Some have called it one of the worst films ever made, and a Pulitzer Prize winning writer called it a masterpiece. I couldn’t remember why I had vague notions of dislike attached to the movie–dislike from others, I mean–until I started wandering around trying to find out why. It wasn’t hard; a lot of people seem to think the movie is just irretrievably awful, though it’s the only film Sam Peckinpah ever had final cut on, and the one he apparently called his most personal. It’s to be expected–just look at the title!–that this is not a film that was going to do anything to shake his nickname of Bloody Sam. I have seen many Peckinpah films, actually, which is unusual when I’m reviewing something by a director whose name is so well known, but this time I can point to reviews of The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Ride the High Country, and say I’ve also seen The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs and The Getaway.
Theresa (Janine Maldonado) is the young daughter of the clearly powerful El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), who summons her with tough guys who say her father is asking for her. She’s pregnant and the way she clutches at her belly makes it clear that this child is relevant to her summons. Taken in hand by the two men, Theresa is held roughly and El Jefe demands to know who the father of her child is. Shrinking in no way from finding this out by any means necessary, he pries the name from his daughter–Alfredo Garcia. He offers a million dollars to whoever brings him the head of Garcia, a veritable caravan of eager, greedy bounty hunters leaving his estate to find the man. Spreading out, Quill (Gig Young) and Sappensly (Robert Webber, more on him later) wander into a bar after trying numerous other leads, and find a man behind a piano (Warren Oates), playing and chatting up the customers of the bar. They latch onto this man, Bennie, when no one else will give them any information. They offer him a miniscule chunk of cash for his services, and he accepts, following his own local contacts. He’s told that Elita (Isela Vega) is most likely to know Garcia’s whereabouts, which leads him to a swearing bout, because Elita is his girlfriend (albeit a prostitute). Elita tells him that Garcia is already dead because of an accident, and so Bennie decides to gamble for more money from the bounty hunters. He argues them up to ten thousand, and heads off. Unknowingly, he and Elita are followed by two of the other bounty hunters already on Garcia’s trail.
It’s worth noting that the Pulitzer Prize winning writer is deserving of it for his writing skill, but it’s also worth noting that he’s a colossal moron. I’m speaking, of course, of Roger Ebert. The unfortunate fact of this is that he’s not consistently wrong OR right. He hates movies for stupid reasons, or praises them for worse ones. So, that does not mean that I should have felt dread if I’d known he said this was a masterpiece, nor excitement. I don’t know Michael Medved’s opinions or qualities very well, so I have little to say about his claim that this is one of the worst movies ever made, except that I was pretty sure he’d seen enough movies to have actual bad ones on such a list. Shows what I know about him, I guess.
This (as the “Peckinpah Scholars” commentary suggest repeatedly) is not an easy film. It’s not a fun film–though it can be funny–and it’s not a pleasant one. It’s dark and it’s violent (most people expect these things if they know Sam, though, at least) and it’s thoroughly unrelenting in its cynical feeling about humanity and the world. Many people die (the trailer claims 25, I feel that’s probably rounded, even if it’s rounded up, but am not the type to go back and count), there are some unpleasant scenes of brief torture and assault and the like, and a pair of bikers (Kris Kristofferson and Donny Fritts) come upon Bennie and Elita in the wilderness only to take a liking to her–with an obvious end intention. Bennie and Elita are sympathetic characters, even if likable may or may not be the right word, to it’s not a hollow or detached set of unpleasant events either. That isn’t to say that the film is just crushingly depressing or hopeless in tone, but rather in its “message” about the world. It moves along and doesn’t leave you with that feeling that you just want it to end because it’s so horrifically awful, but you are still shaking your head and hoping something goes just a little better. There’s a secret satisfaction that this hinges on, as we do have a protagonist to get through the whole movie with, after all. We know we’ve got Bennie to the end for sure, because this story can’t continue without him.
Oates is not an actor whose work I know very well. I’ve seen small roles from him in 1941 (and considering I’ve forgotten most of that movie, it’s no surprise, I think, that I don’t remember him in it), Badlands, Shenandoah, Ride the High Country, Stripes and In the Heat of the Night. I honestly couldn’t tell you where in any of those, so I’m left primarily with The Wild Bunch, where I still don’t have a role held down in my head. He’s fantastic here, allegedly playing a version of Sam himself, an ex-pat in Mexico who thinks of himself as a tough guy but who stumbles when faced with actual tough men. He doesn’t lack the actual skill (he’s pretty good with a gun), but he is miserable at the attitude and the mannerism. Gig Young and Robert Webber show the opposite, both cold and calculating in their approach to the whole business, disinterested in anything else and willing to do anything to get what they want. This was a bit disorienting when Webber’s face kept floating through my head as someone with glasses and an easy, friendly manner of speech. I couldn’t identify the role until I looked back through his work and there it was: 12 Angry Men. He was the ad-exec with funny anecdotes who didn’t pay attention at first. This is essentially a complete opposite role, as he is absolutely creepy and terrifying as a clearly psychopathic sadist. Vega has the right balance to match Oates, an outward vulnerability of sorts–playing on accepted social conditions for women–that hides a superior strength, unlike Oates’ attempts to be a tough guy that make him look ridiculous.
There’s a lot to be said about the film in terms of its expressions of love lost or unrecognized, the possible costs of greed, the nature of revenge and trying to achieve it (and I mean this in the Chan-Wook Park sense, incidentally). This is most of what makes it unhappy as a film, because we see a certain madness encroach on Bennie, as well as the circling whirlwind of violence that surrounds the search for Alfredo Garcia’s head. Not everyone harmed is even involved, some are completely innocent, but the greed and vengeance drive violence into their vicinity and bring violence into their lives anyway. Bennie manages to maintain his “innocence” in the audience’s eyes not by avoiding moral transgressions, but by justifying them. Not justifying in a way that makes them acceptable, but in a way that tells us both that he is trying to convince himself and believes what he says after a fashion, and that he is really not completely sure, but has devoted himself to this and to trying to get this, this last chance to escape his dead-end job.
So, was Ebert wrong? Not this time, not at all. The film is clearly doing exactly what it intends to, with all of its violence and darkness, and it does it very, very well.