David Samuel "Sam" Peckinpah (February 21, 1925 December 28, 1984) was a director of manly movies. An eccentric substance-abuser who was notorious for his gruff demeanor and rocky relationships with women, he created a number of films that perfectly reflect his own personality: violent, nihilistic and cynical. Some of them stand as modern classics.
Peckinpah specialized in Westerns, a genre that had personal resonance for him, since he was born and raised in Fresno, California, and both of his parents were descended from prominent pioneer families. He spent much of his youth on a large ranch owned by his maternal grandfather, and learned first-hand about cowboys and frontier life.
After a stint in the Marines, he attended college, then moved to Hollywood. After some early behind-the-scenes film work, he made his name in television, writing episodes of Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel and some other Western shows. A Peckinpah script originally rejected from Gunsmoke became the basis for The Rifleman, and he did some writing and directing for it during its first season. He created the series The Westerner in 1960, but it only lasted 13 episodes. He made his feature film directorial debut the next year with The Deadly Companions, featuring Westerner star Brian Keith. The Wild Bunch kicked his career into high gear in 1969, but his irascible personality and personal vices led it to sputter out by the end of The '70s. He made a few steps toward a comeback in The '80s, directing The Osterman Weekend and, oddly, two music videos for Julian Lennon, before passing away from heart failure in 1984.
His filmography includes:
- Ride the High Country: A tale about two aging ex-lawman guarding a shipment of gold in early 20th century California, it had lackluster box office when it was released in 1962 but has since been Vindicated by History.
- Major Dundee: A vicious Deconstruction of the Cavalry Vs. Indians formula crossed with Moby-Dick. A victim of extensive Executive Meddling, it (and The Cincinnati Kid from which he was fired) set the stage for Peckinpah's contentious relationships with producers and studio heads during the production of his later films.
- The Wild Bunch: His most famous film, an infamously violent anti-western about aging bank robbers in the changing west.
- The Ballad of Cable Hogue: This is a lesser-known mostly non-violent change of pace film about the proprietor of a water hole during the last days of the Old West.
- Straw Dogs: A nebbishy professor gets pushed to the brink and violently reasserts his masculinity. Remade in 2011.
- Junior Bonner: Another uncharacteristically non-violent film starring Steve McQueen (Actor) as an aging rodeo bull-rider.
- The Getaway: A crime caper also starring Steve McQueen (Actor) that was remade in 1994.
- Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Perhaps best known for being the origin of Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door."
- Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: A bloody modern western.
- The Killer Elite: A freelance spy seeks his traitorous ex-partner.
- Cross of Iron: His only war film, and an inspiration for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
- Convoy: A trucker film based on the novelty country song.
- The Osterman Weekend: His final film, based on the Robert Ludlum novel.
Sam Peckinpah's signature style includes:
- The Alcoholic: His alcoholism is often reflected in his characters.
- Anti-Hero: These types of characters are the closest you'll get to anyone to root for in Peckinpah's work.
- Author Appeal: Extreme violence of course. Most of his films also features an extreme amount of alcohol being consumed, which again isn't surprising. Another common sight are cute, innocent children doing morbid and disturbing things like torturing scorpions in The Wild Bunch, a dog in Straw Dogs and using a hangman's noose as a playground swing in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. Peckinpah seemed to believe that every passing generation became worse and less moral than the previous one, which this symbolised.
- Chronically Killed Actor: L.Q. Jones (in 5 films) and Warren Oates (in 4 films) always played characters who end up getting whacked in their Peckinpah-directed film appearances. While Oates dies in all four of his, he at least makes it to the climactic shootout in three of them. R.G. Armstrong also only survives 1 out of his 4 Peckinpah-directed appearances.
- Executive Meddling: Frequently a victim of it, as he made little effort to compromise with studio heads or producers. Major Dundee and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are the most extreme, though by no means the only examples. The Wild Bunch was a notable aversion: he worked well with producer Phil Feldman, though he disagreed with Feldman's decision to cut several scenes from the film.
- Gorn: They are pretty violent even today, so by older standards, they count as this trope.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: He reportedly preferred The Ballad of Cable Hogue to his more famous (and violent) works like The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia started out this way, being one of his most personal films (and one of the few that was free of Executive Meddling), that was both a box office and critical disappointment. It even got included in the influential 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry and Michael Medved. However, it has since become much better thought of (Roger Ebert put it on his Great Movies List), though it still lacks the popularity and recognition of The Wild Bunch.
- New Old West: Seen in The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
- Pigeonholed Director: All of his feature films are either The Western or fall broadly into the Action Genre. The lack of box office success for his two Lighter and Softer outings (The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner) further pushed Hollywood to limit the types of films they'd let him direct.
- Production Posse: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, R. G. Armstrong, John Davis Chandler, David Warner, Cassie Yates, Aurora Clavell, Emilio Fernandez, Ernest Borgnine, Steve McQueen (Actor), and Slim Pickens to name the most frequently occurring. He also frequently worked with cinematographers Lucien Ballard and John Coquillon, and composer Jerry Fielding.
- Rated M for Manly: Masculinity, violence and revenge are common themes. The dark and nihilistic tone of his films is sometimes read as a deconstruction of the trope.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Firmly romantic in all of his movies, most of them being about rogues who find that there's No Place for Me There in a more modern world. The most terrifying character in all of his movies is David Sumner, a mathematician who represents the cold, emotionless, force of order and civilization who gradually becomes dehumanized as he asserts his power over a bunch of thuggish crooks.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: He fell deeply onto the "cynicism" side of the spectrum, becoming nihilistic in the process.
- Sociopathic Hero: The Wild Bunch themselves, David Sumner, and Warren Oates' character in Alfredo Garcia.
- South of the Border: Peckinpah spent some time in Mexico as an exchange student during college, and developed an immense love for Mexican culture and history that lasted the rest of his life. Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia were all set there and filmed there as well. He also had a long Relationship Revolving Door with Mexican actress Begoña Palacios, who he first met while filming Major Dundee.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: A major part of his films was his desire to show just how horrific violence and killing were in real life.
- Twilight of the Old West: The end of the Wild West and the beginning of the Modern Age is a common theme in many of his best-known films like Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue.
- Violence Is Disturbing: As the quote above illustrates, Peckinpah made it a point to always shows violence in its most stripped down and brutal form and was determined to disabuse people of any notion that it was quick, simple or easy. A quick look at any of his films would make it clear that he succeeded.
- War Is Hell: War is always portrayed as brutally, unheroically and overall as nightmarishly as possible in Peckinpah's work.
- The Western: Many, obviously, but perhaps notably, his film Westerns are almost exclusively set in the Twilight of the Old West or the New Old West rather than the "classic" period.
- What Could Have Been: He was at one point in talks to direct Superman: The Movie but was passed after he pulled out a gun during a meeting. One can only imagine what his portrayal of the character would have looked like.