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Saga of a career in conflict

Times Staff Writer

Sam PECKINPAH was a pariah in Hollywood when he died in 1984 at the age of 59.

His 1969 revisionist western, “The Wild Bunch,” had put him on the international cinema map. But thanks to drugs, alcohol, heart problems and fights with producers, “He was a nobody, literally, when he died,” says Peckinpah expert Nick Redman.

In the years since, his reputation has grown in large part because of the efforts of people such as Paul Seydor, author of the authoritative “Peckinpah: The Western Films.”

Peckinpah also has become a favorite on the retrospective circuit. The latest revival is American Cinematheque’s 10-day tribute -- “The Ballad of Bloody Sam: The Films of Sam Peckinpah.”

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The festival begins Thursday with “The Wild Bunch” -- his extremely violent yet elegiac western about a group of outlaws who have run out of time -- which changed the way violence is portrayed on-screen. Also screening Thursday is the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage,” directed by Seydor and produced by Redman.

After the success of “The Wild Bunch,” says Redman, Peckinpah was nicknamed “Bloody Sam,” and he felt he had to live up to it. “The very unfortunate thing was that he had had a very troubled career up to ‘The Wild Bunch,’ ” Redman says. “When he made ‘The Wild Bunch’ he was coming off of four years of unemployment, and the ‘Wild Bunch’ became instantly notorious. It was a cause celebre.”

But the “Bloody Sam” moniker, says Redman, was unjust and limiting. “He is a much more poetic American filmmaker than just that. I think he felt he had to live up to that reputation and it overtook him. I think it ruined a lot of his subsequent work.”

Redman traces Peckinpah’s view of violence to his upbringing. Raised in a fairly affluent household in Fresno -- his father and uncles were judges -- Peckinpah spent his summers hunting, shooting and fishing. “His male relatives were very manly men,” Redman says, “and his mother was a very controlling person and sort of played to his poetic side. So he had a lot of very female qualities. The yin and the yang of the brutality of the males and the controlling elements of his mother gave him a schizoid attitude toward certain things.”

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Peckinpah was in the Marines during World War II, and the brutality he witnessed also contributed, Redman adds. “I think it influenced a lot of the way he saw killing and violent death. He killed a deer [when he was young] and came to regret it. No matter how violent or bloody his movies could get, there was always a great sense of guilt and responsibility for the killings. There was nothing trivial or arbitrary about it.”

But his mixed messages did and still do confuse audiences, especially when they concern his treatment of women.

“Straw Dogs” raised everyone’s ire in 1971 because of the brutal scenes in which Susan George’s character seems to enjoy being raped by her ex-boyfriend. “Then she has to be raped again by the second guy,” Redman says. “That’s why the scene is so difficult to watch. There is that conflict in the way she is reacting to being raped. Other women are ... raped in his other pictures. If you just look at those scenes, people come to the conclusion he obviously hated women. In fact, the women who knew him say that just wasn’t true.

“There is a legitimate accusation ... of [him] glorying in the violence,” Redman says. “At the same time, there is a feeling of repulsion .... That was the conflict Peckinpah played to all the time. He wanted you to revel in and be disgusted about it as well.”

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The Ballad of Bloody Sam: The Films of Sam Peckinpah

When: Thursday through May 16

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

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Price: $9; seniors, students with I.D., $8; Cinematheque members, $6.

Contact: (323) 466-FILM

Schedule:

Thursday: “The Wild Bunch,” “The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage,” 7:15 p.m.

Friday: “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” 7:15 p.m.

Saturday: “Sam Peckinpah’s West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade,” 5 p.m.; “Ride the High Country,” “Major Dundee,” 7:30 p.m.

May 9: “Cross of Iron,” “The Killer Elite,” 5 p.m.

May 14: “Straw Dogs,” “Junior Bonner,” 7:30 p.m.

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May 15: “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” 5 p.m.; “The Getaway,” “Convoy,” 8:45 p.m.

May 16: “The Osterman Weekend,” “From Alpha to Omega: The Making of ‘The Osterman Weekend,’ ” 5 p.m.


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