The movies, which many of us grew up regarding as the co-literature of the age, have sunk to an abysmal low unimaginable only a few years ago. The bell started tolling for the form with the introduction of the video cassette-as-packaged-commodity and the reintroduction of the theater-as-box, both events mirroring historically the period early in the century when movie producers sold their reels for so much a foot to storefront exhibitors serving largely illiterate audiences. It seems little wonder that today’s “flicks"--like most pre-D. W. Griffith “flickers"--tend to be “lite” diversions, dumbed-down for the same kind of uncritical mass. Never has so much been shown on the screen with so little revealed.
Sam Peckinpah, a native of Fresno, came to movie-making in the twilight of its last golden efflorescence, and on the strength of “Ride the High Country” (1962), “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973)--not to mention a dozen other efforts ranging up and down the scale--earned a place on the short list of America’s greatest film makers before his untimely death in 1984. For those who don’t recall the famously ornery Peckinpah, Marshall Fine’s new biography tells why some of us remember him all too well, if still uneasily. The author, a syndicated entertainment columnist who never met the director, has strung together the ghastly record of Peckinpah’s earthly transgressions, which were, to be sure, considerable.
“Bloody Sam” confines itself largely to the surface events of Peckinpah’s life, rehashing well-known episodes and only occasionally presenting fresh information through interviews. The book recounts a fairly predictable cautionary tale, concluding that Peckinpah compounded his unhappy state by trying to live up to his myth as a maverick. “Fueled by alcohol and, later, cocaine,” the author writes, “Peckinpah eventually began to play the part . . . the Peckinpah that other people seemed to expect. It became a self-fulfilling, and self-destructive, prophecy. By the time he had figured this out, it was too late.”
Peckinpah, needless to say, was never one of Hollywood’s pliant ornaments. He took no guff, suffered no fools, and refused to say pretty-please to the studio purse-string boys. Half a savage in his personal life, he was, in fact, a genuine renegade, viscerally opposed to what he saw as the sophistry, cowardice and bogus values of the official culture. From the vantage point of the 1990s, it’s amazing that he ever got a toehold in the wishy-washy movie business to begin with.
“We all dream of being a child again,” the village jefe observes in “The Wild Bunch,” “even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.” Peckinpah’s rage and defiance almost certainly stemmed from his relations with his divided family. Fern Church Peckinpah--Sam’s mother, who died in 1983--is portrayed as a cold, manipulative shrew who haughtily dismissed her husband’s family as “backwoods.” Fine notes that the director’s relationship with his mother did “long-term damage to his attitudes toward women,” leaving it at that. The biographer manages to whip through Peckinpah’s ancestry and early life in a paltry 13 pages.
Yet it also should be noted that Peckinpah was ineluctably his father’s boy and thus a pure product of the cowboy culture of the central California foothills. On annual hunting trips into the Sierra, young Sam drank in the harsh, vivid spectacle of that still not-very-settled region where both sides of his family owned land. Typically, as a black sheep, he identified with the high country’s misfits, drifters and loners. But tellingly, he modeled the aging, heroic Joel McCrea character in “Ride the High Country” after his father, who created a myth of his own in rising from ranch hand to Superior Court judge. The fact that Dave Peckinpah advanced himself with the help of his wife’s moneyed family made “the Boss” a sort of compromised puritan to his children.
Aside from Peckinpah’s never-ending physical battles with wives and mistresses, the director’s principal war was against Hollywood producers. He fought with almost all of his studio superiors, regarding them as cheesy tinhorns with no hat size. In retaliation, the executives trashed his career and sometimes mangled his pictures out of sheer spite. With an unholy knack for summoning disaster, the “difficult” and “uncooperative” Peckinpah actively conspired in his own professional demise. The legend doesn’t lie in that regard. But author Fine, perhaps seeking a politic “balance,” seems unaware of just what jerks some of Peckinpah’s adversaries were.
I scarcely knew Peckinpah in a conventional sense, but I observed him for a week and talked with him on several occasions during the 1972 filming of “The Getaway” in Texas and Mexico. Lee Marvin had warned me in advance to beware of the director’s danger sign, his “flat mustache look,” so I’d steeled myself for an ordeal during the principal interview.
Instead, I found a funny, down-to-earth man of odd depths and blunt convictions and surprisingly naked vulnerability. Peckinpah’s reflex was to test and prod like a tough-guy Socrates to find out if you were game. Years later, in a letter to me, he quoted--in self-justification, but rather plaintively, I thought--a variant line from the traditional corrido of Guana-juato: La vida no vale nada en leon jugo rageno-- “Life means nothing to a lion with his juices raging.”
Fine paints an appalling picture of Peckinpah’s life, and particularly of his declining years when addiction ruled most of his behavior. His existence degenerated into a series of bad choices and bathetic stunts, as the lives of junkies often do. The biographer, who says he chose his subject out of admiration for Peckinpah’s films, doesn’t seem to mind a bit that the director ended his working days shooting music videos for a two-bit rock clone.
Peckinpah was something like the spiritual twin of Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the doomed bugler of James Jones’ novel “From Here to Eternity.” The director and the fictional Prewitt had much in common--the pursuit of prostitutes as love partners, a fevered sense of personal craft, a devouring perfectionism. Just as the Army was Prewitt’s “calling,” so was film-making Peckinpah’s mystico-sacred vocation--providing, by the way, a high ground where he could be “the boss.” Both Peckinpah and Prewitt were classic American hardheads in the romantic loser tradition.
“Bloody Sam” is, regrettably, a by-the-numbers pop bio, perhaps a cut above average but still disappointing. Full of raw and unevaluated details, it offers formulaic revelations that tell us more about Peckinpah the brute than artist.
Fine aims for cradle-to-grave coverage, but fails to pull open the seams of Peckinpah’s life and show what it was really like inside. Nuance, shading, compassion for his subject? Don’t bother to ask. The biographer often seems out of his depth, even down to the nuts-and-bolts of film history, as when, in a chapter on “Convoy,” he haplessly confuses “Captains Courageous” with “The Captain’s Pardise.” This kind of shallowness grates after a while.
As an artist, Peckinpah sought to distill on the screen, among other themes, the virtues and excesses of manly character--the code of the West, if you will. “The Wild Bunch” was one last blast before the country went Astroturf. Peckinpah’s name still draws bloody calumny among the politically correct, emblematic of what we’re foolishly ruling out of our culture.
Peckinpah’s best pictures still stun the eye and sting the heart, as I rediscovered in the course of preparing this review. The pity is that the director couldn’t find the discipline to accomplish more. Perhaps, after all, his most unforgivable sin was the failure to nurture the “raging juices” necessary for creation. Without talents like his, of course, the movies may never blaze bright again. Someone must tell the full story some day.