckinpah became a marketable, yet controversial director. During this period, he gave some of his most volatile interviews to a variety of newspapers and soft porn magazines including Game, Playboy and Adam Film World. With the publication of Kevin Hayes’ edited collection Sam Peckinpah: Interviews, readers have, for the first time, easy access to a chronological selection of these interviews. Fortunately, the 15 interviews, conducted between 1963 and 1982, trace more than just the “trials and tribulations” of this director’s working career.

Hayes’ collection is part of the Conversations with Filmmakers Series, put together by General Editor, Peter Brunette, and published by the University Press of Mississippi. Hayes’ “Introduction” reveals an interesting phenomenon that arises when authors write about artistic figures that are important, even influential, in their lives. Frequently, this phenomenon seems to occur with particular directors – or with specific films. It generally involves an autobiographical moment; the author informs the reader of the place, time and significance of their first encounter with “the work”, and records their “lived life” with this artistic other. The anecdotal hook functions in two ways: initially to draw the reader into the tale, and then to establish the author’s credentials as a fan (as well as specialist), who can be trusted as a source of information for the “artist’s” body of work. In the introduction to this particular text, Hayes familiarises us with his first experience of Peckinpah’s work in the form of The Getaway (1972), acknowledging that while he saw the film on a black-and-white, thirteen-inch Zenith television that could only reproduce a “shadow of the original”, he “recognised a film of extraordinary power.” (p. vii) This viewing occurred while he was living in Oklahoma and attending graduate school. An Oklahoman, Jim Thompson wrote the novel on which the film is based and Hayes sensed kindred spirits in Thompson, Peckinpah and Oklahoma’s lingering “frontier sensibility” (p. viii). I have bothered to discuss Hayes’ desire to detail the autobiographical experience that initiates this relation not simply to draw attention to its function as a generic tool or technical device; rather, to acknowledge the way in which particular artists’ works, in this case films, colour our lives.

Apart from Hayes’ personal interest in this director, his justifications for this collection are solid – Peckinpah gave numerous interviews during his career, yet many of these are currently not available on the Internet. In fact, Hayes claims much “periodical literature from the sixties and the seventies has so far eluded electronic reproduction.” (p. viii) Approximately half of the interviews are sourced from film journals such as Film Heritage, Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound, which are available through university libraries. But for the general reading public, access to these sources is more difficult. Other interviews are supplied by a variety of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post and Playboy, most of which are online, but not all of them have extensive archiving of early publications. While access is one validation, a more interesting element of the selection of interviews is how they reveal Peckinpah’s inspirations and obsessions, and how they chart the development of his public persona. Yet they also bear witness to his physical and mental decline.

Hayes comments that what these interviews offer the reader is an understanding of the director’s influences and “his relationship to the filmmaking community”; they also help us “trace his intellectual interests.” (p. xi) As mentioned throughout different interviews, his favourite directors include Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Elia Kazan and John Huston; more surprising is his frequent reference to Robert Ingersoll, the nineteenth-century orator. Robert Ardrey’s “pseudoscientific works” on the relation of “man’s behaviour to the realm of animals” are also frequently discussed (p. xi). Ardrey’s work is a reference point for Peckinpah’s own atavistic explanations of his characters’ actions, the extremes of which are outlined in his now classic Playboy interview with William Murray. In discussing the spiral of violence into which his main character, David (Dustin Hoffman), descends in Straw Dogs, the director expounds: “I think it’s wrong – and dangerous – to refuse to acknowledge the animal nature of man…. [The film] is about a guy who finds out a few nasty secrets about himself…” (pp. 103-104). This is also the interview that helped cement his reputation as a “misogynist”. However, his sexist comments are in sharp contrast to earlier interviews in which he heaps praise on the young actress, Mariette Hartley, who played Elsa in Ride the High Country (1962), and Stella Stevens, who played Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). In part, one imagines that Peckinpah was playing to an assumed Playboy audience; on the other hand, at this mid point in his career, bad, mad behaviour is an expectation of his public persona. As Murray puts it, he is known to be “as unpredictable as a snake” (p. 98).

Taken as a whole, the interviews sketch a progression – a life’s trajectory – that incorporates several phases, some easy to forget when confronted by the mythology of “Bloody Sam”. They also reveal his impulsiveness and the inconsistencies in his comments, particularly in relation to individuals with whom he worked. In the earlier interviews, he openly discusses his admiration for particular individuals and his influences, while the later interviews are littered with abuse, slander and bitterness. Ernest Callenbach’s 1963 interview, “A Conversation with Sam Peckinpah”, begins the book. Callenbach met with Peckinpah just before he headed to Mexico for the Major Dundee (1965) shoot. They discuss the director’s training and extensive work in television before his move to filmmaking with The Deadly Companions (1961), which he had little control over. Ride the High Country, particularly its enormous success in Europe, is also the focus of much discussion. Kevin Thomas’ brief piece, “Sam Peckinpah, Director without a Movie”, captures him just as he is emerging from the artistic wilderness imposed by troubles on the Dundee set and his having been fired from The Cincinnati Kid (Norman Jewison, 1965). Joe Medjuck, in “Sam Peckinpah Lets it All Hang Out”, finds the director just at the point of The Wild Bunch’s release when, due to censorship, further editing was being requested. Stephen Farber’s insightful pre-interview discussion in “Peckinpah’s Return” acknowledges the “instinctive” nature of the director’s work (p. 36). The director is measured in his comments about working with Warners, where he made The Wild Bunch, and his praise for the producer, Phil Feldman, is glowing. “Shoot! Sam Peckinpah Talks to John Cutts” was undertaken at a similar time. Cutts discusses the director’s work thus far and his hopes for the success of The Wild Bunch. The “Sam and Stella” interview with Lee Jenson is enormously playful, revealing an obvious repartee between the director and his star, Stella Stevens. Peckinpah talks in depth about his films, his use of the Western genre and his predilection for loners and losers. Dan Yergin’s “Peckinpah’s Progress: From Blood and Killing in the Old West to Siege and Rape in Rural Cornwall” is conducted while the director is on the Straw Dogs shoot in rural Britain, post the success of The Wild Bunch. The conscientious tone of the earlier interviews has disappeared; weary, the director has little to offer the discussion and Yergin feels he is acting a part – “the last of a kind, a breed verging on extinction” (p. 90). Jeff Millar’s brief “Peckinpah Gets Nonviolent (Off Screen)” offers an insight into the director’s working relations with the star of Junior Bonner (1972) and The Getaway, Steve McQueen. Millar voices his concerns to the director about his volatile reputation and is comforted with the line, “I don’t punch people anymore.” (p. 92)

The first seven interviews are all conducted before the outrage generated by Straw Dogs; the residual effect is that we feel we are not dealing with a new talent, but a very sophisticated television director moving across media forms. Although Callenbach prophetically comments in the first interview, “[s]o long as [Peckinpah’s] vision does not become too harsh, too flamboyant, or too unorthodox, he should be able to work freely and successfully” (p. 6), apparent across the interviews is the sense of a thoughtful, hard-working man, generous in his admiration of his crew, actors and even some of the studios. In Medjuck’s interview, the director claims that Feldman “mutilated The Wild Bunch” (p. 22), but for all the right reasons. Instead of slamming the studios, behaviour for which he became notorious, he claims that the problems were his own. In Richard Whitehall’s interview, he says, “it was my responsibility for going to work under those conditions” (p. 52), thereby acknowledging his own failure to set protocols around the filmmaking process.

The interviews conducted after Straw Dogs reveal the director’s increasing instability, declining health and reputation. Talking with Peckinpah, the writer Rudy Wurlitzer and some of the crew during the Mexican shoot of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Jan Aghed’s piece captures the richness of the creative process. In “The Wild Bunch in New York”, John Bryson outlines a couple of days in late July 1974, when he trailed Peckinpah on his publicity tour for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). The hostility towards certain individuals is palpable, but the piece is fascinating as a document of the times registering Peckinpah’s level of significance as a filmmaker, partly through the critics he meets with, such as Pauline Kael, and his television appearance on Today with show host, Barbara Walters. F. Anthony Macklin’s “Mort Sahl Called Me a 1939 American” was held at the Burbank Studio where Peckinpah had just finished The Killer Elite (1975) and when he was about to head to Yugoslavia to begin shooting his only war film, Cross of Iron (1977). The interview opens with the director and Macklin discussing their sons’ soccer teams, revealing one of the few insights into the director’s family life. Peckinpah is at times abusive; in contradiction to earlier interviews, he slanders Warners and Feldman in relation to the cuts made to The Wild Bunch. But Macklin does manage to elicit from the director his perception of his audience, particularly his desire to make them feel on a “sensual level” (p. 150). In “Peckinpah Wrests Convoy from an Eighteen-Wheel Wild Bunch”, Aljean Harmetz interviews the director following the huge European success of Cross of Iron, but its failure – along with his two previous films – in the United States. Peckinpah, currently undertaking a period of abstinence, acknowledges that he was a “working drunk” (p. 158). The interview outlines the statistical nightmare of organising the semi-trailer stunts for Convoy (1978), and its lack of financial support. Any reader familiar with Peckinpah’s work, his attention to character and the nuances of dialogue, will be saddened by the reduction of such a talent to orchestrating “smash-up-derby” stunts. “Last of the Desperadoes: Dueling with Sam Peckinpah” by E. Jean Carroll is the last piece in the book and, fittingly, it never actually culminates in an interview. Carroll notes,

I have been told three things about dealing with Peckinpah: I am not supposed to forget he is a genius; I am not supposed to be impolite; and I am not supposed to forget he can be a real ass, though he is a great director and made some fine films and had some great times. (pp. 166-167)

Writing in 1982, she met with Peckinpah not long after he had major heart surgery and was living in Montana, writing scripts. While Hayes claims she captured the director “in some, rare, unguarded moments” (p. xvi), I think the most significant element of the piece is the way it reveals two things: at this stage in his career, Peckinpah is media savvy to the point where he plays with the interviewer, constantly toying with the possibility of granting her an interview if she gets the answers to his questions right; but it also highlights his erratic behaviour, and mental and artistic decline.

Hayes notes that it is the “policy of the present series not to edit or abridge its inclusions” to “enhance the textual integrity” of the interviews (p. xv), even though the strategy does led to repetitions. Unfortunately, where these repetitions become particularly laboured is around the constant restatement of biographical details, particularly about the director’s early years growing up in rural Fresno, in a family of judges and lawyers. These concerns aside, the significance of the book is found in the way the interviews chart the director’s public persona through its development, peak and decline. In actuality, in these dialogues Peckinpah offers the reader very little in the way of new insights into his working processes, or thoughts about films. Yet the book also stands as a source for some of the best interviewers of the time; Callenbach, Farber and Murray all seem far better able to elucidate the complexities of the director’s films.

Sam Peckinpah: Interviews, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2008.

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Endnotes

  1. Peckinpah quoted in John Bryson, “The Wild Bunch in New York”, in Hayes, pp. 137-144, p. 140.
  2. David Weddle, “If They Move…Kill ’Em!”: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, Grove Press, New York, 1994; Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films – A Reconsideration, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1997 [1980]; Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998.

About The Author

Gabrielle Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Cinema & Media Studies program at La Trobe University in Australia. Her research areas include screen violence, phenomenology, film and philosophy, and æsthetics. She is the author of This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, and has contributed chapters to the anthologies The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand and Super/Heroes.