5. Ride the High Country (1962)
An early directorial effort, Ride the High Country is often considered Peckinpah’s first great movie. It stars two of biggest western stars of the previous era, Joel McCrea an Randolph Scott, pulling them out of retirement for one film. McCrea plays Steve Judd, an old soldier in charge of transporting gold across dangerous territory. He enlists the help of his old friend Gil Westrum, played by Scott, and Westrum’s young helper Heck.
Judd doesn’t know, however, that Gil and Heck plan on attacking him and stealing the gold during the journey. Things get complicated when Heck meets a young girl at a farm they sleep at. They agree to take her to see her fiance at the mining town on their way, but discover that her fiance, Billy Hammond, belongs to family of drunken hick brothers. When things go sour, Judd and company flee with the Hammonds in pursuit. Complications continue to arise, all building to a climactic shootout.
Even though Peckinpah’s unique style was not as developed at this point in his career, he still makes a perfectly executed and emotionally touching western. Both McCrea and Scott shine in one of their greatest performances, which had a lot more depth than many of their formulaic cowboy roles. L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates also appear, in their first of many Peckinpah films, as two of the vile Hammond brothers.
Ride the High Country bridged the gap between Peckinpah’s work in the classic westerns like The Rifleman and his modern works. It was more complex than many but was still typical in form and style. With the inclusion of the stars of the old style it signified the transition from classic to revisionist western. It has since been preserved in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
4. Cross of Iron (1977)
Having briefly recovered from his cocaine addiction that he acquired during the filming of The Killer Elite, Peckinpah directed one of his most emotional and honestly his last important film. Opening with a masterclass in editing of stock footage from World War II, Cross of Iron focuses on a German battalion on the Taman Peninsula during the end of the war.
James Coburn, in is final collaboration with Peckinpah, stars as German officer Rolf Steiner who struggles to maintain control of his military group as the posh, newly appointed officer in search of the cross of iron, a military award, takes over command of the region. As the two leading figures fight between themselves for authority over the battalion, the war comes to a close as the Soviets overtake the German’s position.
Quentin Tarantino cites the film as an in influence for his Inglourious Basterds and master auteur Orson Welles said it was one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. Cross of Iron is significant not only because of its condemnation of war and battle but also because of its criticism of the military aristocracy’s ignorant involvement in the war.
Venturing into such new and important territory so late in his career, Peckinpah impresses with his ability to pull together such a focused and effective film while focusing on the people who were usually thought of in the West as the enemy of the conflict.
Cross of Iron also stars the expert actors James Mason and Maximilian Schell in other leading roles as officers vying for influence over the troops. The explicit and deliberately brutal battle scenes are integral to the helpless feel of the film. Peckinpah manages to deliver some of the most powerful war footage in this underfunded and raw personal project.
Originally unpopular in the theaters, partially due to its close release to Star Wars, Cross of Iron has risen in popularity and critical reception since its premiere and is now regarded as one of the greatest and most critical war films of all time.
3. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
At the time of its release, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was one of Peckinpah’s least acclaimed and recognized films, written off as another exploitative and ignorant violent flicks of the era. It lasts, however, as his most original, bizarre and thoroughly Peckinpah-ian film he ever made.
Peckinpah favorite Warren Oates stars as opportunistic piano player Bennie who goes on a quest with his girlfriend to gather the head of the titular gigolo who has impregnated the local gang leader El Jefe’s daughter. Unknown to El Jefe, however, is that Garcia is already dead and Bennie plans on getting rich by grave robbing. Bennie’s plans go south when he is interrupted by various other wanderers like gangsters and bikers as plot grows rich with complexity and entertainment.
Alfredo Garcia is, as Peckinpah says, his only film to be released as the he intended it. Its tone is an unconventional mixture of mystery, action and black comedy led by the strange and one-of-a-kind character actor Oates. It also displays, most clearly, Peckinpah’s love affair with Mexico and its culture which, while present in many of his films, is shown in all its grotesque, romantic glory here.
In more recent years, the film has gained a significant cult following and has been praised by filmmakers such as David Lynch and Richard Linklater as being revolutionary in form for Hollywood and the purest example of Peckinpah’s directorial vision. Unorthodox in almost every way, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is an extremely offbeat, yet compelling film, representative of Peckinpah’s identity as a filmmaker.
2. Straw Dogs (1971)
Dustin Hoffman stars as American math professor David Sumner who moves into his British wife’s hometown. In this, Peckinpah’s darkest and most psychologically disturbing film, American and British cultures collide when Sumner’s wife Amy rouses interest from her past boyfriends in the town.
Tensions between him and the locals rise and Sumner’s intellectual personality fades as his violent side rises to the surface. The climactic battle shows the brutality of Sumner’s transformation in full evolution and how people can change when pushed too far.
Peckinpah dark premise was made more effective by the grungy British location, giving an unsettling feeling all the way through. The insight into the human psyche in this film is extremely disturbing because it shows that an average citizen can be turned into a violent, remorseless killer. This main theme caused most of the major controversy surrounding the film. The brutal violence and explicit rape scene also polarized many viewers.
Many considered the film to be misogynistic due to the perceived enjoyment of the rape scene but this was reportedly only because much of the unpleasant material and aftermath was cut for the initial release by the censorship board, ironically making it more offensive.
In addition to the dedicated directorial role of Peckinpah, Dustin Hoffman gives one of his most complicated and realistic performances as the desperate Sumner. This extremely affecting film, not for the faint of heart, addresses a primal but complex intricacy of the human condition. While on the surface it may seem that Straw Dogs is just another gory exploitation film, it is one of the most challenging and important films of the 70s.
1. The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wild Bunch is by far the most famous and recognized film by Sam Peckinpah, taking Hollywood by storm with its controversial action sequences and earning Peckinpah his only Academy Award nomination.
The film follows one of the greatest ensemble casts, featuring acting heavyweights like William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, as well as Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates. Holden plays Pike Bishop, the leader of an aging band of outlaws who used to thrive in the West but have faded with the changing times. Ryan plays Deke Thornton, a former partner of Bishop, now acting as a bounty hunter hire to track his gang down and kill them.
After a bloody encounter, Pike’s gang heads south of the border to Mexico where it becomes involved with the local ruler Mapache, who soon double crosses them. He two forces pressure and weaken Pike’s forces before they venture on a final push resulting in the film’s iconic, bloody and hugely controversial battle.
The blossoming point for Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch is the originating point for many of his classic stylistic conventions. Besides the gory and realistic violence, the film also explores the possibilities of complex action editing with slow motion effects and juxtaposing themes interspersed with the fighting.
He also further experiments with his theme of the aging west and the influence that the changing future has on people’s way of life. Peckinpah creates one of the most memorable films of the century off of a basic western story by forming complex and interesting characters with varying motives.
The Wild Bunch set the standard as the quintessential revisionist western film, portraying the protagonists as imperfect humans, neither right nor wrong, torn by conflicting principles and traditions. Acting on motives of desperation and uncertainty, the colorful characters in this film perfectly represent one of the most unstable and transitional times in American history.
The Wild Bunch is an absolute must see for fans of American cinema. Featuring both the talent of classic Hollywood and the future independent movements, it is one of most important films for its bravery in content and innovation in cinematic technique and production.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.