SAM PECKINPAH: WHAT PRICE VIOLENCE?

2017-10-07T08:43:57-07:00 August 18th, 2017|Categories: CINEMA, INTERVIEWS, SAM PECKINPAH|Tags: , |
  • Cornered in a ramshackle hotel, MacGraw and Steve McQueen blast away in The Getaway's climactic gun battle

by P. F. Kluge

All right, everyone. Sit down or clear out.” Director Sam Peckinpah has come to a ranch house in the hill country of south Texas to make The Getaway, a movie about a bank robbery. He stands in a trophy room crammed with stuffed heads and tanned skins and racked guns, a room where killing comes out of the woodwork, and begins expertly planning a murder of his own. Peckinpah has prospered as a virtuoso in violence. and now his crew and his actors brace themselves for what an aide calls “a Sam Peckinpah special.”
At the edge of the room, distraught about the .32 Colt revolver she holds in her hand and with the film mayhem she is about to commit, stands Ali MacGraw. Not faraway, Steve McQueen holds a black leather valise full of stolen money. Behind a heavy felt-topped table sits veteran movie actor Ben Johnson, calmly nursing a glass of bourbon and waiting to be murdered.
No one speaks while Peckinpah paces the living room, intent and preoccupied. He measures the distance from Ali MacGraw’s revolver to the pockets of prop blood sewn into Johnson’s suit and visualizes the impact of bullets slamming into the villain’s chest. He pictures Johnson’s belated effort to stand and shoot, imagines the bleeding backward flight as Johnson spins out of a chair, plunges across a table and collapses, dying, on the floor.
”How many shots do you want me to take?” Peckinpah’s villain asks.
“How many shots does he fire?”
“Six,” a prop man replies.
“Six. Take four. No, take three.” says Peckinpah. “You start to get up. take a shot, push the chair back, start to get up again, take two more. You go back over the table and there you land on the floor, all covered with . . .”
The director pauses.
“… peanut butter.”

Peckinpah enjoys a wry joke about the violence he puts on screen. Others see no humor in it. By the time he finishes The Getaway. Peckinpah w ill have put on film the death of a gunned-down bank guard, the shooting of a mutinous bank robber, and the slaughter of a whole gang of crooks killed in a climactic hotel shootout. But the most appalling scene of all will be one he personally grafted onto the original script. Peckinpah’s added touch: A bank robber enters a hotel bathroom and discovers a corpse hanging from a water pipe. Barely glancing at the suicide, the robber sits at the toilet, nonchalantly thumbing through a newspaper.
“I think it’s a good scene,” Peckinpah contends. “It’s how a man like that would behave.”
Scenes like this will keep Sam Peckinpah at the center of one of America’s loudest controversies: the debate about the nature and effect of violence in movies. Around Sam Peckinpah’s creased and furrowed head—the thin, shaggy hair, the white goatee, the lines that radiate from the corners of his eyes, the tired rasping voice, the wary, searching eyes—revolve some troubled questions. Do Hollywood’s gunnings and garrotings, rapes and beatings lead to a shocked comprehension of things as they are, and a desire to change them? Or do they inspire new extremes of violence, new waves of role-playing, of gangsters studying gangster films, 20th-century cowboys zapping Vietnamese Indians?
For Sam Peckinpah, the questions began building in 1969, when he released his western, The Wild Bunch. This account of the last days of a doomed outlaw band wandering through the Southwest just before World War I portrayed a frontier lifestyle on the edge of extinction. Fine tones of elegy wound through the film, but most noticed were its violent beginning and ending, “ballets of blood,” scenes where Peckinpah choreographed and orchestrated the extermination of his outlaws, alternating fast movements—attacks, shrieks, explosions—with slow, nearly lyrical interludes, when dying men fell with a grace and color they never achieved in life. His next film. The Ballad of Cable Hogue, showed another side of Peckinpah, benign and lyrical. But late last year Sam Peckinpah was back with his crudest film yet, Straw Dogs.
Even without a contribution from Peckinpah, other films of the past year would be remembered for their recurrent brutality, for more and technically better violence than we have ever seen. Cop pictures like The French Connection and Dirty Harry show police at least as brutal as the crooks they fight. A Clockwork Orange accompanies an amoral London youth who whistles his way through assault, rape and murder. The Godfather offers a relentless barrage of slaughter by gun and by garrote. Even The Cowboys, a family-audience John Wayne picture, takes a puzzling turn toward brutality when its adolescent gunslingers massacre a pack of rustlers. But in a season of movie savagery, no movie has aroused a more shocked outcry than Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s study of the metamorphosis of an uncommitted, otherworldly mathematician into a resourcefully clever killer who scalds opponents with homemade acid, slices their wrists on window glass and—in a scene that may never be forgotten or forgiven—strangles one of his foes in the jaws of a mammoth mantrap.
In England, where Straw Dogs was made, British critics wondered whether the film should have been passed by the censors. Critical opinion in the United States split violently down the middle. Peckinpah was called a film-making genius. He also was called sick, obsessed, a wallower in gore, king of the catsup-squirters. He was “unmistakably and prodigally an artist,” claimed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. And, she added, he had made “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.”
Sam Peckinpah doesn’t cope well with the issues that have descended upon him. He discusses what he calls “the strange aesthetic beauty of violence” in The Wild Bunch, but his words sound prerecorded. He delivers his interpretation of Straw Dogs —that the mathematician was intended to be the villain, not the hero—in a halfhearted tone, as if he himself were not much convinced of it. He does appear enthusiastic when he discusses author Robert Ardrey’s studies of animal elements in human behavior. But even this admiration seems given as if to deflect direct analysis of his own work- Inevitably, Peckinpah’s paragraphs break into sentences, dwindle into shrugging one-liners which he has said before and finds it convenient to use again. One searches in vain for Sam Peckinpah’s vision of what is happening to us, his sense of the tensions and anxieties and cruelties which surround us and which are reflected in his films Instead, there is a different kind of vision in Sam Peckinpah, narrow and deep, and running in the direction of his personal past.

While directing The Getaway, Peckinpah sleeps badly and wakes early, as early as 4 a.m., and often after upsetting nightmares, “anxiety dreams about the picture—that I’m on the wrong set, that it’s the wrong picture.” Soon after waking, he drinks a glass of vodka, mulls over the day’s shooting schedule, perhaps takes a second short sleep before breakfast. Arriving on the set, he sometimes jokes with his crew—more than half of whom he’s worked with on other films—but more often he sits in cool silence. Sometime during the middle of the day he switches to gin and Campari. By dusk he’s back to vodka or Scotch.
He has a reputation as a hard-drinking, tough-talking gunslinger-director, and he sometimes goes out of his way to live up to it. He answers questions about his work with weary, irritated, profane sentences. It’s as if his frequently unquotable language will save his answers from close scrutiny by keeping them out of print but will preserve his reputation as a bellicose maverick. It’s a reputation he has fostered by castigating fans who crowd his cameras on location, by breaking wind during an interview, by referring to William Shakespeare as the “Big S,” and even by deriding himself as nothing more than “a good whore who goes where she’s kicked.”
At night, when he’s not tired, Peckinpah sometimes likes to talk, and talks well. He doesn’t talk about his films, or other men’s films, but turns back to his pioneer family, the already distant time and place where he was born. He remembers California’s San Joaquin Valley, where his father’s father homesteaded near Fresno and, in 1871, built a sawmill on a place that came to be called Peckinpah Mountain.
“My father, David Peckinpah, was a cowboy, and when he was 18 he went to work for a rancher named Denver Church, who was a superior court judge and a member of the U.S. Congress at the time of the First World War. My father married his boss’s daughter, finished two years of high school in six weeks.”
Peckinpah’s grandfather, his father and his brother all served as superior court judges in California, and one hears something wistful in his voice when he remembers them, when he recalls the dates and details of his grandfather’s speeches in the U.S. Congress of almost 60 years ago, when he talks of his father’s scholarship and discipline, or even his mother’s gardening: “She could touch a stick of wood and tomorrow you would find it blooming. There are trees she planted that are 150 feet tall now in front of houses all over Fresno. But what a power of will! If she did not want the sun to rise tomorrow, it would not rise.” Peckinpah rarely returns to Fresno—“it depresses me too much, it all looks like another part of Los Angeles.” But when he talks about his home, you hear more than reminiscence, more than nostalgia, more even than the voice of a loyal if amply prodigal son. It is as if the loss of the past, the corner of the American West he was born in, has led to his bitter regard for the present. Beauty and violence are all tied and tangled in the best of his work. So, too, are his tribute to his father’s world and his trembling anger at his own surroundings.
“If it could only be like what they told us it would be like when we were kids,” Sam Peckinpah muses.
“Like what?” he’s asked.
“Oh, you know what I mean ..His answer trails away.

You and I are about talked out, aren’t we?” Sam Peckinpah says late one Sunday afternoon. “Let’s finish it this afternoon. After I’ve had a few drinks I talk better. Come over to the house and we can wrap it up.”
The session does not begin well. Tired of talking before he begins, Peckinpah reclines on a chaise longue, drinking and smoking. Sometimes he parries questions, tosses off one-liners. Sometimes he explodes at them. Sometimes he loses himself in fascinated study of the squirrels foraging on a nearby lawn. “Know what I’d do if I had a beautiful squirrel like that? I’d buy a cat.” You have to go through this, have to get through the jokes, the snorts, the vulgarity, all have to be gotten through before Sam Peckinpah begins to take his own words seriously.
He talks nostalgically about the China he saw as a marine in the ’40s, bitterly about the Hollywood establishment which kept him unemployed for three years in the mid’60s, affectionately about the Mexico where he now feels more at home than in America. He describes the roadless mountain village in Mexico to which he plans to fly when The Getaway is finished. And then the subject turns to violence.
“Violence?” he cries, sitting up in the chaise longue. “They were ragging me about all the violence in The Wild Bunch. And then, four months later, they sprang Mylai on us. When I was in China during World War II, another marine told me—boasted to me—that he’d thrown a Chinese woman down on a concrete platform and raped her, hit her head against the pavement, and after he was done she didn’t move. I’d been practically adopted by a Chinese family. I actually decided I was going to kill him. I went out and stole a gun, a Russian gun, and offered to sell it to him. You know, the souvenir mentality. When I sold it to him, I was going to kill him. Put the barrel of the gun right up under his chin and pull the trigger. The night before our meeting, I saw him standing there, completely blind. Permanently blind. He’d drunk some bad whiskey. If it hadn’t been for that, I might be in prison today.”
It is nearly dark in Texas, and cool pauses stretch out between Peckinpah’s drinks and cigarettes and words. “I thought my films were having a good effect on some small groups of people,” he says. “But a foreign correspondent told me a story which turned my stomach. During the civil war in Nigeria, the Nigerian troops had been sitting on their asses for weeks, not advancing against the Biafrans. Then they showed The Wild Bunch to the troops. The Nigerians went out of their minds. They shot their guns in the movie. The soldiers shot their guns at the movie. And the next day they went off to battle, shouting that they wanted to die like William Holden. I heard that story and I vomited, to think that I had made that film.”
Peckinpah retires to his house to make some phone calls and have a couple more drinks. He had come as close as he was able to putting his thoughts into words, which was hard for him to do, and which was much different from feeding his feelings into pictures. As a cultural celebrity, he is a distinct disappointment.

In a land troubled by mindless spasms of violence, one hoped that the man who has captured violence in his films had some special reading on where we are headed, where he might be leading us. But what he is offering in his films is not so much a vision of society as a reflection of his own disappointments over how the America of his past and dreams has changed. The controversy over Straw Dogs has given him no wider view. He will keep working, keep scratching away at his itching discontent, fiercely scratching for relief from boredom, anger and sorrow. Gleefully scratching, in fact, despite whatever pain and infection may follow.
Maybe the destruction and self-destruction in his films are the marks of a sick society. But one can’t look to Sam Peckinpah for any diagnosis or any cure. He is too wrapped up in his own complaints.

A few moments before he is to be shot by Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson leans back in a comfortable chair behind a felt-topped table in the living room set. Ali MacGraw holds the Colt revolver. Later she will recall the difficulty of playing this scene. She will say that she returned home upset and “sat catatonic in the bathtub for an hour with a Scotch in my hand.” But now, Peckinpah signals for silence, Ali MacGraw holds the Colt at arm’s length—awkward as hell, but dangerous—and squeezes the trigger.
The shots sound through the house and, just then, a special-effects man touches the end of a wire which runs up the leg of Ben Johnson’s suit, detonating the explosive powder set in a metal washer attached to the three plastic pouches of prop blood sewn into the chest of Johnson’s jacket. Off-camera, prop men quickly yank a rope tied to Johnson’s chair so that the chair, along with his spinning body, will show the impact of the shots that kill him. Johnson reels backward, his shirt, his suit, his plastic pouches explode open and blood begins coursing from three locations in his chest. At last he lies bleeding, at the edge of a lion-skin rug.
Ali MacGraw registers shock at the mess she has made of Ben Johnson. Cameras running, she follows McQueen to the door of the house. And from very nearby comes the voice of Sam Peckinpah, seeking to keep the look of horror on his heroine’s face.
“Come on, Ali,’’ the voice says. “Out the door. Look at old Ben on the floor. He looks pretty. You really sort of enjoyed it.”

LIFE, 11 August 1972, pp. 47-54

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