The life of Sam Peckinpah sits like a splendid diamond set between two glorious eras for American cinema, one already on the decline and the other still to come. Retracing his career means looking as much at the great classical tradition that preceded him as at the new directors currently leaving their mark on the imagination.
A brilliant creator of ideas, an exceptional editor and a highly effective writer, Peckinpah was a man for whom the movies were not a profession but a world to be inhabited. And it was perhaps that original enamourment and resulting attempt to pursue the grandiosity of the big screen with his own body of work that played an ugly joke on him.
Peckinpah lived in an age in which cinema was no longer able to raise man up to a stature equal to those heroes who had founded the country. In place of the contrast between black and white, good and evil, man and nature, came instead a dramaturgy that privileged nuances, relaunched by stories that reflected a new urban class, lukewarm, more inclined to compromise and most of all with no intention of getting their hands or clothes dirty. An inability to adapt to the new context, in addition to a strong determination not to give in to his desires, made him a tragic hero, capable of the best and the worst. His name shines as one of the great rebels in a changing Hollywood, though he was often hurt by exhausting struggles with producers and distributors. Peckinpah wanted to be the last of the classics and his cinema has become the banner brandished by the champions of a postmodernity that broke with tradition. Films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) are essential reference points for anyone investigating the new aesthetic, even though they were not released in the form the director wanted and were considered to be evident failures. They are tremendous , magnificent frescoes that trace the outline of an era, like an immense late Renaissance painting.
We like even better those more low-key portraits where, with a less booming but equally elegiac voice, Peckinpah follows the path of ordinary men, films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
Rewatched in chronological order, Peckinpah’s filmography is exemplary, starting out in the path of the Western (The Deadly Companion, 1961, and Ride the High Country, 1962) and ending with The Osterman Weekend (1983), recounting a world eaten away from the inside, dominated by an obsession with control and the omnipresence of the video image. In just over 20 years, Peckinpah observed a world that was changing rapidly, and which he liked less and less. To make his voice heard more strongly, he often took extreme, provocative positions – the most obvious case being Cross of Iron (1977), directed after he turned down offers of blockbusters like King Kong and Superman, and telling of the odyssey of a group of German soldiers during WWII.
His films, peopled by exceptional actors brought to the top of their game (James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards), speak of lone men, men fighting against the system. Another theme, however, also begins to come through: that of friendship, if not of a gang, gradually taking shape until it becomes a trademark. Almost all observers have dwelled on the violence, another of Peckinpah’s leitmotifs. The violence assumes different functions: very often it is like a shock given to the viewer, an invitation to ask questions, or even just to look with different eyes at the fragile poetry that flashes through all his works like lightning. As he himself said, “I believe in the violent emotions of a life launched at 125 miles an hour against enemies and difficulties. I believe in the victory of man over society. If you manage to see through the coarseness of my images, you will find words of hope.”