When a director has been as condemned and lionized as Sam Peckinpah has, it’s inevitable that the legend obscures the work.
So rather than add to the heap of writing that already exists about Peckinpah’s balletic violence, or about the stunted career and mangled movies caused by his own intransigence as well as the stupidity of studio execs, I simply want to convey the flavor of the four films contained in the new Warner Bros. DVD boxed set Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection (for once a title doesn’t lie), by cutting small windows into each picture as a view into the director’s preoccupations, and as a way of listening in on the echoes that occur from film to film.
Ride the High Country (1962): A gentle, traditional western with Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott giving performances of almost courtly grace, this was the first of Peckinpah’s elegies to the past, and the first of his tributes to the dignity of aging men. Just as Peckinpah would later challenge viewers to see beauty as well as savagery in his violence, he makes them look beneath the surface in this movie’s most startling scene, a mining-town wedding of almost unbelievable grotesquerie. The bride, Elsa Knudsen (the heartbreakingly fresh-faced Mariette Hartley), has run off with her no-goodnik beau (James Drury). She has no idea that his four brothers mean to share her on the wedding night. The town’s brothel serves as her wedding chapel, the grossly made-up madam as her bridesmaid, and four wilting whores as flower girls.
Presiding over the ceremony is a justice of the peace (Edgar Buchanan) in a filthy suit. He has to be helped to his feet—and then, against everyone’s expectations, rises beyond the occasion. At first, there’s irony in his imprecation that marriage is to be entered into soberly. But any impulse we have to laugh at the man is quickly burned off by the plain wisdom of his words: “A good marriage has a simple glory about it,” he begins. “A good marriage is like a rare animal: It’s hard to find and almost impossible to keep.” Instead of offering encouragement, the justice is, at the beginning of this couple’s life together, warning them of the hardness that lies ahead: “People change, and that’s important for you to know at the beginning—people change. The glory of a good marriage don’t come at the beginning, it comes later on. And it’s hard work.” The terrible emphasis Edgar Buchanan puts on that word conjures something we don’t expect to find at the movies: the unadorned glory that’s possible in Puritan forbearance.
The Wild Bunch (1969): In Ride the High Country, Joel McCrea’s Steve Judd said he just wanted “to enter my house justified.” Pike Bishop (William Holden), the aging outlaw hero of Peckinpah’s great violent epic, who’s being left behind by the onrushing modern world just as McCrea and Scott were in the previous film, can’t pretend to that righteousness. But he can still lay claim to dignity. A broken stirrup causes Pike to fall flat as he tries to mount his horse. Amidst the derision of his fellow outlaws that he’s an old man long past his expiry date, Holden picks himself up and swings himself onto his horse. We seem to feel every ache the exertion causes him as he gathers the reins and sits upright in the saddle, and there’s more beauty in it because of that effort. Peckinpah holds on the shot as Pike, slightly stooped, rides slowly into the horizon while Holden, with his back to the camera, conveys more than most actors do in a lifetime of facing it.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970): Peckinpah’s favorite among his films, a comic fable of a shaggy prospector (Jason Robards), robbed by his two companions (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, looking as if they’d been resurrected at the end of The Wild Bunch and risen from the grave seedier than ever) and left to die of thirst in the desert. Among Robards’ finest moments onscreen is the long opening sequence in which the ever-weakening Cable carries on a dialogue with God that goes from modestly beseeching (“Ain’t had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin’ a little thirsty. Just thought I’d mention it. A-men”) to increasingly desperate (“Now if I’ve sinned, you just send me a drop or two and I won’t do it no more … I mean that, Lord,” he concludes the prayer with a flicker of a glance towards heaven, as if checking to see if God is talking him seriously).
Finally, stumbling upon an overlooked waterhole, the near-dead Cable grabs a handful of mud and squeezes drops of water into his grateful, gasping mouth. It rouses him, and in the lines that close the scene, Cable could be talking to the Creator he’s outfoxed, or to the former partners he’ll seek revenge on. Just read the words: “Told ya I was gonna live. This is Cable Hogue talkin’. Hogue. Me. Cable Hogue. Hogue. Me. Me. I did it. Cable Hogue. Me. Me. I found it.” This is the closest the Western ever came to Beckett. There are some of us who think it was Beckett improved by the acquaintance.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973): Like The Wild Bunch, this is a story of former compatriots who find themselves at odds, outlaw-turned-sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) and his old partner Billy (Kris Kristofferson), whom he’s been ordered to bring in. Muddled as it is, the movie is also peculiarly affecting; its drifting melancholy mood can stay with you for days. Rudy Wurlitzer’s script is a counterculture western with Billy the Kid as its rebel-hippie Christ. Peckinpah supplies the real subversion, ignoring the youth-culture implications to turn the entire movie into a parade of old men whose departures wound us.
None is more affecting than Slim Pickens in what is perhaps the finest scene Peckinpah ever filmed. Gut-shot in a raid on Billy’s hideout, Pickens’ sheriff, Colin Baker, wanders off into the distance as Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” plays on the soundtrack. Following at a distance, his wife (Katy Jurado) is unable to bring herself to intrude on his final moments. As Pickens sits on a rock, he exchanges a fond look with her, but his eyes seem made anew, as if only in this dimming moment could they take in all the wonders of the world. What he sees—the darkening sky, the slowly rushing river in front of him—has the effect of life slipping through his fingers. This exquisitely lyrical sequence, maybe the screen’s finest image of the passage into death, is one Peckinpah had been working toward since Ride the High Country. The respectful remove from which Katy Jurado watches her beloved husband die is the same distance from which Peckinpah had long given witness to the deaths of his aging heroes—not close enough to deprive them of their dignity, but close enough to make us feel the holes in the world where they were.