The Films of Sam Peckinpah

Kurzbeschreibung: Considered the best director of his generation, he is one of the most controversial filmmakers in cinema history and, under the increasing influence of alcohol and drugs, made ten films between 1968 and 1978 in which he explored the same themes and topoi over and over again, from animalistic potential for violence to betrayal and deceit in intimate relationships and friendships to corrupt elites—Sam Peckinpah made films that not only bear an unmistakable signature, but that no one can forget. The following retrospective celebrates the diversity of Peckinpah’s directing oeuvre, which spans three decades from 1961 to 1983.


The melancholy of the Old West shortly before its downfall, the bigotry of corrupt elites, death in slow motion: Sam Peckinpah’s films thrilled or disturbed critics and could send entire cinema halls into shock or bloodlust, but they left no one cold—a retrospective.

All films by Sam Peckinpah

  • Nummer 1

    The Deadly Companions (1961)

    Peckinpah’s film debut

    Brian Keith as Yellowleg and Maureen O’Hara as a widow with a double-barrelled rifle who stands guard on foot in the prairie with two horses.

    The plot: A Civil War veteran escorts a widow through hostile Apache territory so that she can bury her slain son in a ghost town.

    With „The Deadly Companions„, TV series director Sam Peckinpah made the leap from the screen to the big screen.

    „Bloody Sam’s“ film debut is clearly more a commission than his own work—where later in his films bodies are ripped apart by bullets with brute slowness, Peckinpah’s influences here still seem like timid attempts to break commercial conventions, but nevertheless reveal this filmmaker’s extraordinary talent for staging.

    90 Min.
    Western drama
    Sam Peckinpah
    with Brian Keith, Maureen O’Hara, Steve Cochran, Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Will Wright, Billy Vaughan, Buck Sharpe, Peter O’Crotty, James O’Hara, Hank Gobble
  • Nummer 2

    Ride the High Country (1962)

    Peckinpah recommends himself for Hollywood

    Randolp Scott and Joel McCrea as aged Westerners with focused shooutout looks on a farm against the backdrop of a rocky mountain.

    The plot: Two frontier veterans (gravely cast with genre veterans Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott) are long past their prime when they get hired by a bank to protect a gold shipment from bandits in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

    Ride the High Country“ already flashes the brilliance of „The Wild Bunch„, the great Peckinpah Western: the melancholy of aged westerners and their companionable path to ruin.

    In retrospect, one can see how here a young director is using an inherently hackneyed Wild West plot to surreptitiously inject a dirty realism into the Western as a vaccine against the eternal clichés of a long tradition of soft-boiled Hollywood films—in „Ride the High Country“ everything is a touch more rancid, more worn out than in other Westerns. There is the mangy rain jacket of one of the two protagonists, plagued by back and foot pain; the judge—almost always a person of respect in Westerns—is a sweaty drunk and the former gunslinger needs glasses to read.

  • Nummer 3

    Major Dundee (1965)

    Mario Adorf, Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, James Coburn and others as cavalrymen on horseback in trist-dry surroundings.

    The plot: In the middle of the American Civil War, a Northern cavalry commander leads a squad to Mexico to hunt down an Apache chief.

    After his first two films had cost him a lot of nerves in the clinch with studio bosses and producers, „Major Dundee“ turned into Peckinpah’s fierce Hollywood trauma.

    What could have been the film of his life was, in Peckinpah’s eyes, in the end a celluloid torso dismembered by incompetent fangs, „one of the most painful things that has ever happened in my life“[1]. Despite the heavy use of studio scissors, „Major Dundee“ dismantled the cinematic myth of the heroic cavalry and featured a remarkably shady protagonist in Charlton Heston’s officer, who goes into battle with drunken scoundrels.

    [1] Peckinpah quoted after Whitehall, Richard: Talking with Peckinpah (1969), in: Hayes, Kevin J. (Hg.): Sam Peckinpah: Interviews, Jackson 2008, pp. 46–52, here p. 51 [highlighting in the original].

  • Nummer 4

    Noon Wine (1966)

    Peckinpah’s comeback film

    Close-up of Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland as a farming couple in conflict-ridden conversation.

    The plot: When the enigmatically silent but hard-working drifter Olaf Helton hires on at the Thompson farm, the disintegration of a family takes its course.

    After the temporary end of his Hollywood career, Peckinpah took refuge where he had come from: in television. With his decelerated TV western „Noon Wine„—strongly cast with Broadway grandee Jason Robards and Hollywood aristocrat Olivia de Havilland—he showed how a single violent outburst can shatter a person’s life, and in the process rehabilitated himself as a director and screenwriter.

    49 Min.
    Sam Peckinpah
    with Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland, Per Oscarsson, Steve Sanders, Peter Robbins, Theodore Bikel, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones, Robert Emhardt
  • Nummer 5

    The Lady Is My Wife (1967)

    Peckinpah’s theatrical film

    Jean Simmons bare-shouldered in a hotel room in front of a large mirror, Alex Cord behind her.

    The plot: A Southern couple, two Civil War losers, arrive in a ghost-town Western nest in the North—the ex-colonel’s rigid adherence to yesterday’s values and notions of honour threatens his marriage to his wife, who is coveted by a heavily wealthy rancher.

    After Peckinpah was back in the game with his critically acclaimed „Noon Wine“ success, he made another TV movie for Universal, which he garnished with his now typical undertones and details—almost like a play.

    47 Min.
    Sam Peckinpah
    with Bradford Dillman, Jean Simmons, Alex Cord, Begona Palacios, L.Q. Jones, Billy M. Greene
  • Nummer 6

    The Wild Bunch (1969)

    Peckinpah’s quintessence of the Western

    Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine march side by side as armed outlaws into the camp of Mexican soldiers.

    The plot: In 1913, a gang of outlaws gets caught between the fronts of the Mexican Civil War, pursued by relentless bounty hunters.

    After the debacle of „Major Dundee“ and his expulsion from The Cincinnati Kid“ (1965), Peckinpah, excommunicated from the film industry, fought his way back to Hollywood via television. „The Wild Bunch“ became the film he had already wanted to make with „Major Dundee„, and with its study of human brutality is something like the quintessence of Peckinpah cinema. In parts the portrait of a romantic-melancholic outlaw camaraderie, the film culminates in a grotesque inferno of violence as a brutal counterpart to the classic Hollywood Western.

  • Nummer 7

    The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

    Peckinpah’s love story

    Stella Stevens as Hildy in noble garb and Jason Robards as Cable Hogue in businesslike outfit; both stand intimately against the backdrop of a stagecoach.

    The plot: On the eve of the automobile age, fortune hunter Cable Hogue finds a waterhole in the middle of the desert with which he plans to supply stagecoaches. While building the desert watering hole „Cable Springs“, the stalwart desert entrepreneur falls in love with the prostitute Hildy.

    In the violence-intensive Peckinpah oeuvre, „The Ballad of Cable Hogue“ is something of a romantic comedy.

    The Western fairy tale shows loneliness and deceitfulness as social constants of the Old West; and even more than the title (anti-)hero, the film is about the prostitute, who in Peckinpah’s cinema, contrary to common moral concepts, is always the only sincere person anyway.

  • Nummer 8

    Straw Dogs (1971)

    Peckinpah’s scandalous film

    Frontal shot of Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in the gloomy living room of his English country house in a concentrated defensive posture with a double-barreled rifle at the ready.

    The plot: When a young mathematician in the remoteness of a southern English farmhouse fights off a drunken lynch mob from the nearby village, violence escalates mercilessly.

    From the very first second of the film, Peckinpah unleashes an underlying threat potential in „Straw Dogs„, which is eventually detonated by a mixture of primitive vigilante desires and the awakening of an archaic will to assert oneself.

    The explicit depiction of violence—from a relentless rape sequence to the streams of blood flowing from the bullet wounds of mutilated bodies—makes this film, which outraged contemporary moralisers, a complex study of human brutality.

  • Nummer 9

    Junior Bonner (1972)

    Peckinpah’s family drama

    Close-up of Steve McQueen as ex-rodeo champion Junior Bonner, with a stoic, strained look.

    The plot: In Prescott, Arizona, for returning ex-rodeo champion Junior Bonner, family conflicts are as exhausting as riding furious bulls.

    Junior Bonner“ inspects the peculiar rodeo milieu as a semi-anachronistic element of society—archaic masculinity rituals and carefree voyeurism. Hollywood warhorses Ida Lupino and Robert Preston steal the show even from Steve McQueen’s jaded stoicism.

  • Nummer 10

    The Getaway (1972)

    Peckinpah’s commercial action thriller

    Close-up of Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as gangster couple in alerter pose; he holds a gun at the ready.

    The plot: Professional bank robber „Doc“ McCoy, out on parole, is supposed to rob a bank for a businessman—the prelude to a series of violent complications.

    After their box-office flop „Junior Bonner„, scratched Hollywood star McQueen and perennially faltering director Peckinpah tried a second time—and this time landed a gigantic box-office hit that grossed ten times its cost.

  • Nummer 11

    Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

    Peckinpah’s dismantling of a myth

    Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid in a casual pose in front of a wall with a whiskey glass in his hand, a half-full whiskey bottle is in the foreground.

    The plot: In late 19th century New Mexico, ex-gangster Pat Garrett, now a man of the law, hunts down gunslinger Billy the Kid, with whom he has an almost paternal relationship.

    Sweaty Western violence, death in slow motion and Bob Dylan: „Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid„, for which supporting actor Dylan wrote „Knockin‘ On Heaven’s Door„, Peckinpah used less as an unembellished depiction of a US Wild West myth than as a look at the law as a stretchable instrument of morally depraved elites.

  • Nummer 12

    Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

    Peckinpah’s project of the heart

    Warren Oates as Bennie in battered condition, with sunglasses and pistol at the ready, a dead body lying in the background.

    The plot: Bounty hunters pour out to bring the head of Alfredo Garcia to a Mexican patriarch—a million dollars awaits.

    Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia„, the infernal road trip of the washed-up bar pianist Bennie, played so brilliantly by Warren Oates, is perhaps Peckinpah’s most personal film, with and the sentimental portrait of Mexico and the love story buried among all the meticulous depictions of violence.

  • Nummer 13

    The Killer Elite (1975)

    Peckinpah’s martial arts persiflage

    James Caan in a slightly bent posture at the open driver’s door of a Porsche 911 "Targa" against an ominous Californian sky.

    The plot: invalid secret service agent Mike Locken fights his way back into his old job with a cane to get revenge on his treacherous partner.

    When Peckinpah made „The Killer Elite„, his directing career was already in decline—and as if to confirm this, the film failed with most critics. Yet the film, garnished with contemporary, popular martial arts elements, unfolds its very own charm, not least because of the great cast with noble supporting actors and the superbly photographed setting of San Francisco.

  • Nummer 14

    Cross of Iron (1977)

    Peckinpah’s anti-war film

    Relentless fight for survival in the trenches of the Eastern Front.

    The plot: Sergeant Rolf Steiner leads a platoon of hardened front-line pigs through the cruel retreat battles of the Eastern Front at the Kuban bridgehead in the summer and autumn of 1943.

    With its delirious battle scenes, „Cross of Iron“ is one of the most intense anti-war films ever made. One should be grateful that Peckinpah’s staging of gun violence has also taken on the Second World War and that the miserable slow-motion deaths of the soldiers capture the madness of war.

    The fact that the excellently cast „Cross of Iron“ also explores the simultaneity of egoistic order hunters and command receivers deformed into professionalised survival fighters is then almost a minor matter.

  • Nummer 15

    Convoy (1978)

    Peckinpah’s road movie

    Frontal view of parallel trucks on the highway horizon.

    The plot: The desperate self-defence of a handful of truckers under their charismatic leader „Rubber Duck“ against the police violence of a sleazy Heartland sheriff escalates into a politically tinged truckers’ protest and mass media event.

    In retrospect, the 18-tyre roar of the rebellious truck drivers appears as an outlet for the frustrated US working class at the end of the 1970s.

    Peckinpah followed the filming as an erratic drug wreck, which contributed to the indecisive effect of his penultimate work, as did the assumption of the final cut by hands other than the director’s—which was probably due to the fact that he secretly thought the project was doomed to failure early on. Nevertheless, there were ingeniously crazy-martial road-trip images.

  • Nummer 16

    The Osterman Weekend (1983)

    Peckinpah’s view at the observation society

    Rutger Hauer as a television journalist, shown on several monitors in a TV studio.

    The plot: A television journalist learns from the CIA that his best friends are communist traitors in the service of the KGB whom he must now spy on.

    Like a mirror of the director himself, who gave up excessive smoking and drinking after a heart attack, „The Osterman Weekend“ seems far less intense than earlier works. Instead, it proves to be an interesting conclusion to the sobering decade after „Watergate“ and a pessimistic preview of a secret bureaucracy technologically capable of opaque surveillance.

Text verfasst von: Robert Lorenz