Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Martin Baum
Cast: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández, Kris Kristofferson
Running Time: 112 min.
By Martin Sandison
Sam Peckinpah’s influence as a filmmaker is undoubted, and his run from The Wild Bunch to Cross of Iron is near-untouchable. Misunderstood at the time, his elegiac, revisionist Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid nearly destroyed his reputation in Hollywood, and was cut to shreds by the film’s producers. Peckinpah, shattered by the experience, decided to up camp to Mexico, his spiritual home, to make the film he described as the only one over which he had complete control, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
While most would call Peckinpah’s movies an acquired taste, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia divides even lovers of his filmography. At turns fiercely nihilistic, darkly funny, beguilingly strange and brimming with his trademark slow motion violence, it’s certainly a wild ride. One that was way ahead of its time and influenced filmmakers all over the world. Arrow video recently released a limited edition 4K remaster of the film on Blu-ray, which is a must for fans.
The most obvious filmmaker that the film influenced is my favourite director, John Woo. Woo has stated the film is one of his favourites, and you can see the influence especially in the lone hero as individualist idea. The opening scene of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is much-talked about; rightly so as it communicates Peckinpah’s greatness as a film maker. A young pregnant girl sits by the side of a lake, to be called in by El Jeffe (Emilio Fernandez, who played Mapache in The Wild Bunch and was a Palme D’or winning filmmaker in the 40’s) and told to vocalise who the father of her child is. The girl, once she is stripped and has her arm broken exclaims “Alfredo Garcia!”, and El Jeffe himself exclaims “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, thus setting in to motion the films plot. The location of Mexico, costumes and filmmaking convey the sense that this IS the Old West, the setting of Peckinpah’s previous films. When the next scene comes with a complete change in all aspects to locate itself firmly as contemporary, it is a shock, even to the viewer, who has knowledge of the film.
Two men attempt to track down Alfredo, and come across a bar wherein Bennie (Warren Oates) is the resident piano player. He doesn’t let on that he recognises the picture that they show him, and in the next scene talks to his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), who was in love with Alfredo. They decide to track him down, and the movie becomes at first a romantic road trip then a descent in to hell.
Those who have seen Peckinpah’s earlier movies will be surprised in the change of scale; the film has a low budget, grimy aesthetic with none of the epic scope of his previous westerns. This creates a world of dark, shadowy strangeness that reflects Bennie’s plight in the second half of the film especially. Warren Oates gives perhaps his greatest performance, communicating Bennie’s at first playful nature then dangerously unhinged state. Many have said that Oates was channeling Peckinpah himself, which adds layers of pathos to an already on-the-edge performance and film. The iconic nature of Oates look (a cool white suit) and depiction of Bennie as a violent but individually moralistic character is wonderful, and the influence on John Woo is clear (especially Chow Yun Fat’s John in The Killer).
Elita is one of Peckinpah’s most interesting female characters, as she holds sway over Bennie and shows her mental toughness in a near-rape scene. That scene features Kris Kristofferson in a cameo role, just after his role as Billy the Kid. One of the greatest songwriters of the 70’s, he became close to Peckinpah and talks candidly about him in the documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, which is an extra on the Arrow release. In small roles, Gig Young (who appeared in the mess that was Game of Death in 1978) and Robert Webber (a veteran character actor who was in the original series of Ironside and The Dirty Dozen) are superbly ambiguous as the men who hire Bennie.
The violence in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is what you would expect from Peckinpah, but on a much smaller scale than say the shootout at the end of The Wild Bunch. This doesn’t detract from its impact; actually in aesthetic construction some of the action scenes are more viscerally powerful than in some of his other films. The hopelessness of the narrative also gives credence to Bennie’s rampage of violence in the second half of the film, and really makes you root for him despite his failings.
At the time of release, a lot of critics and generally audiences didn’t understand the film and labelled it unworthy, especially in relation to Peckinpah’s earlier films. The film to me is almost as era-defining as the film most agree is his best, The Wild Bunch. However the sheer darkness that descends in the second half of the film is so all-encompassing it can be a disturbing watch, but one that is rewarding in every sense.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 9/10