Saturday, December 12, 2009

The best films Sam Peckinpah never made

All directors have projects that failed to make it into production, from Andrei Tarkovsky's Dostoyevsky biopic to Alejandro Jodorowsky's bizarro conception of Frank Herbert's 'Dune'. Few, though, can have racked up so many unrealised projects - and so heartbreaking well suited to their artistic vision - as Sam Peckinpah. Consider:

'The Cincinnati Kid'. Notwithstanding the debacle of 'Major Dundee', producer Martin Ransohoff signed Peckinpah to direct Steve McQueen vehicle 'The Cincinnati Kid'. Ransohoff envisaged it as an audience-friendly flick with the Great Depression setting firmly in the background and the card table scenes less important than McQueen's romantic entanglements with the archetypal girl next door and the seductive vamp (Tuesday Weld and Ann Margret respectively). Peckinpah saw the Depression as the key to the film and wanted to emphasise it; make the aesthetic grittier. Relations between producer and director soured. Peckinpah's suggestion that film be shot in black and white was apparently the last straw. Ransohoff had him removed. Norman Jewison took over.

'The Hi-Lo Country'. Peckinpah acquired the rights to Max Evans's acclaimed novel early in his career and he never stopped trying to get backing for it. The story is pure Peckinpah: a man born in the final years of the Old West returns to his Mexican home having served in World War II and immediately finds himself in conflict with the cattle barons who have stamped out the small-time ranchers, sacrificing tradition in the name of profit. A hero who's outlived his time; big business raping the land; the birth of corporationism; the death of the old ways. How much more Peckinpah could this possibly be? Amazingly, Sam never got the financing, and it wasn't until 1998 that 'The Hi-Lo Country' made it to the screen, screenplay by 'Wild Bunch' co-writer Walon Green, under the less-than-Peckinpahesque hand of Stephen Frears.

'Castaway'. Like 'The Hi-Lo Country', James Gould Cozzens enigmatic novel (horror? sci-fi? psychological character study?) was a pet project that Peckinpah tried to get off the ground during the course of his career. With a 'Twilight Zone' feel to the narrative and a real stinger of an ending, this could have been a fascinating departure for Peckinpah.

'Summer Soldiers'. Hugely popular TV actor Robert Culp was also a writer, contributing a two-part episode to Peckinpah's 'The Rifleman' as well as a number of episodes for his own high-rating show 'I Spy'. Culp's screenplay 'Summer Soldiers', a contemporarily set thriller about mercenaries involved in a coup on a Caribbean island, got as far as being announced by Warner Brothers in the trade presses as their next project with Peckinpah. However, Peckinpah's public feud with Warners and producer Phil Feldman after they snipped out entire sections of 'The Wild Bunch' wholesale purely to bring it down to a two hour running time put paid to any future projects and 'Summer Soldiers' was unceremoniously shelved.

'Deliverance'. With its themes of nature vs modernity, the 'civilized' man faced with (and forced to respond to) primitive behaviour, and what it costs to cross the line from victim to survivor, James Dickey's novel had Peckinpah written all over it. Indeed, Dickey himself lobbied Warners, who owned the rights, to let Peckinpah direct. Sam being persona non grata at Warners (see above), helming duties were given to John Boorman. While there's no doubt that Boorman turned in a great movie, Richard Luck puts it best in 'The Pocket Essential Sam Peckinpah' when he muses "you can't help thinking about what might have happened had Warren Oates, James Coburn, L.Q. Jones and John Chandler rowed off into the wilds with Uncle Sam at the tiller".

'Jeremiah Johnson'. Variously intended for John Milius (under original title 'Crow Killer') and then Sam Peckinpah to direct, this eventually went before the cameras with Robert Redford in the title role and Sydney Pollack calling the shots. An end-of-an-era tale with a subtext pertinent to America's involvement in Vietnam, Pollack fashioned a commendable film. I'd bet money that Milius's take would have been more challenging and visceral, and Peckinpah's more still.

'Sometimes a Great Notion'. Ken Kesey's novel focuses on an Oregon family running a logging operation. There are complex interrelationships, strike action, a wrathful and half-demented patriarchal figure, a sensitive and cerebral son in conflict with the macho ethos of the family, and the omnipresent danger of flooding. With Peckinpah's grandfather having overseen a similar operation and the parallels to Peckinpah's own family background bordering on explicit, there's no doubt he could have directed 'Sometimes a Great Notion' in his sleep and come up with an American masterpiece. According to David Weddles biography, the producers considered the novel's "psychological subtleties ... beyond his grasp". Instead it was transferred to the screen under the direction of its star, Paul Newman - one of half a dozen features he helmed. While by no means a bad movie (a very decent stab, actually, considering the thematic density and shifting perspective of the book), it's nevertheless enough to make you weep to imagine Peckinpah's take on it.

'The Shotgunners'. Just before his death, Peckinpah was mooted to direct 'The Shotgunners', an original script by Stephen King. Like Culp's screenplay for 'Summer Soldiers' it remains unproduced, however King later returned to the script as the basis of his novel 'The Regulators'.


J.D. said...

Wow, I can't even imagine how much more brutal DELIVERANCE would've been under Peckinpah's direction!

Neil Fulwood said...

Of all the projects Peckinpah didn't get to make, I think 'Deliverance' is the biggest loss to cinema. Not to detract from what Boorman did with the material, but Peckinpah would have been so much more attuned to it.