Western Month – Sam Peckinpah: A Closer Look – Part 1

It’s no wonder the Western genre attracted Sam Peckinpah. With enough sex and violence to fill a millinery shop’s worth of ten-gallon hats, it’s easy to see how Peckinpah, who was known as a rowdy, hard-drinking, hard-living man, could find it alluring. But that was not Peckinpah’s attraction. In Sam Peckinpah’s masterful hands, the Western film, specifically set in the very last gasps of the period, became a study in masculine friendship and a eulogy for a way of life even as the US itself was undergoing a complete social upheaval.

Peckinpah had come up alongside the Western, first writing for nearly every major Western show of the 1950s before adapting the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones which became the Marlon Brando movie, One-Eyed Jacks. Movie writing led to directing gigs, with Peckinpah eventually shifting, like Robert Aldrich before him, from TV directing into film. Peckinpah shot a few episodes of a series that sprang out of a rejected script he wrote that eventually became the Chuck Connors-starring The Rifleman (about a man with a tricked out rifle he could shoot simply by cocking the lever) before creating his own series that lasted less than a season, The Westerner. From there he moved into film, though his ride was still tumultuous.

Ride the High Country (1962)

When Peckinpah made Ride the High Country with longtime Western star Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea (credited in that order, so the story goes, based on a coin toss), the idea of the revisionist Western, that is to say a movie that looked back on the West and tried to more closely reflect it as it was rather than through the lens of popular culture, was a relatively new thing. Films like John Ford’s The Searchers had already put a different spin on the classic heroes vs. savages trope, giving us a more broken hero and more noble natives than Hollywood was used to showing audiences, but it was Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that always strikes me as a good starting point in terms of a real attempt at reframing the Western as a whole.

A story within a story, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is told through the eyes of Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, having returned to the territory he had once presided over as a lawyer back when it was untamed, reminiscing on how he helped make it the modern, functional place it had become while fixing mistaken details about the story along the way. It’s a keystone film for the revisionist Western since it’s literally a story about correcting misconceptions about the past. In a similar but less obvious way, Ride the High Country (which came out roughly two months later) also served to begin our reimagining of the Old West and showed that Peckinpah had his finger on the pulse of a soon-to-be changing country.

Like all of Peckinpah’s most famous period movies, it’s set at the end of the West, in the late 19th century, or in Ride’s case, the early 20th century, one way of life giving over to the next. It’s the era of the electric light replacing the gas lamp, the automobile making inroads against the horse.

In the movie Joel McCrea plays Steve Judd. He arrives in town, riding down the main street past a crowd of yelling onlookers. Mistaking their shouts for adulation, he’s finally pulled to the side by a cop as a horse race finishes up behind him. As he tries to walk on, the cop stops Judd from being run over by an automobile. This gives us not only a rough guess as to when the film is set, but it’s also one of Peckinpah’s first “man out of time” moments and something he’d return to in a big way in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

Steve is in town because he has agreed to protect a gold shipment worth $250,000 on its journey through the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevadas (the titular “high country”) from a mining camp back to town—a sort of last hurrah to his salad days as a former marshal. He enlists his former partner, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott 1), to help. Gil, having taken on the role of a Buffalo Bill Cody knockoff named the “Oregon Kid” and making money by beating guests at trick shooting at a carnival, agrees as long as they take his younger partner, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), along. He plans on betraying Steve and taking the gold, unless he can convince him to help.

Steve signs his contract—which the banker now tells him is to protect only about $20,000 as the gold is played out—after reading it in private, too embarrassed to reveal that he needs spectacles to read now.

Along the way to the mining camp they meet a young woman, Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley), after they stay a night at her father’s ranch. Elsa’s father is a Bible-black bully who preaches at and judges the group the whole time. He also beats his daughter, causing her to flee and join up with the lawmen. She wants to remain in the eye of Heck despite claiming to be engaged to Billy Hammond, a member of a family of miners up at the camp where Judd has been sent to collect the gold for the bank.

The group eventually reach the mining camp. While Steve and Gil collect the gold—now amounting to a little over $10,000—Heck drops Elsa off with the Hammonds. She marries Billy in a civil ceremony thrown at the only wooden building in the camp, the brothel. A drunken revelry set to the jangling, nightmarish strains of “There is a Tavern in the Town” ensues in which Elsa is passed around amongst the Hammond brothers until getting dragged off to the marital suite by Billy. She flees when he falls and knocks himself out in a drunken accident. She turns to Steve for help, having realized what she has gotten herself into.

Steve, having finished up the bank’s business, agrees to abide by the Miner’s Court ruling while Gil threatens the justice of the peace into saying he didn’t have the legal rights to perform the ceremony. They leave town with Elsa in tow. Heck talks to Gil and reveals he’s now taken a liking to Steve and feels bad about betraying him. That night, Gil makes Heck join him in sneaking off with the gold. Steve catches them both and ties them up. While they continue the journey home, the Hammonds meet them and demand to get Elsa back, having lost a woman who would do for them in virtually every way—laundry, cooking, and otherwise. Steve gets into a shootout with them, cutting Heck loose to help while leaving Gil tied up. They get two of the brothers while the rest flee.

When the group approaches the Knudsen ranch to drop Elsa off, they discover the Hammonds have arrived earlier and set up an ambush. Steve lets both Heck and Gil help, and Heck is wounded and Elsa tends to him. Steve and Gil call out the brothers and demand a showdown. The brothers agree and the two groups face off before shooting it out. By the time all is said and done, the Hammonds are dead, Steve is dying, and Gil has been shot cleanly through the arm. Feeling sorry for his earlier betrayal, Gil promises his dying friend that he’ll carry on as Steve had. Steve says that he always knew it, and that Gil had just forgotten it for a little while.

Ride the High Country illustrates many of Peckinpah’s interests in simpler forms. The movie, like most of Peckinpah’s work, is about male friendship — in this case that of Steve and Gil — and how loyalty trumps all, but there is so much more than that. We see by Steve’s shabby clothing throughout the movie that while being a lawman has made him morally sound (or, as he memorably puts it, “All I want is to enter my house justified,”), it hasn’t kept him in a comfortable way. Similarly, Gil reflects the other side, having taken on the role of a low-rent carny in the intervening years, doing trick shots for gawping tourists who want to see the how the West was. Everything about him is fake, from his long hair and beard, to his buckskins, to the scoundrel he claims to have become as we see by his turn at the end when Steve lays dying. As they discuss throughout the movie reflecting on their past careers, Steve would like a greater reward but will accept what life gives him. Gil tries to get more but in the end the price is too high for him and he rejoins Steve’s side of the line.

Another idea that Peckinpah plays with here is that of dying in the saddle, so to speak. Steve tells Gil that he shamefully spent a number of years in between his years being a marshal and this job as a bouncer at bars and brothels, so when he dies in the end, he does it doing what he loved in life, maintaining some sliver or order over the chaos. He earns his end here. There won’t be a death by misadventure by car for Steve. In the same way, Gil has returned from telling lies about a persona he made up and finds himself again. He is like Steve, a man with a code at heart, rather than a dandified trick shooter. It’s just that it took his old partner’s return to remind him of who he was.

But perhaps the thing that most points to Steve being a man out of time is simply having lived too much. Elsa tells him her father taught her everything is good or evil with nothing in between before questioning the truth of the idea. Steve agrees that it should be that way but isn’t. And perhaps that’s where Steve is the most lost. It’s not really the shabby clothing or the cars springing up in town. He’s seen too much, knows too much about the in between. His former partner betraying him over what amounts to a very little bit of gold is the final straw.

The young people in the movie—made when Kennedy was still alive and Vietnam a nascent conflict—are similarly reflective of the death of the West, both getting first-hand lessons that the times are a changin’.

Heck starts as the assistant of Gil, having soaked in his scoundrel qualities and taken them more to heart, until he sees Steve and learns a new, more honorable way of life. Similarly, Elsa rejects her father’s old school religion, a religion that allows him to lecture guests that come to his home. There’s naked hypocrisy in him, and his beliefs are used to club others, not uplift them. He lectures the men about the evils of craving gold after telling them he’d charge them a dollar (a day’s wages for a working man at the time) for each egg he’s willing to sell. He yells at his daughter to remain chaste and yet strikes her. Even the idea that he lectures others is hypocrisy. He presumes to judge men who do while he remains hidden away from society at a hardscrabble ranch, living a life of faith without works—to Peckinpah, a far worse thing than works without faith. In Steve’s case it’s even worse than that, since Steve knows his bible every bit as much as Mr. Knudsen but chooses not to beat people with it. This less-than-rosy view of religion was a new way of thinking in popular culture in a time when Mayberry was in its television heyday. The hypocrisy of religion is something Peckinpah would return to again.

Besides the themes of modernity encroaching in the West and men being out of place in changing times, there’s elements of the realism he wanted to bring to the genre. The film has both aspects of Sam’s eye, that for the beautiful and the gritty. The film is delightful to look at, much of it shot in a big sky manner on location in Inyo National Park, allowing the audience to drink in the forests, lakes, and snow-covered mountains. But amongst the beauty, Peckinpah is unafraid to show the seedier side compared to other Hollywood movies, and especially Westerns, of the time. Westerns before this barely acknowledged cathouses or outhouses, let alone having a gaggle of prostitutes—not cast with an eye toward beach bodies or model faces, something Peckinpah repeats with the women in the brothel—sling excrement from a slop bucket at the hero’s horses as they ride into camp. The scene of the drunken wedding night, all Dutch angles and quick cuts between bleary, grotesquely leering faces and dancing that borders on violence, serves to anticipate the action scenes he’d shoot later in his career.

One thing Ride the High Country has compared to The Wild Bunch, is a sense of hope. A lot of people assume that Peckinpah is a cynic, but he’s clearly not as Ride shows. He’s a wounded romantic, wishing the world could be better than how he saw it. In Ride there’s hope in the older generation still being able to achieve good things and in the youth stepping up when the time comes. There’s hope that right can still overcome wrong. It’s an idea of America he would turn on its head in The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Having proven how well he could write and direct on Ride the High Country 2 having rewritten the movie and shot it stylishly for a song, Peckinpah found himself enjoying a bit of Hollywood success. He next chose to direct Major Dundee in 1965, a Civil War movie starring Charlton Heston. The film went through ups and downs, having been whittled to a little over 2 hours from a 4-hour initial cut, and further hacked down after it premiered to terrible reviews. Following that and being fired off The Cincinnati Kid, Peckinpah found himself in director jail.

It was only after managing to grab another TV job, a hugely successful adaptation of Katherine Porter’s short novel, Noon Wine, that Warner Bros. offered him a choice between two scripts, one of which was titled The Wild Bunch. They wanted to make the movie to compete with the recently purchased William Goldman-penned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at 20th Century Fox (the competition coming about because the real Butch Cassidy’s gang in Hole-in-the-Wall Pass in Wyoming was called the Wild Bunch). Furthering the similarities, they’re both set during the waning years of the West, feature gangs endlessly pursued by large possess, and end violently south of the border (Bolivia for Butch and Sundance, Mexico for the Wild Bunch).

Having first succeeded with Ride and failed with Dundee, it’s obvious that something in Peckinpah had turned over. Moreover, there’s a different energy in his next entry in his exploration of the dying West, having gone from Ride which came out before the Kennedy assassination to the The Wild Bunch which hit two years after the Summer of Love and only a year after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. Vietnam had become an international embarrassment by this point—an ever-increasing bloodbath with no end in sight—and a little over a month after the film came out the Manson murders would begin.

The Wild Bunch feels a part of its time from the very opening shots. Instead of Ride’s hope regarding youth, we open on kids torturing scorpions by dropping them into red ant hills in the small Western town of San Rafael in the year 1913. It’s the time of Pancho Villa’s revolution in Mexico (where the film’s second half is set). A gang of bank robbers disguised in US Army uniforms—already giving us Peckinpah’s jaundiced view of the ongoing Vietnam war—led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his second in command, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), ride past the children into town to rob the railroad money from the bank. A group of bounty hunters working with his old partner, Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), have been hired by the railroad to gun down Pike’s men. Using a temperance parade to get away, the gang and the hunters exchange bullets, the townsfolk getting caught in the crossfire. The battle is huge and messy (there’s a story that Peckinpah was the first to use double squibs to get both entrance and exit wounds here). Bodies fall every which way, townsfolk are shot multiple times, a couple of Pike’s men go down as well as even more of the bounty hunters, and in between the people are ripped to pieces, including such memorable moments as a wounded woman being trampled by a fleeing horse and a man getting shot from all sides, seeming to dance with each bullet strike. The remaining members of the gang escape the town, riding out past the children who, oblivious to the gigantic battle that happened behind them, are now setting hay ablaze atop the insects.

The opening scene sums up the ideas of the movie in a perfectly shot piece of film. From the start Peckinpah has turned even more cynical. He’s gone full into revisionism, even of his own ideas. The youth won’t save us, he says, they’re only little versions of the adults. The comparison is first suggested by the Wild Bunch riding by the kids on their way into town to commit their own violence. The idea becomes cemented as sepia-tinted freeze frames used for the credits for the gang get superimposed on the faces of the children. Only seconds into the movie, Peckinpah has let out a cry of despair regarding the future.

His next act of revisionism comes in the form of Deke Thornton. A former member of Pike’s gang, Deke has now been hired by the railroad to deal with the Wild Bunch once and for all. He’s tasked with babysitting a group of filthy degenerates. With black teeth and filthy clothes, they’re not only ignorant chatterboxes but vultures who pick over the bodies lying in the streets in the aftermath of the gun battle. Deke stands as an even darker shadow of Steve Judd from Ride the High Country. There’s no former marshal service in Deke’s past. He’s a bad guy hunting bad guys while surrounded by incompetent bad guys to help him carry out the task.

The West in The Wild Bunch isn’t white hats and black hats—people on the side of the law facing down desperate robbers—as had been the presentation of the past. It isn’t two people facing each other down in polite quick draw matches in the streets. As Peckinpah tells it, it was bloody chaos with people of varying shades of gray and black trying to murder the other ones first—and with the townspeople caught in the middle, soaking up more lead than either opposing force. Even the railroad man, under Deke’s anger, never blanches. Before the fight, when Deke tells him they should have warned the townsfolk, he calls the town a manure pile, a phrase that still has political resonance today 3. In the aftermath, all the carnage is simply the price of business and business is the only thing that matters.

It’s a film for a time when the stories out of Vietnam were no longer sugar-coated tales that sounded like an appendix to the Korean war, but nightmare ditties about villages slaughtered on the order of the US military. A year after the movie came out, the “good guys” would commit the My Lai massacre and two months after that they’d gun down college students protesting the war at Kent State.

After the brutal rout, the gang regroups. The remaining members aside from Pike and Dutch include brothers Lyle (Warren Oates4) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson 5), the elderly Freddie Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) who helps maintain their hideout and acts as their cook, and Angel (Jaime Sánchez). After learning their take was bags of washers and that the entire plan Pike had spent so much time on was a set up from the start, the gang recuperates in Angel’s idyllic village of Agua Verde.

While there, they learn about a brutal general named Mapache (Emilio Fernández) who is fighting Pancho Villa’s men and takes what he wants from the local villages. Unfortunately, this also includes the most beautiful woman from the village who was Angel’s crush and is now the general’s lover. The group heads out as the villagers serenade them, the last truly peaceful moment they get.

Eventually, they come to meet Mapache. Angel cracks and shoots the woman from the village who is sitting in Mapache’s lap. Things calm down when, during the standoff that occurs as a result, the German adviser to Mapache6 sees that Pike has stolen US Army weapons on him. The German suggests that they set up a scheme to rob a US Army train of the weapons aboard to arm Mapache and in exchange, they’ll be paid in gold. Angel tells the Wild Bunch that he’ll help if he can give one crate of guns to his village.

The Wild Bunch nearly pulls the heist off until Deke, who has hidden aboard the train, figures out what’s going on and lights out with his men only after seeing that the sleeping US Army soldiers are boys barely old enough to shave, something America was watching as flag-draped coffins returned from overseas in increasing numbers. A three-way chase ensues when the US Army commander wakes up and sends his men after Deke’s men, thinking that since they aren’t aboard the train anymore, they must have taken part in the robbery. The gang ends up blowing up a bridge to stop Deke’s men who are now fleeing themselves after exchanging fire with the army and killing a soldier.

A series of misfortunes in which Mapache first tortures Angel and then cuts his throat leads to the gang ending the movie in another huge gunfight at which a water-cooled machine gun taken from the train raid takes center stage. Dozens of soldiers are killed and the Wild Bunch ends up going down, each man shot to pieces. When Deke and the posse arrive in the aftermath, he lets them take the bodies and try for the reward knowing they’ll run into Villa’s men and get killed. When Villa’s men finally do arrive, with Sykes riding at the head of the column, Deke decides to join the revolution.

This then is Sam Peckinpah’s new idea for a happy ending: Loyalty to the end and dying on your own terms. The Wild Bunch may die, but they die taking out the people who have threatened and hurt them along the way. Deke joins the Mexican Revolution at the end, knowing nothing more awaits him back in the States. It’s 1913 and this is one of the last ways in which a gang of outlaws who lived by the gun can also die by it. The next option will be already old men getting older, cars fully taking the place of horses, dirt roads getting paved. More importantly, it’d be a time when police men in navy blue uniforms with double rows of brass buttons would put them on trial, and they’d die after wasting away in prison, rather than men in frock coats with silver stars pinned to their chests hanging them or better yet, gunning them down. It’s not much, but for the time, it’s something.

For Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, the death of the West means a new era of double crosses and betrayals, much like he saw in the modern world around him. There were no good guys fighting bad guys; only bad guys with the guise of authority fighting those they called enemies. The difference between the Wild Bunch and the heartless railroad moneyman who hired Deke is that at least the gang never thought they were being good. It’s also a time of bloody, newly mechanized warfare with the only silver lining being that the weapons used by those in charge can just as easily be turned on them as the Wild Bunch do to the Federales at the end.

It’s the dawning of a new era and Peckinpah’s remedy is staying true to yourself, your friends, and your ideals. Dying with your boots on is Peckinpah’s best outcome. Well, that or joining the tone-deaf, dried-up temperance parade and getting ground between both sides when conflict inevitably arises. For Peckinpah, that simply wasn’t an option.

  1. Casting Randolph Scott—a box office superstar of the early 1950s and a famous Western actor known for playing straight-arrow heroes—as a scoundrel is the first bit of revision Peckinpah puts into the movie.
  2. Ride the High Country is a movie that William Goldman, the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—that subsequently won Goldman his first Oscar—tells an intriguing anecdote about. When he saw Ride as the B-feature of a double bill, he says he called an executive at the studio and asked why they treated it so badly. The response was simple and indicative of the industry’s mindset then and today: No picture could be both that good and cost so little to make.
  3. Donald Trump, “Shithole countries,” 1/12/18.
  4. Fans of Warren Oates will find a lot of him to love in the work of Peckinpah. Oates first met Peckinpah back during The Rifleman and The Westerner and from there proceeded to work in Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
  5. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson would go from playing brothers in The Wild Bunch to enemies in the excellent 1973 John Milius film, Dillinger, starring Oates as the titular gangster and Johnson as the FBI agent hunted him, Melvin Purvis.
  6. One of Mapache’s men, Herrera, is played by Alfonso Arau who gets the job upgrade to El Guapo, another man who has German advisers and robs from innocent villagers, in the 1986 Western comedy ¡Three Amigos!, also set during the same era.