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Directed By Sam Peckinpah

by Frederick Bailey    IAFT-LA Directing Mentor   

 

David Weddle’s Peckinpah biography, If They Move…Kill ‘Em!,” was published more than two decades ago.  It’s 500-some-odd pages and a compelling read.

Primarily because Peckinpah was a compelling figure and a compelling director.

One discovery for me:  Peckinpah started out doing stage work, stage plays in college theatres with live actors.  His first paying job out of school was managing a playhouse, where he spent a lot of time with actors and scripts.

He later worked his way into the industry in television in the 1950s where he flourished first as a writer, then a producer and director.  But it was in directing where he really soared.

When I read these kinds of film biographies, sometimes I find I wish I hadn’t.  I found out too much about Peckinpah in this one.  Too much about his personal life.  He comes off as kind of a jerk.

Of course, I already knew he had that reputation.  In the business, he had a rep of being hard to work with, demanding, a hard-nose.  Dedicated to his vision, but sometimes blind to the effect he had on people close to him.

Sometimes you just don’t want to know…you just want to wallow in the dream factory mythology.  Or at least just watch a director’s work without referencing his/her behavioral shortcomings.

Another example:  George Englund’s Marlon Brando bio, The Way It’s Never Been Done Before.  A portrait of Brando as the total jerk.  Englund was a close friend, directed him in The Ugly American, which is a fine film and very different for Brando, who’s still one of my all-time favorite actors.  His work is incomparable, so it shouldn’t matter what his personal life was like.

Similarly, I love Peckinpah’s really good movies, and he’s unquestionably one of a kind.  I show clips from both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in my Directing classes.

PG&BtK was such a mess in production (but then, so was Wild Bunch) that there are at least four different versions circulating.  There’s a DVD set with 4 versions in it, but none of them is the original release version that I saw several times in the 1970s and completely flipped over—even though, according to Weddle, that version represented a studio evisceration of Peckinpah’s work.

If that’s an evisceration, then it’s a superb example of work that’s so good that no amount of injury can shoot it down.

In the 4 DVD set, the 1988 re-release version is the best version and the one closest to the original.  The original didn’t use the flash-forward bookends that appear in the 1988 version.  The bookends are interesting and are based on what truly happened to Sheriff Pat Garrett in real life, but I think the story doesn’t need them.

There are so many great actors in this movie.  Including one of the last appearances of Chill Wills, and I love him in it.  “That’s the best dram a whiskey you ever th’owed a lip over, boy.”  I suspect it was an ad-lib.

And for me, one of the most cinematic and beautiful sequences in all of filmmaking—a gut-shot Slim Pickens and Katie Jurado on the riverbank with the golden-hour sky, over the opening strums of Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  It’s seared into my memory from my first viewing in a darkened theatre in New York City so many years ago, and it’s one of the clips I show to students.

I show it to them as a strong example of no-dialogue storytelling.  To be sure, there is dialogue in the scene, but it’s not much, and it’s the kind of dialogue that’s more sound design.  Turn off the sound and the scene still works.

There’s no dialogue whatsoever when we get to the last shots on the riverbank, with Pickens dying and Jurado giving him his space and fighting off tears.  Cinematic and extraordinarily profound, beyond compare.

Another no-dialogue example I show is from Wild Bunch, the Bunch’s exit from the Mexican village, which wasn’t in the script or the shooting schedule.  Peckinpah envisioned it the night before and got up and handed the new page to his 1st AD and shot it that morning.  Weddle’s book reveals that the Mexican triste canción used in the scene was an integral part of Peckinpah’s conception.

Other scenes I show from those two films are the Bob Ollinger/Kid scenes with R.G. Armstrong and Matt Clark, in support of James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson.  The dialogue there is really striking, ending with “He’s killed me too.”  Armstrong being one of my favorite actors in the known universe, and a Peckinpah regular to boot.

And the attack on Mapache from Wild Bunch, with the mariachi band singing while the fighting is going on.  There’s a real interesting cut in there that I use in class to illustrate the 180o rule, asking students if the director crossed the line there or not.  He didn’t.  And the way Peckinpah set up the shots in that sequence, laying out his screen direction, is exemplary.

Peckinpah shot something like 350,000 feet of film on each of those two movies.  An astounding amount of footage.  He was the kind of director who assembled his stories in the cutting room.  A great, great filmmaker.

  • “IF THEY MOVE, KILL ‘EM!” The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, by David Weddle (NY: Grove Press, 1994)
  • MARLON BRANDO: THE WAY IT’S NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE, by George Englund (NY: HarperCollins, 2004)

 

 

Photos: amazon.compixgood.com

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