catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 5 :: 2006.03.10 — 2006.03.24


A grim poem

Sam Peckinpah was a pro at offending Hollywood and, in turn, had his movies raked over the coals because of it. Many cite his film The Wild Bunch as the “best western ever” (I’m not one of them), but when it was released in the late 60s, there was a ton of controversy involving the non-stop bloodshed. The same goes for Straw Dogs, and several other movies he made.

Peckinpah had a horrible relationship with Hollywood, who mangled some of his movies beyond recognition, even though some turned out to be great. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was the only movie he had final cut on. “I did Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to,” he said. “Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.” Alfredo Garcia is therefore Peckinpah’s most personal film, and as a result his most difficult.

The film begins with a Mexican warlord declaring the film’s title when he discovers his young daughter is pregnant out of wedlock. He knows Garcia is responsible, and wants his head. Two of his henchmen, played by Gig Young and Robert Webber, spread the word, and it eventually reaches Bennie (Warren Oates), an American piano-player barely making ends meet in a brothel. Bennie knows Garcia, and decides to collect the bounty on his head. He figures he’ll get out of the hole he’s stuck in and marry Elita (Isela Vega), the woman he thinks he loves who works as a prostitute.

And in typical Peckinpah style, everything goes wrong. Garcia has been dead and buried for a week, and Bennie has no qualms with defiling a grave. Elita loves Bennie, but her heart was truly with Garcia. The warlord’s henchmen have no problem shooting lots of people. And Bennie is drowning in a growing pool of booze and nicotine.

Peckinpah clearly based Bennie on himself, and Oates’ performance is staggering. He mutters to himself, wears sunglasses to bed, and downs tequila like water. He wallows in misery, sees no use in living, is a walking corpse. But in a sense, he’s hopeful. There’s a weird, fluid element to Bennie’s personality that refuses to let him give up or sag completely into nihilism. That something is what makes you interested in Bennie, despite his glaring fatal flaws.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was a hard film to watch. Peckinpah’s Mexico turns my stomach just thinking about it. Everything looks grimy, even stuff that shouldn’t. Hotel rooms have insects nesting in the beds. Liquor is probably safer to drink than the water. Everyone, from Bennie to Elita to the warlord’s dolled-up goons, has a haze of grime over them.

And then there’s the violence. Peckinpah pushed the envelope in his day, and while his action scenes may be considered boring by today’s standards, they writhe with a desperation and brutality that you won’t even find in stuff like 2 Fast 2 Furious. He uses slow motion masterfully, and the look on Bennie’s face as he wheels around, pistol in hand, is one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen.

This film is grim enough that I can’t recommend it to many people. Some will be offended, and some will just be bored and miserable. But for the few who will be up for it, it’s a grim poem about honor, love and sacrifice.

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