Who’s the best director of all time? You could chuck out a few names, and we’d all have a few crossovers. Scorsese would be a good start, he has flair, style, and great taste in music. Spielberg is a craftsman and made ‘Jaws’, one of the very finest films ever, but he’s also liable to turn on the shmaltz, so I don’t think so. David Lean made ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ so automatically gets a seat at the top table. Having said that he then made ‘Doctor Zhivago’ which is indescribably boring in places, despite Klaus Kinski being in it.
Speaking of Kinski, Werner Herzog would be an interesting left field choice if you wanted to look clever. There’s a few others, Coppola made an untouchable run of 4 masterpieces in the 70’s but then forgot how to direct good films. Clint Eastwood is the greatest workhorse director ever but there’s some shit amongst the sugar. Kubrick was great but ran out of steam after ‘The Shining’. A final personal mention should go to Walter Hill, whose career is partially founded on his love of Sam Peckinpah. Which leaves Sam Peckinpah, who really is the best director ever and this is why.
Just before I left for my second year at university, the very night before in fact, my parents asked if I wanted to go out for a meal. I said no, it’s fine, because rather than accept this gracious offer and spend some quality time with my lovely Mum and Dad I had already decided I wanted to watch ‘The Wild Bunch’ one more time. That’s how much I love ‘The Wild Bunch’. Of course I don’t love it more than I love my parents and I’m still sorry I made that choice. But…….getting into ‘The Wild Bunch’ was like film graduation for me. It’s when I started to understand grown up films and once you fall in love with Peckinpah you’ll want to watch everything he made. Even the crap. Yep, he made crap just like every director but I can forgive his crap because his best stuff is the best there is.
Like all the most interesting people Peckinpah was a deeply flawed individual. He was hot tempered and a misogynist and he took to drink and drugs like a rock star. Towards the second half of his career he was usually only good for about 2 or 3 hours work in the morning, after which he was a wreck, leaving the rest to his crew. But when he was on form, oh boy, was he brilliant!
He seemed to perfectly tap into a weary seam of American life, be it through battered old hands in his westerns or soulful but cynical tough guys in pretty much everything else. He was made to make films in the 70’s, the best decade in cinema history by quite some distance and without him a huge streak of influence would have just vanished and with it a lot of very good films to come.
His very early westerns are good but for me he didn’t really come into his own until he hit the big time with ‘The Wild Bunch’ and from then on he had a slender but ridiculously good run of masterpieces. ‘Straw Dogs’ (which despite having some very bad, wrong things in it is still a good bit of film making); ‘Junior Bonner’ and ‘The Getaway’ which are as good as Steve McQueen ever got; ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ which I would argue is pound for pound the best film ever made; ‘Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’ which is possibly the grubbiest film ever made and ‘Cross of Iron’, his only war film. Peckinpah was so good that his only war film just happens to be one of the best, if not the best in that genre. Orson Welles certainly thought so.
In between those he made ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ which is pretty good but better lent the name to a grinding, painful, brilliant song by John Cale. It’s no coincidence that ‘The Wild Bunch’ is Cale’s favourite film. He also made ‘The Killer Elite’ which should have been amazing but turned out good in a zany 70’s way instead. No shame. ‘Convoy’ was a proper load of crap but was commercially his most profitable hour and ‘The Osterman Weekend’ felt like someone else had made it whilst imagining they were Sam Peckinpah.
In terms of style he had it all. He could fill the screen with a near constant sense of melancholy and sadness but was equally capable of giving it a huge shot in the arm with some insanely ambitious but superbly realised set pieces. He was the master of not only slow motion action and perfectly timed freeze frames but also the gun fight in general. The two shoot ups that book end ‘The Wild Bunch’, the climax of ‘The Getaway’ and all kinds of bits from ‘Pat Garrett…..’ and ‘Cross of Iron’ are the accumulated highlights in terms of gun play in all cinema (top 10 movie gunfights of all time to come) and what’s even better is that it’s all done with such a sense of cool. He didn’t have to force his points as Tarantino always ends up doing. You just watch his films and they are cool. End of story.
Another great thing about Peckinpah was his use of actors. He picked great leads (William Holden, James Coburn, McQueen) but his finest skill was to foster and keep a huge gang of half-ugly, deeply charismatic character actors around him. If he wanted some filthy, mean bastard with a weeks growth of stubble he just had to open the box and there they were. And they had great names, great faces: Warren Oates (the best character actor of all time, no question), L Q Jones, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickins, R G Armstrong, Chill Wills, Gig Young, Ben Johnson and so on. You could adopt them yourself and sitting watching a Peckinpah movie suddenly becomes like a family reunion.
Peckinpah died a long time ago, certainly before I was old enough to watch his work. Sadly it had all caught up with him and that was a shame. He spent so much time arguing with producers and drinking himself silly in Mexico and making daft, angry decisions that he lost track of the fact that he was a true cinematic genius, capable of weaving a terrific old yarn without seeming to break a sweat. Given his nickname of ‘Bloody Sam’ it’s no surprise you can’t get through many of his films if you don’t like film violence and blood spurting (though it all seems U certificate by comparison these days and he never spilt a drop more than was necessary) but that’s not the reason for his films.
The reason he worked like he did was to highlight the inadequacies and triumphs of American masculinity and to give hope through the idea of men riding together and sticking together. This invariably goes wrong for his characters but at least they try, goddamit. He was also obsessed with the passing of time and the ending of old ways and almost all his best films have that running deeply through their veins.
So where’s best to start, if you’re going to bother? First go for ‘The Getaway’ because it’s just a great action movie and it’ll set you up for Peckinpah’s style. Then go for ‘Cross Of Iron’ and maybe chuck in ‘Junior Bonner’ to keep the McQueen thing going. Although it’s a bit patchy ‘The Killer Elite’ is still quite good fun and you could use it to offset the very bleak ‘Straw Dogs’, which is best described as Peckinpah’s Marmite film. Then move onto ‘The Wild Bunch’, follow it up with ‘……Alfredo Garcia’ and finish with ‘Pat Garrett…..’. That way you’ve crammed in the best film of the 60’s and at least 4 of the best and coolest films of the 70’s, and therefore all time. The others you can do if you fancy but you could also live without them. Actually, do try ‘Ride The High Country’ just for Warren Oates. He’s in Major Dundee too, so better watch that as well.
And so many little things to watch out for. The shotgun/cop car scene from ‘The Getaway’ or the final street walk before the greatest gun fight of all time at the end of ‘The Wild Bunch’. ‘Pat Garrett…..’ and ‘…….Alfredo Garcia can’t even catch their breath for superb scenes. There’s a lovely little moment in ‘Pat Garrett……’ after a bunk house shoot out where James Coburn strolls down a hill as Bob Dylan’s music kicks in. It’s so unbelievably great I could rewind it forever.
“You’re in poor company Pat.”
“Yeah, I’m alive though.”
“So am I.”
Sounds so much better when you see it, of course. Shit, Peckinpah was so great one of his films had a soundtrack by Bob Fucking Dylan.
Appropriately, as a director Sam Peckinpah was never even nominated for an Oscar, which takes how great he is to a whole new level. If Oscars were really given out to the best he’d have needed a mantelpiece the size of Japan. Don’t take my word for it. Fill this autumn with the magic of Bloody Sam.
G B Hewitt. 31.08.2017