2019 Film Essays

A Lonely Breed: Sam Peckinpah’s Modern West(ern)

With the incongruous camel race that launches Ride the High Country (1962), Sam Peckinpah suggested a warping of the traditional west as well as the classic Western film. With the savage brutality and mixed morality of The Wild Bunch seven years later, he seemed to nail shut the bloody coffin on both. But as many of his films since that latter, groundbreaking feature would illustrate, Peckinpah wasn’t as interested in destroying the conventions of the Western genre as he was in taking those familiar tropes and applying them elsewhere, in similar western locations but in contemporary times, with similar characters, themes and a similar exploration of genre iconography.

The threat of encroaching modernity lingers throughout The Wild Bunch, a thematic thrust giving the film its profound, prescient implications and informing its characters of their (d)evolving ilk. They are the last of a dying breed, and their type of sovereign, reckless livelihood is waning. The west, too, is changing, and it’s leaving men like them behind: wild men, men who do not easily abide society’s conformist rules and regulations, men who are ever-reluctant to go further into the 20th century. In four films that followed The Wild Bunch — Junior Bonner (1972), The Getaway (1972), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Convoy (1978) — Peckinpah revisits this fundamental theme. Only here, the respective misfits are undeniably in and of a distinctly modern era, an age feared by those in Peckinpah’s traditional Western canon. And yet, even as he sought to redefine the west and its filmic representation, Peckinpah’s revisionist slant proved, in many ways, not so very different from a conventional iteration.

Usually stoic and somber, with only occasional flashes of humor and reflection breaking through a façade of strained seriousness, the protagonists in these four films — Junior “JR” Bonner (Steve McQueen), Doc McCoy (McQueen), Bennie (Warren Oates) and Martin “Rubber Duck” Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) — recall the surface simplicity and perceived emotional void one associates with customary Western heroes. Now, however, the superficial exterior masks a tumultuous inner turmoil, and if such psychological complexity was relatively rare in the standard Western, in Peckinpah’s contemporary riffs, the depths of the torment and doubt are intensely apparent. Each of these characters is an unsettled drifter, perpetually on the move like the western rovers who had previously trekked across America seeking land, wealth, vengeance or a new life. For JR and Martin, it’s in the nature of their blue-collar calling (a rodeo rider and a truck driver, respectively); for Doc and Bennie, it’s the result of their chosen criminal career. Like the early settlers with their dreams of westward riches, an insatiable need to ramble in search of one thing or another distinguishes a certain facet of their character, spurring the same sort of restlessness that propelled many a Western narrative. Theirs is a solitary, nomadic way of life, though these four do establish acquaintances along the way, other men in a similar line of work or, as with the man who takes Doc and wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) across the border (at gunpoint to start, then willingly), kindred spirits of a certain itinerant bent. Before he is joined by his big rig associates, Martin, for example, is introduced as a single driver barreling through the Arizona desert, operating alone with a semi in place of his faithful steed. But once united with truckers, there exists a camaraderie between the similarly employed, an established bond and even a language all their own. The same holds for JR and his interaction with others in the rodeo racket. Like those who have roamed the wild western terrain in solitude, only to eventually encounter one with a comparable past, these men share an unspoken kinship of profession and psychological perspective.

Part of that understanding has to do with the acceptance of orthodox masculinity. Like children inundated with pillars of Western machismo, these men grew up under a code of masculine conduct, bravado and iconoclast idealism. Back-to-back work with McQueen gave Peckinpah an actor who could exemplify such an outlaw persona, and in Junior Bonner and The Getaway, McQueen conveys the inherent bad-boy image Peckinpah capitalized on to great effect. This defiant disposition emerges as Junior Bonner’s opening credits conclude under, significantly, Peckinpah’s “directed by” acknowledgement. Camping by a river, his horse tied next to him, JR could have slept in a hotel or even in his car, but he sleeps under the stars in the best Western tradition. So much of what these men do is about asserting their autonomy and their refusal to be contained or cultured. The rodeo itself, although a measured test of bravery, skill and toughness, has replaced feats of marksmanship as gauges of individual daring and rash competency. In Convoy, Martin’s insubordination pits him against the strictures of law and order, an authoritarian contention between he and the other truckers on one side and Sheriff Lyle Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) on the other. Still, there is a begrudging consent that each individual (or vocation) is going to do what they’re going to do, no matter what. Martin and Lyle value their independence, sharing a cooperative philosophical stance and the somber realization that theirs is a fading type of masculine model. An unsubtle jab at unionization underscores their aversion to any sort of regulated collective.

For reasons different than JR and Martin, Doc is likewise a societal outsider. Opening The Getaway with a focus on modern legal proceedings, a bureaucratic rigmarole perceived by passive Doc to be utterly excessive, subjective and unjust, Peckinpah presents an institution far removed from the bare-bone prisons and rapid jury decisions that denoted the judicial system of an archetypal Western. It is an elaborate legal structure, running counter to the quick and feral lives of those bursting with unruly ambition. Imprisoned for four years, Doc, once released, is overcome with discomfort. There is something criminal in his nature, where breaking the law is the only way in which he can adequately function, and he only appears to regain his confidence and his true identity when planning for the impending bank robbery. He is neither himself in prison, where his anxiety is obvious, nor is he comfortable leading a life of common banality. In this, Doc (as well as Martin) evokes often-voiced sentiments concerning civilization or stagnation hindering the untamed cowboy, a conflicting dichotomy that has always been essential to the Western genus.

Driving Bennie’s migratory mode, on the other hand, is greed and blindly obsessive rage (thematic holdovers from straight Peckinpah Westerns). He is a man on a mission, a man with purpose. At first, it’s an undertaking largely for money, but his motivations stem from a more nuanced sense of obligation. The catalyst is Alfredo Garcia, the man with the film’s paramount reputation and its strongest motivating factor; the man who is, curiously, never seen alive throughout Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Despite a lack of presence, save for a photograph, his reprehensible personality and range of influence reaches the point of mythic, nearly animated proportion: when Bennie does finally attain the severed cranium, he speaks to it as if it were the man himself, carrying on one-sided conversations and caring for its capricious condition. Of course, this notion of mythmaking is a key component of the real west as well as Western cinema, and such a perception emerges in Convoy as something of a work in progress. Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye) says he has heard more stories about Martin than he has Jesse James, intimating the same sort of mythos passed along in an oral tradition of legend creation. As the convoy grows and word of the renegade brigade spreads, Martin picks up an expanded, celebrated status, a status yielding mild political sway (surely a sign of the times). The social outlaw/outcast inspires those of several cultural factions, and whether he intended it or not, his convoy draws attention for its antiestablishment comportment, stoking the fires of racial, political and economic inequity. But this large-scale sociocultural statement distinguishes Convoy from its Western predecessors, where, save for some of the more politically charged Westerns of the 1950s, most of the genre adopt an apolitical stance of self-sufficiency and a reluctance to take up a wholesale cause. Furthering this point is the inspiration for the film, the 1974 song of the same name by C.W. McCall (also known as Bill Fries), a musical chronicle that captures in verse the plight of an outlaw character, just as accounts of Jesse James, Billy the Kid and other wild west luminaries were lyrically promoted through the years.

Additional music is also present in Convoy, as groups belt out standard Western tunes like “Red River Valley” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” inclusions that highlight the prominence of music as a recurrent Western attribute. These songs, probably most identified with John Ford, are but a sampling of the generic elements evident throughout these four Peckinpah films. Among the others, common cowboy iconography is most apparent in Junior Bonner, which isn’t surprising given its rodeo context. In present times (circa 1972), objects like cowboy hats, chaps, lassos and large belt buckles remain intact, and the notion that clothing makes the man is a point hammered home when JR wakes up in the opening credit sequence and puts on his cowboy hat before he puts on his shirt, or when JR’s brother, Curly (Joe Don Baker), first appears as the embodied conglomeration of western tradition and capitalistic enterprise. In his line of work — he is on television donning a cowboy hat and pitching a mobile home development — Curly is not just contributing to the dissipating west, insofar as his housing projects are literally taking over the landscape, he’s also playing a part in the integration of Western icons into contemporary times, albeit in gimmickry, kitschy fashion. Peckinpah advances the juxtaposition as JR walks aimlessly around a festive event hosted by Curly, where features of the wild west are brought in for show, ironically so as what was once in the spot of this fiasco were the very things that now must be simulated.

While these Peckinpah films may likewise cling to certain classical Western scenarios (barroom brawls, for example), one situation frequently depicted, the bank robbery, gets an update in The Getaway. The action is familiar, but the money hauled away has been deposited by an oil company. The Texas setting keeps a few cowboy hats in place, and there remains a colloquial banter that preserves some of the good-old-boy expressions of Westerns past, but this is a new type of Texas, a Texas where big oil reigns and large corporations endorse the illegal ventures. Sometimes, however, as in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the contemporary setting isn’t so obvious; from the clothing and the dilapidated settings to the behavior of the indigenous citizenry, there is at times little to suggest the film’s 20th century framework. The strongest indication, recalling one of The Wild Bunch’s more famous statements on technology, are the modern mechanisms of mobility (motorcycles, cars, planes, and so on), which confirm the present-day setting and provide JR, Doc, Bennie and Martin the means for their perpetual movement — the desire remains the same, it’s just the methods that have changed.

Whatever the era, Peckinpah’s textured worlds could scarcely exist outside a specific geographic milieu, and while these films take place in what isn’t quite the instantly recognizable western panorama of old, it is nevertheless a significant western region. And beyond that, one such setting, serving the same function it did in classic Western film, is the U.S./Mexican border, a standard line of reprieve, diversion and escape, one that carries with it a litany of literal and metaphoric connotations. First evinced in the getaway of Doc and Carol, evasive border crossing appears in Convoy as well, as the trucking entourage makes a break for the position still portrayed as a place where one dodges arrest and retains freedom. Even though Bennie’s travels through Mexico reveal an increasingly harsh landscape, populated with violent characters and an aesthetic quality of sun-scorched ruthlessness, there is still a degree of romantic isolation within the undefended environment, especially as he and Elita (Isela Vega) fantasize about the future and lounge amid the open, deceptive tranquility. Indeed, for all its immaculate beauty, the desert also yields latent menace, its seclusion breeding a deep-seated danger.

In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, some of this stems from Bennie’s revenge rampage, which, in turn, stems from his relationship with Elita. Like Bennie, Elita is a little worse for wear. She is a lady shadier than one sees in the traditional Western, where women of ill repute are sometimes featured but the detail of their trade is often left ambiguous. Immediately indicating the seediness of their current state and their conjoint past, Bennie greets Elita with insults and threats, but from there (after dispelling pubic lice, a crude byproduct of their recent sexual tryst), romance manages to bloom. In the face of this coarse commencement, their progressively affectionate relationship stands in contrast to the surrounding vehemence, and once Elita is killed, Bennie, with nothing left to lose, grows even more impulsive. The relationship between The Getaway’s Doc and Carol is born from slight, though somewhat similar antagonism, and since his freedom was dependent on her action, she proves integral and indispensable. Although it may have been a degrading duty to start, utilizing her sexuality to fortify his release from prison, Carol acts on her own initiative and takes charge of her own destiny, in a way that is decidedly more pronounced than the generally inactive female of a traditional Western. Be that as it may, however, just as the Western is a male-dominated genre, so too are these Peckinpah films. The plot of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, for instance, is initiated by the disgraceful pregnancy of El Jefe’s (Emilio Fernández) unwed daughter, and his decision to kill the man responsible is an example of enduringly conservative patriarchal value. Less extreme is the tentative male/female union of Junior Bonner, where it is 50 minutes into the film before there is a glimpse of potential romantic interest, and it’s with just 20 minutes left that JR begins to act on the attraction. Then there is the tense, compassionate and considerate bond between JR’s father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his estranged wife, Elvira (Ida Lupino). Elvira is something of a unique female character in the Peckinpah filmography, though she fits aptly into Western film history. A strong-willed older woman who is competent, wise and fiery, she refuses to be put over by frivolous masculine ways, confronting Ace about his misdeeds and maintaining a no-nonsense point of view concerning JR’s varied predicaments. As for Convoy, although Martin is clearly a lady’s man, he is by no means the type to simply settle down. Contrary to the typical films of the genre, where a life at home with the little lady was a regularly declared desire, stable domesticity is simply not meant to be, nor is it necessarily the ideal.

As Peckinpah incorporates established genre motifs into these modern-day Westerns, there becomes no escaping the inevitable future. With Junior Bonner, he crafts what is perhaps his most overt eulogy for an antiquated culture. Maintaining the outward appearance of a time-honored cowboy, holding many of the representative mannerisms, JR is faced with not only his own mortality but that of an outmoded existence, an outlook and lifestyle he has tried hard to emulate. He finds himself out of touch with contemporary times, much as the Western film was by 1972. But Junior Bonner is not set in some large metropolis, where such features would be out of place to begin with. Prescott, Arizona is a place where these elements used to hold sway, and although it sustains its western roots on the surface or in the margins, men like JR, confronting a cumulative populous, become secluded figures, self-appointed loners who refuse to adapt. Junior Bonner is, accordingly, an elegiac film, a wistful ode to the west in transition. Flashbacks to JR’s recent rodeo defeat represent this broader theme of melancholic remembrance, as individual memory extends to the consideration of a bygone era, but his recollections about past failures and present inadequacies are paralleled by the film’s approach toward the changing west, with its own consciousness of what used to be and what no longer is. In this, the film separates itself from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Getaway, though it does resonate with Convoy, where Martin and Sheriff Lyle lament their diminishing dominion. At that film’s finish, a governor played by Seymour Cassel eulogizes Martin as representing a “lonely breed,” a type of hero who was the “living embodiment of the American cowboy tradition,” and Martin’s perceived death reflects the dying off of that very tradition. His friend Bobby (Burt Young) also draws a parallel between the cowboys of old and their modern trucker incarnations: “These lonely long highways sure grind the souls off us cowpokes,” he says. While Convoy is seen as a minor Peckinpah work, its statement on the transitional reputation of the Western film and its associative setting is pronounced.

In any event, no matter the narrative, the precise location or the given film’s critical standing, Peckinpah’s formal approach remains generally consistent. There are still the slow-motion ballets of violence, but now they take place in diners and on freeways. Near the end of Convoy, trucks line up to rescue Spider Mike, assuming a preparatory moment of calm that recalls the final fight of The Wild Bunch, and the same situation appears in The Getaway, where a brief pause signals an onrush of action, a Wild Bunch-style shootout as all roads converge in El Paso. And during their respective conclusions, Bennie and Martin both choose to go out in an existential blaze of glory, again evoking Peckinpah’s most famous Western feature. At the end of the line, they have nowhere to go — these men have lost and cost so much they choose to wander no more. There is no riding off into sunset, for their type of existence is a tiring one, a lonely one, and a perilous one, and there comes a point where that life must stop. That Peckinpah would bolster many of the same themes and visual strategies throughout his career, even after The Wild Bunch, a seemingly emphatic marker of the genre’s exhausted eminence, indicates the transitory quality of his American west, regardless of time period. His concerns are stead and true, with connections relating to alienation, desperation, vengeance and the reassuring possibility of ultimate redemption. Whenever they exist, wherever they roam, with this continuation of personality and principle, it is often as if his characters were simply picked up from the past and dropped into another time, a time where the Western — and western — spirit remains.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, The Retro Set, The Moving Image and Diabolique Magazine. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.