Monday, 21 January 2013

Sam Peckinpah: Screening Violence

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah died of heart failure at the age of 59 on December 28th, 1984, following years of hard living. The following day a brief obituary was published in The New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, ‘best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence attained notoriety for such films as The Wild Bunch, a brutal picture that was by several thousand red gallons the most graphically violent Western ever made and one of the most violent movies of all time.’ 

Following the release of The Wild Bunch in 1969, Peckinpah became known as ‘Bloody Sam’. In 1971, Peckinpah released Straw Dogs – a brutal tale of rape and revenge set in Cornwall, thus sealing his claim to notoriety as a director of violent films. 

Sam Peckinpah became a bankable, yet controversial director. Much in demand, he sought to justify his work in a series of interviews to a variety of newspapers and magazines while also writing missives to newspaper editors defending his films and rebutting his critics.

Some feminist writers criticised his films for their representation of women and their allegedly unbridled use of violence. The critical consensus coalesced around the idea of Peckinpah as a violent director and the debate that ensued centred not only around the apparently ‘violent films’ but also affected the response to his more meditative works. 

Prior to The Wild Bunch Peckinpah’s work was not particularly noted for its excessively violent themes or style. In his early career Peckinpah had been involved in the production of a number of television serials as well as three feature films including Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965) which were marked by an intelligent and original take on the Western genre. 

Following The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah made the elegaic The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) – ‘the story of two guys, a gal and a stretch of desert’. Following the controversial Straw Dogs, Peckinpah directed Junior Bonner (1972) starring Steve McQueen as an ageing rodeo rider. Made in between his forays into violent cinema both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner are lyrical depictions of individuals in changing times – a theme found in much of Peckinpah’s work including his late masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

In the following extract from John Cutts’ 1969 interview, Sam Peckinpah discusses his career up to that point and his hopes for the success of The Wild Bunch:

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
‘The following took place at Sam Peckinpah’s Malibu beach house. A charming, if somewhat crowded, hideaway on that particular Saturday afternoon. For in addition to Peckinpah and myself, there were at least eight children, nine adults, and a wandering python. It was a warm spring day and I felt even warmer due to a touch of flu. Ever the considerate host, Mr. Peckinpah insisted on mixing several personally guaranteed flu cures – all of them containing large amounts of whisky and gin. At the end of the afternoon Mr. Peckinpah presented me with a signed photo bearing the message ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way’ (a line taken directly from ‘The Wild Bunch’). A sentiment, Sam lad, that fits my viewpoint just as well. My thanks again for everything – good talk, the considerable pleasure of your company, the potency of your flu cures, and most important – for introducing me to that damn snake of yours before the gin and whisky began to take effect.’

Let’s begin with some background details. There’s a rumour that you’re part Indian – is that true?

Well, I had a great aunt Jane who was a full-blooded Paiute. Other than that, I’m a Californian, born and raised here – as were my parents and grandparents. My grandfather, Charles Peckinpah, started a sawmill up in Madera County outside Fresno in 1873. There’s a mountain there, the Peckinpah Mountain, where my father was born. My other grandfather, Denver Church ran cattle out of Crane Valley about ten miles away. Old Denver went broke thirteen times, not that it worried him any; cattleman, superior court judge, district attorney, congressman, he had quite a life. Lincoln Peckinpah, Rice Peckinpah, Mortimer Peckinpah – aren’t those great sounding names? It’s a very colourful family.

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
With your family roots so firm in the soil, how come you were attracted to the theatrical life?

I have no idea. I always wanted to raise cattle – though by temperament I’m completely unsuited, my ranch now is a disaster area. As a kid I used to read a lot (even when working on my grandfather’s pack station up in the high country), used to see as many movies as I could. Maybe the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I took a directing class at Fresno State after leaving the Marines, and that led to enrolling at USC for a master’s degree in drama. After this I sorta drifted: I became producer/director for the Huntingdon Park Theatre, then I went to Alburquerque (wife and baby in tow) to do summer stock as an actor, then I came back to LA to work in TV as a stagehand. KLAC was the station and I stayed there two and a half years until I was fired as a floorsweep on The Liberace Show because I refused to wear a suit. It was at KLAC that I put together some experimental films making them on my own time and money (I started at twenty-five dollars a week, and graduated to eighty-seven fifty). Not that they were any good. More like homework, you might say.

Didn’t you get a job with Allied Artists about this time?

Right. A friend got me in to see Walter Wanger, who got me a job as fourth assistant casting director. A gopher really; you know, go for this, go for that. Then I got upped to dialogue director – with Don Siegel on Riot in Cell Block Eleven in fact.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Directed by Don Siegel)
Aren’t you supposed to have acted as well during this period? There’s a story that you can be seen in Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’.  

I played four different parts in Body Snatchers. Peckinpah, man of a thousand faces. I was also stunt man on the picture. Let me think, I was a meter reader, a pod man, and a member of the posse. In addition, Don also had me on it as a writer for two weeks. My best performance, though, is in Wichita (directed by Jacques Tourneur). There’s this great scene I have with Joel McCrea. He comes into the bank and I’m behind the counter. He looks at me. I look at him, and then I say ‘Forty dollars.’ Great stuff. I’m also in The Annapolis Story as a helicopter pilot if you look close enough.

What came next?

I sorta drifted into television writing. While at Allied I met Charles Marquis Warren, and when he became producer of Gunsmoke he asked me to do a script for him. As I remember, it took me five months of day and night writing to get the first one finished. But once the first one was behind me, I breezed ahead writing, I think, at least a dozen Gunsmokes. From this I turned full-time writer, working on The 20th Century Fox Hour, then I created two series of my own in The Rifleman and The Westerner. The first time I was allowed to direct anything was on the Broken Arrow series. I’d written about four segments, so as a gift they let me direct the final show before it came off the air. It really went to my head. There was one scene I must have photographed from at least eighteen different angles. I was never so frightened in my life. Don’t let anyone kid you, it’s bloody murder learning how to direct.

Wichita (Directed by Jacques Tourneur)
How did you make the switch from TV to movies?

Well, I’d developed such a marvellous relationship with Brian Keith on The Westerner series that he kinda took me along with him on The Deadly Companions. Anyway, the producer of the picture, Charlie Fitzsimmonds – Maureen O’Hara’s brother – took me on as a hired hand director. It wasn’t the best deal in the world for either of us. He wanted someone he could push about. I wanted to make a picture as best I could. I offered my services as scriptwriter, which he promptly refused. Every time I’d volunteer for anything. he’d tell me to go back in the corner.

Brian had sense enough to know we were in trouble with the script, so between us we tried to give the thing some dramatic sense. Consequently, all of his scenes have a certain strength. while those with Miss O’Hara (with whom I was forbidden to talk) come off not at all well. At the end of the picture, Mr. Fitzsimmonds took over the editing, scrapping my original cut. He then got into such a mess that he had to return to my original pattern – although I defy anyone to make sense of the ending. If it hadn’t been for Brian and old Bill Clothier, the cameraman, it would have been unbearable.

Ride the High Country (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Was it because of ‘The Deadly Companions’ that you were invited to do ‘Ride The High Country’?

I think it helped. Though I think The Westerner series helped more. By the time I came to the pictures, they had a story by N.B. Stone, and Bill Roberts was working on a screenplay. They also had two agreements from Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea to play the leads (though not to play the parts they eventually played: one lunch-time they switehed roles – Scott going from good guy to bad guy, McCrea from bad guy to good guy).

It was a small picture by MGM standards at least, but there was a great excitement about it. We had a good crew – Lucien Ballard as cameraman, Leroy Coleman as art director (he was marvellous: at one point he stole the sails used on the Bounty to make the tents in the mining camp scene), and Frank Santillo as chief cutter. The shooting schedule was tight – we had twenty-four days. I think I went over by two days owing to being snowed out of two locations.

It’s funny to remember, but during the shooting Sol Siegel, the then-head of MGM production, called me and said ‘Stop shooting like John Ford. Learn to behave.’ Well, not knowing what the hell he meant, I kept shooting the way I had from the start. Later, on putting together a first assembly, he called me up again and said ‘You gambled with that funny style of yours - and you’ve won. I like it. Go ahead and make the final cut.’ All of which cheered me enormously.

Ride the High Country (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
But then MGM underwent a management change – Sol Siegel being replaced by Joe Vogel. Well, the new management took a look at the picture and they hated it – no if’s or but’s. They loathed it. I think it was the wedding scene in the miner’s camp that did it. All those raddled whores. Anyway, Vogel told me that it was the worst film ever made and that he would not release it – unless he was forced to. I was then kicked off the lot, not being allowed to work on the dubbing or the scoring. Though the version that came out was mostly mine – except for twenty-eight feet cut from the brothel scene.

Then, when MGM had to release the picture owing to some overseas booking commitments, a miracle happened – it began to find its audience. The critics were kind – especially in Europe and pretty soon the film began to get the playdates it deserved all along. It was a delayed victory for all of us.

What had you been doing while waiting for ‘High Country’ to come out? 

What I always do in moments of despair – I head back to TV and write westerns. While waiting for High Country to emerge, I did two hour-long features that Dick Powell produced: Pericles on 34th Street and The Losers. The first was a drama, the second a rowdy comedy with Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn as a couple of conmen on the run. Keenan and Lee had a ball, and the whole thing was a joy to do. I had a good time.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What came next – ‘Major Dundee’?

Yes. Columbia wanted a picture to be made under three million dollars to fulfil a commitment they had with Chuck Heston. They had a script of sorts – something that Chuck and I both saw potential in providing I could do some re-writing. The producer assigned to the picture, Jerry Bressler, gave his blessing to what we wanted to do – though when it came time to shoot, he double-crossed us by ordering fifteen days cut from the schedule.

Was this when you were actually shooting the picture? 

No, two days prior to starting. I said what he was asking was impossible, that I would rather leave the picture there and then. To which he replied: ‘Look, I’m acting under instructions from New York. Leave it to me, I’ll take care of it.’ But he never did. When I saw the final release print, which is to say Columbia’s final release print, not mine, I was sick to my stomach. I tried to have my name taken off it, but by this time the machinery was too far along. What I had worked so hard to achieve – all of Dundee’s motivation (what it was that made him the man he was) – was gone. This was material I’d both written and shot and cared very much about, but which Bressler or Columbia had thought unnecessary to the total effect of the film.

It’s hard to say who the villain was – maybe Jerry, though he was under tremendous pressure from the studio at that time because he was involved in another picture that wasn’t turning out well... something with Lana Turner, Love Has Many Faces. Major Dundee. It gives me the shivers thinking back on the arguments I had with Bressler and the studio. Maybe I should have argued more strongly going in, telling them in no uncertain terms as to what sort of film I was after rather than taking it for granted that they would let me have my own way once I’d shot the material.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
It’s an odd picture. Marvellous in parts, plain bewildering in others. But from the moment Heston gets involved with Miss Berger it never plays as a whole. That whole Durango episode; Dundee finding degradation in the arms of a whore and that fly-by-night escape, just baffles the hell out of me. 

Well, Berger was wrong, totally wrong. She’s a nice lady, but I should have fought her casting from the start. She was wrong and it hurt the picture. As for Dundee’s degradation, that’s all mine. But where it fails, where it refuses to make sense, lies in the fact that all of Dundee’s motivation, the why behind it all, is all gone. I shot a series of progressive incidents in which Dundee kept failing in what he was doing – punching up the difference between what he set out to achieve and what he achieved. I looked at him very closely, zeroing right in on his locked-in approach to his own ego. All of which was cut and junked. I figure I must have shot about forty-five minutes of Dundee under the microscope. The picture ran beautifully at two hours and forty-one minutes by my cut. Heston was superb. The release print was chopped to two hours and fourteen minutes.

In order to gain some extra shooting time, didn’t Heston offer to return his salary to the studio?

Yes, he made the offer, and they accepted it – they took back their money. It was a very gallant gesture. And you know something, Columbia never had the grace to even have a public preview on the picture. There was a showing for some exhibitors, and that was it, all the final cuts came from that.
Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What came next, ‘The Cincinnati Kid’? 

Yes, I prepared the production, spending about four months on it. None of it pleasant, I might add. Marty Ransohoff was the producer, and to put it politely, we did not see eye-to-eye. There was a time when it no longer made sense even to meet with him on story conferences. Steve McQueen too. Steve and I used to meet, talk, then we’d type up a memo for Marty. It was a very strange relationship. I only started to shoot with the agreement that Marty wouldn’t come on the set. Anyway, I started it, shot for four days, then got bounced. Then they hired a new director and made the picture they wanted to make all along.

Rumour hath it that you set out to provoke Ransohoff by shooting take after take of Ann-Margret in the nude.

Untrue. I did a damn good riot scene, then another long scene between Rip Torn and a Negro prostitute in bed, and that was it. Oh, I was also shooting in black and white. They had wanted colour, but I didn’t.

Coming so close on ‘Dundee’, it was obviously a bad time to get fired. 

God protect me from you English – the world’s greatest understaters! But you’re right, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, couldn’t even get into a studio. It was a long, hard period. Then some TV things came along – including the opportunity to write and direct a version of Noon Wine.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What about the script to ‘The Glory Guys’? 

That had come earlier, about five years previous. Did you ever see it? How about that casting! The same people who made it did another favourite movie of mine – Geronimo, with Chuck Connors in the title role. One of the funniest movies ever made. A positive riot.

What about ‘Villa Rides’? 

Well, the success of Noon Wine sorta took the curse off me. Villa Rides was a straight writing job with little chance of me directing it. I was flown to London to meet Yul Brynner, but he hated the script so much I came home by the next plane. Bob Towne was later hired to do a rewrite on it.

Wasn’t there a time, probably before all this, when there seemed a possibility of you and Disney getting together? 

He called me over to write a Shane-type picture called Little Britches. And I finally came up with the best script I’ve ever written. Walt read it and said ‘too much violence and not enough dogs.’ Well, the violence I plead guilty to, but as for not enough dogs... End of project, though like most things I work on it’ll turn up someday. Did you know I wrote the first script on Brando’s One Eyed Jacks? I worked with Brando for about a month. Very strange man, Marlon. Always doing a number about his screen image, about how audiences would not accept him as a thief, how audiences would only accept him as a fallen sinner – someone they could love. As it was released, I think I’ve only one scene left in the film – the one where Marlon knocks the shit out of Timothy Carey. The rest is all Marlon’s.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Let’s come smack up to date. You’ve now made two films back-to-back for Warners-Seven Arts. How did this come about? 

Through the courage and wisdom of one man – Kenny Hyman. When he took over as production chief of Warners-Seven Arts, one of the first people he sent for was me. Kenny had seen Guns and loved it. He’s that sort of person; if he digs you, the studio is yours. Now, Kenny had a project of his own called The Diamond Story he wanted me to do, but when that fell through because of some casting problems, he agreed to let me go ahead on The Wild Bunch.

It’s a western about the betrayal of friendship. An all-guy western with Bill Holden, Bob Ryan, Ernie Borgnine, Eddie O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates. It’s about a gang of American bandits who steal a US ammunition train and attempt to sell it to some Mexican revolutionaries. It’s about a convict (Robert Ryan) on parole who is ordered to track down all his former friends and gangmates. And it’s very, very violent. During the first preview, thirty-two people walked out during the first ten minutes.

This was during the bank hold-up scene? 

Yeah, the picture begins with a bank hold-up that goes wrong, that ends in slaughter. Wild Bunch is not a pretty picture. It’s the story of violent people in violent times. Violence to the people in the movie is not just a means to an end, it’s the end itself. I make that point very clear. The preview cards were wild: at least thirty per cent said ‘Outstanding. The best picture I’ve ever seen’; and the rest said ‘Disgusting. The most violent picture ever made’; then they’d say ‘Highpoints: the battle scenes, the best ever seen.’ I think a lot of people are going to be shocked – least I hope so. I hate an audience that just sits there.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Tell me about the picture that followed ‘The Wild Bunch’. 

It’s a comedy of sorts called The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The story of two guys, a gal and a stretch of desert. Jason Robards and David Warner are the guys, Stella Stevens plays the gal. At the moment we’re still editing, still trying to sort out what we have. I’m trying to figure out a way to use a split-screen technique in it. Not fussy like in Thomas Crown. More like it was done in The Boston Strangler.

A couple of quick, final questions. You’re supposed to be a tough man to work with. 

I work very hard, if that’s what you mean. Or maybe you heard how I fired two dozen people off Cable Hogue? Well, did you see that trade ad the cast and crew took out for me? There’s a difference between the things heard here in Hollywood and the way things happen on location you know.

How fast do you work? Do you overshoot? 

I shoot about 22 to 1, and I cover very well. I have a low take ratio – about two to one. I like to use more than one camera – sometimes as many as three or four.

Any ambition you want to fulfil? 

An awful lot is going to rest on how The Wild Bunch makes out. The studio seem to share my enthusiasm. Whether it’s too violent or not, I simply don’t know. I tried to make it as tough as I know how. As tough, and as honest as I know how. And as far as I’m concerned, the two are quite compatible.

– John Cutts: ‘Shoot! Sam Peckinpah talks to John Cutts’, Films and Filmmaking. 16:1, October 1969, pp. 4-9. Reprinted in ‘Sam Peckinpah: Interviews edited by Kevin J. Hayes, University of Mississippi Press (2008).

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