Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"The days are closing fast": a biographical overview of Sam Peckinpah


David Samuel Peckinpah was born on 21 February 1925. He was named David after his father. Even in childhood, though, family and friends knew him as "D Sam". Later, it was just plain Sam.

His father was lawyer who believed in God, discipline and the absolute letter of the law. His mother was highly-strung, complaining of nerves and headaches and taking to her bed at the first sign of any challenge to her matriarchy. The tension between his parents was something he drew on in his depiction of fractured marriages in 'Noon Wine' and 'Straw Dogs'.

Peckinpah's brother, Denny, did the expected thing and followed their father into legal practice. Sam wanted none of it. "I felt like an outsider," he reflected in adulthood, "and I started to question them. I guess I'm still questioning them." Dubious at the early expression of his son's artistic and sensitive leanings, David took Sam out on hunting trips. It became a tradition for the menfolk of the Peckinpah household: Sam, Denny, David and Sam's maternal grandfather, Denver Church. It's easy to see, here, the genesis of Peckinpah's contradictory personality - well-read, intelligent, sensitive, romantic and yet infused with an unapologetically rugged and masculine ethos steeped in the wilderness, the trail and a rifle in one's hands - and equally easy to see David's motivation: like many men of a certain generation, he was hellbent on making his son a man.

He might have had cause to wonder if he'd pushed him a little too far in that direction when, just short of his eighteenth birthday, Sam joined the Marines. His basic training at Parris Island was not too dissimilar from 'Full Metal Jacket', a psychological breaking down of the greenhorns' personalities and a remolding of those individual into a unit. Editor Lou Lombardo noted, on the set of 'The Wild Bunch', that William Holden's performance was basically an assimilation of Peckinpah's own personality into the character of Pike Bishop and that Holden was "running the Bunch just like Sam was running the movie". Pike Bishop is hard-bitten, ice-cold when he needs to be and a man singularly lacking in bullshit or the ability to compromise. He is a tough and resolute leader of men. Some people go into the military and it becomes their life. For Peckinpah, it was the first step on the road to becoming a director.

He served in China in 1945. It was soon after VJ Day and Peckinpah's unit were helping to supervise the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese soldiers stationed in China. Although Peckinpah didn't see conflict, he witnessed the aftermath - another trait evidenced in his films. Consider the extended codas to the opening and closing shoot-outs in 'The Wild Bunch'. Many directors would have just filmed the action; Peckinpah lingers just as powerfully on the bloody and pitiful cost of it.

Returning home in 1946, he enrolled at college - not, as his father still hoped, to study law - and soon made the switch from a history course to drama studies. That catalyst was a woman named Marie Selland, who became Peckinpah's first wife. She was studying acting and because of her Peckinpah became fascinated by the process. He had little interest in acting himself; it was directing that enervated him. It was here he learned how to work with and motivate actors, how to delve into the psychology of the character and build and sustain a performance.Leaving Fresno State College, and with the birth of their first child, he was compelled to find work. Accepting a position of director-in-residence at a small repertory theatre, his stint there set the pattern for his career in cinema: a pattern of conflict with the powers that be. The management wanted a safe, audience-friendly programme of light comedy and populist musicals. Peckinpah was more interested in powerhouse dramas by Tennessee Williams and William Saroyan. Between this and the spatial limitations of the stage, Peckinpah soon realised that theatre was the wrong medium for him - he needed the largest stage possible: the big screen.


Peckinpah took a circuitious route to his first gig directing a movie. In 1951 he took a low-paying job at a Los Angeles TV station as a stagehand. Shortly afterwards he was hired as "dialogue director" on Don Siegel's film 'Riot in Cell Block 11', an appointment largely inveigled by his brother Denny who had a local politico pull strings on Sam's behalf. (With this in mind, Peckinpah's outraged depiction of corruption and political/business machinations in 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' takes on a peppery irony.)

Siegel became a mentor to Peckinpah, encouraging what he recognised as a ferocious talent in the younger man. At the twilight of both of their careers, Siegel calling the shots on a lame Bette Midler comedy called 'Jinxed' and Peckinpah persona non grata in the industry because of his cocaine binges and periods of incapacity on 'Convoy', it was Siegel who hired Peckinpah when no-one else would, as second unit director. Peckinpah got it together, did some solid work and as a result got to do another film, 'The Osterman Weekend'. Granted, there's not much to be said for 'The Osterman Weekend', but without it his last film would have been 'Convoy' and this month-long appreciation of Peckinpah would perforce have ended on a fucking depressing note!

His first real writing job came on Siegel's 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', where he was asked to redraft the script. This led to work on a couple of westerns by Jacques Tourneur, including 'Wichita' starring future 'Ride the High Country' headliner Joel McCrea. So far Peckinpah had reworked other writers' scripts, and in doing so demonstrated an inate understanding of internal dynamics, structure and dramatic tension. The next step was to create his own material. He got the chance when Siegel was offered a position on the embryonic TV show 'Gunsmoke'. Although Siegel politely declined (over concerns that moving from movies to television would be perceived within the industry as a step backwards), he recommended Peckinpah.In the first two years of 'Gunsmoke' airing to impressive viewing figures, eleven of Peckinpah's original scripts were shot. He also sold one-off scripts to other westerner shows like 'Boots and Saddles', 'Broken Arrow' (on which he got the opportunity to direct one of his own scripts), and 'Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre'. An episode of the latter, "The Sharpshooter", proved so popular that a spin-off series was developed: 'The Rifleman'. I won't go into any greater detail here: I'll be looking at Peckinpah's work for the small screen in a future article, including his follow-up show 'The Westerner', which led to him being offered directing duties on 'The Deadly Companions'. Likewise, the behind-the-scenes power struggles and compromises that defined the films will be incorporated as background to the reviews.


Sam and Marie's marriage ended in 1960. There can be no doubt that alcohol played its part. Peckinpah had demonstrated workaholic tendencies as early on as his rep theatre days, putting in ever-longer hours and engaging deeper and deeper with the material so that the productions assumed complete centrality to his life, even to the detriment of his family. Drinking went with the territory. So did mood swings.

Peckinpah met Begonia Palacios on the set of 'Major Dundee'. She became his second wife. As well as his third and fourth. All couples fall out at some time or other, before reconciling their differences. Sam and Begonia, too, only on a more extreme scale: they fell out, got divorced, made up, and remarried. Shortly before the overture from Seven Arts and Warner Brothers that rescued him the post-'Major Dundee' wilderness years and led to 'The Wild Bunch' (see the 'Wild Bunch' review later this month for fuller details), they separated. As David Weddle notes in his biography, "they would have sporadic reunions in the years that followed - intensely passionate, but short in duration". Nonetheless, the marriage was never subject to dissolution or annulment, and it was Begonia, along with Peckinpah's sister Fern Lea, who was with him when he died. When Begonia herself passed away in 2000, at her instruction her ashes were scattered at the Malibu beach where Sam's remains had been cast to the waves sixteen years before.


Any biographical overview of Sam Peckinpah - particularly one as thinly sketched in as this, which leaves the details of the films themselves to be discussed in other articles - will have an unavoidable tang of melancholy, a chronology that seems hellbent on plotting itself as a downward arc.

Peckinpah's drinking was a constant in his life. So was pissing off studios and producers. Controversy attended him in perpetuity, but it was not always matched by box office returns. Warners did little to publicize 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' after their post-'Wild Bunch' war of words with Peckinpah (Stella Stevens said of 'Hogue' that "the studio didn't release it - they flushed it") and it bombed. 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', released in a thoroughly compromised and badly edited version, the celluloid victim of Peckinpah's vendetta with MGM head honcho James Aubrey, bombed. Ditto 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia', a film that inspired revulsion in its erstwhile audience and reviewers - a film that, despite a slow accretion of admirers over the decades, has still yet to have its day (but it will; after all, nobody loses all the time). Ditto 'Cross of Iron', even though Orson Welles acclaimed it as one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.

If Peckinpah's drinking was an addiction, then so was directing. Increasingly fearful that each flop would signal his last chance at making another movie, he took to accepting impersonal projects - commercial; dumbed down - only to nurture a festering sense of frustration when he wasn't permitted to rework the scripts or develop the material into something more interesting. 'The Getaway' was made in good faith and bears enough of Peckinpah's hallmarks to raise it above the level of most films of its ilk (indeed, it's one of the best straight-up action thrillers of the '70s), but 'The Killer Elite' made just a few years later, is the product of a man desperate just to keep working. It was on this film that Peckinpah was introduced to his final great addiction: cocaine.

Peckinpah had one last great movie in him - 'Cross of Iron' - but it cost him dear. He sunk $90,000 of his own money into the production just to complete it. Box office returns were mediocre. If 'The Killer Elite' was done for the sake of making another movie, 'Convoy' was done purely for the money. A no-brainer in the vein of 'Smokey and the Bandit', adapted from and country & western novelty song, it was the highest earning film of Peckinpah's career. Never mind that he brought it in 11 days over schedule and $5 million overbudget, its huge success should have put him back in the game. However, he'd spent much of the shoot wasted on booze and coke while - according to Katy Haber (Peckinpah's partner at the time) as quoted in Weddle's biography - she and several others, including James Coburn who wanted to move behind the camera and was acting as second unit director, helmed various scenes in his absence. Once more, he was persona non grata in Tinseltown.

Five years passed between 'Convoy' and 'The Osterman Weekend' - Peckinpah's longest spell between films. The Robert Ludlum adaptation did little to rescue his reputation. Peckinpah himself grumbled, after the shoot finished, that he'd just made his first exploitation film. He went on to make a couple of videos for Julian Lennon - "Valotte" and "Too Late for Goodbyes" - and, despite his pariah status and a reputation that was now pretty much at its lowest ebb, was nonetheless being mooted as director on 'The Shotgunners', an original screenplay by a certain horror writer named Stephen King. Production was curtailed by Sam Peckinpah's death, on 28th December 1984, of a heart attack.


Keith said...

Great post. I learned a lot about Sam that I didn't know. I hope you're having a fantastic week so far. Thanks for commenting on my blog. Cheers!

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for your comment, Keith. I'm having a more relaxed week than I thought I would - I've got the first ten posts in this Peckinpah-a-thon already prepared.

Always a pleasure visiting your blog, by the way - particularly when I'm having a dull day at work!

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Great read Neil.

Though I have to say I'd take Convoy over Osterman any day of the week. Convoy's said in alot of ways but at least its comprehensible. Osterman feels like it was run through a fan.

Interesting point on The Killer Elite, I always felt much the same, however last month in Criminal (Don't know if that comes out on your side of the Atlantic its basically a crime comic with a magazine set inside) they had an essay by Michael Stradford that brought out some good points. I've been trying to get a chance to rewatch it ever since. Track it down if you can.

(PS. I'm definitely down to cover Garrett later in the month)

Neil Fulwood said...

It'll be interesting to see if my opinion on the 'Convoy'/'Osterman Weekend divide changes during this Peckinpah-a-thon. I've previously only seen 'Convoy' in the panned and scanned format I taped off the TV a few years ago. I've just invested in a DVD copy widescreened to the proper ration. Will the open vistas, big rigs and cinemascope visuals compensate for the narrative deficiencies? Or will I still find enough in 'The Osterman Weekend' - with its compromised protagonist and vision of technology as invasive and manipulative - to slightly prefer it?