Sam Peckinpah was one of Hollywood’s most controversial directors during the 60s and 70s. His films were known for their violence, which was more graphic and bloody than most people had ever seen before. This has caused many to find his films polarizing, depending on the viewer’s stomach for handling realistic and gory images. Peckinpah’s use of violence, however, was not just used for shock like many modern directors, but to show the brutality of the world.
Peckinpah was a marine stationed in China following the end of World War II where he was to locate and return Japanese troops to their homeland. Here he witnessed many acts of violence and murder, including being shot himself, which led to the focus on violence in his films. It was also in the army where he started his life-long battle with alcohol and other substance abuse, which contributed to his relatively early death and violent mood swings.
Westerns were Peckinpah’s passion that lasted his entire career, making him one of the most prominent figures in the revisionist western genre. He got his start writing for early cowboy shows like The Rifleman and Gunsmoke before creating his own show The Westerner.
From there Peckinpah broke into the film industry, making increasingly edgier films until he got public attention with, the still controversial, The Wild Bunch. Over the following decade, Peckinpah was very busy, making nine films, but soon his addictions overtook his directing making him unemployable and, like many of his films, his story ended tragically, dying in a career slump in 1984.
Peckinpah’s revolutionary influence lives on in Hollywood. His films are remembered for their shocking new grittiness and old fashioned characters and structure. This juxtaposition of old vs. new world is also present in many of his stories. Also known for pioneering editing techniques like slow motion, and for his great recurring cast of actors including James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Warren Oates, Sam Peckinpah was one of the most rebellious and inspired filmmakers in Hollywood.
The following is a list of his greatest directorial roles in film.
10. Convoy (1978)
Taking not only its name, but also its story from C.W. McCall’s song “Convoy”. The film, and song, released at the height of the CB communicator fad, follows a trucker of code name “Rubber Duck”, played by Kris Kristofferson, who starts a conflict with the crooked Sheriff “Dirty Lyle” Wallace, played by Ernest Borgnine, after Duck and some of his trucker pals beat up Wallace and his deputies in a diner.
This develops into a interstate chase, with Rubber Duck and his increasing convoy of truckers, eventually reaching a mile in length, running from the Sheriff in Arizona to New Mexico. As the phenomenon becomes a national spectacle, the Sheriff gets more frustrated and tensions rise to the explosive climax.
Convoy was Peckinpah’s second to last to film (the last being the messy and forgettable The Osterman Weekend) and so it suffered due to his worsening drug abuse. In fact, for a good portion of the film, his friend and frequent collaborator James Coburn stepped in as director while Peckinpah was sick in his trailer. He was also absent from the editing process for this film, and his three and a half hour original cut was reduced by half.
The film also suffered a bit from varying tones. Unlike similar chase films such as Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy was still grounded and slightly serious, despite having goofy characters and dialogue. For these reasons the final product seemed a bit uneven, especially for Peckinpah whose vision usually comes through strongly.
Despite the shortcomings, the movie is very entertaining as a fun adventure story with enthusiastic performances from both Kristofferson and Borgnine. Even though it is not as deep as Peckinpah’s other films, it was his most profitable raking in $45 million, shortly revitalizing his career.
9. Junior Bonner (1972)
Steve McQueen stars in Junior Bonner as the titular rodeo rider who returns home to find things have changed since he left. His brother Curly, played by Joe Don Baker, has become a millionaire land owner and developer with plans to destroy the family home in an upcoming project. Junior’s father Ace Bonner, played by Robert Preston, is in the hospital due to an accident and Junior discovers that his parents are separated for good.
To help his parents financially, to spite his brother and to prove his own self worth, Junior bribes the rodeo manager to let him ride the bull “Sunshine” again; the same bull that had previously injured him. Junior Bonner is a quaint and touching film, carried by the emotional self-discovery of McQueen’s character.
This sensitive and touching film is off-type for Peckinpah. Not wanting to get the reputation of one who only directs violent films like The Wild Bunch, he made Junior Bonner to show his depth as a filmmaker and storyteller.
The film also centers around one of Peckinpah’s favorite themes of the old fashioned loner trying to hang on to the past while the world around him advances. Set in the 70s, Junior Bonner is one of the last men clinging to the cowboy ideals and life, much like Peckinpah was one of the last filmmakers still making westerns in Hollywood.
Junior Bonner went unnoticed by most Americans at its release, performing poorly in theaters, probably because audiences were expecting an action packed Peckinpah/McQueen film. Still, the film has become more popular in recent years, garnering acclaim for McQueen’s acting, Peckinpah’s quaint script and his increasing excellence in editing, highlighted by a great opening sequence.
8. The Getaway (1972)
The second collaboration of McQueen and Peckinpah came the same year as their first. After the disappointing performance of Junior Bonner, both director and actor needed a successful film to keep their careers on track. McQueen approached Peckinpah with the script for The Getaway, written by Walter Hill, and they decided to film it right away.
The movie follows McQueen , as Doc McCoy, a convict who gets released from prison due to the powerful influence of a businessman who wants him to rob a bank. After something goes wrong during the robbery McCoy and his wife Carol, played by Ali MacGraw, go on the run from their former partners with the money. A violent and thrilling chain of events ensue building to masterfully crafted shootout.
While the plot of this film is nothing that special or original, being derivative of the many other heist movies of the era, The Getaway manages to bring new thrills and excitement due to excellent direction by Peckinpah. The editing in this film is possibly Peckinpah’s career best, with a terrific opening credit sequence and lengthy shootouts that don’t lose their heat.
This action packed thriller is tied together by one of McQueen’s best performances as the flawed and hardened McCoy, one of Hill’s coolest character creations. The Getaway was very successful in theaters and even inspired a remake in 1990 with Alec Baldwin (although I recommend that you just watch the original instead).
7. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue was Peckinpah’s first film after he shot to stardom from The Wild Bunch and he had free reign over his next project. Otherwise, this film would probably not have gotten made because, although a Western, the film is a lighthearted comedy with very little violence.
Cable Hogue, played by Jason Robards, was left to die in the desert with no water by his double crossing partners. After walking hopelessly for days, Hogue prays to god for water and finds a spring. With it being the only source of water for miles around, he builds a house and stand around it in order to sell water to thirsty travelers. Along the way, he teams up with a immoral priest and a crafty prostitute to get his business off of the ground.
Made for many of the same reasons, Cable Hogue is very similar to Junior Bonner which Peckinpah directed only two years later. Both served to distance his name from blood and violence so that he would be taken more seriously.
Like Junior Bonner, this film also deals with the theme of fluctuating times and ideals. Cable Hogue is one of the last cowboys and old school entrepreneurs in the West. He tries to hang on to his way of life, but when new technology, like cars, arrive on the scene he has to change with the times.
This understated but enjoyable film is a gem in Peckinpah’s body of work. Quirky characters and events, as well as a terrific performance from Robards, make this a sincere and human film worth a look.
6. Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973)
Due to annoyed producers who cut twenty minutes from the theatrical release, initial reception for Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid was poor due to the unbalanced producer’s cut. Since then, the original version has been restored and is now hailed as one of Peckinpah’s greatest.
James Coburn, giving a great performance, stars as Pat Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, who is ordered by higher ups to kill his old friend Billy The Kid, played by Kris Kristofferson. The film follows the pursuit as more people like cattle barons and thrill seekers get involved.
Mostly a contemplative film, interrupted occasionally by acts of brutal violence, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid centers around the moral and professional dilemma that the aging sheriff experiences. Bob Dylan also appears in the film as “Alias”, a quiet spoken member of Billy’s gang. In addition to acting, Dylan composed several moving songs to use for the score, including the now classic anthem “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”. Peckinpah regulars Jason Robards, L.Q. Jones and Slim Pickens also play supporting roles.
Beautifully shot and crafted, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a landmark film of the revisionist western genre garnering acclaim from other accomplished directors like Martin Scorsese. Despite a troubled production where Peckinpah was forced to give up some of his creative freedom, his vision manages to come through and makes this one of the best modern westerns.