There was a time when Sam Peckinpah was considered the greatest working American filmmaker– circa 1969. Misunderstood by the studios and most audiences, it was the critics who came to his defense, and today he remains one of the great American enigmas in the story of film.
An enigma mostly because, save for the film he is most revered and remembered for, The Wild Bunch, his work always seemed to have the potential for greatness, but arguably never quite achieved it.
He was known as “Bloody Sam,” for his glorification of violence, although he claimed to abhor it and was rallying to illustrate its destructive nature. Many filmmakers today believe he was an inspiration; and it’s true if it weren’t for Peckinpah, there wouldn’t be a John Woo, a Quentin Tarantino, or many of the Hong Kong action directors who took their cues from him. I wouldn’t go as far as say to say that his sequences are a template for modern action direction, as his work now seems anachronistic. Much of his own film grammar distracts from the storytelling; and is trapped in its time period. But when it comes to signature devices and images, there is no mistaking Peckinpah.
That Peckinpah was misunderstood is without question. That he had an objective to tell stories that existed on a different (perhaps “higher”) plane than most studios and producers could understand, is also without argument. But there is a dissenting voice that deserves to be heard; that while Peckinpah lived the wild and woolly life of a maverick and made films that are personal creations, they generally fall short as “art,” and remain frustrating, cathartic exercises.
My case in point is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, recently released on DVD & Blu-Ray through Twilight Time. No other film of Peckinpah’s display his obsessions, misogyny, narcissism, and blood-lust as this does. While the film was immediately reviled and pulled from distribution upon its theatrical release in 1974, its notoriety has swung wildly from a work of pure ridicule, to “high art,” and back again. Many of the themes Peckinpah would visit and revisit throughout his career, and played to varying degrees of success in his other films, would ferment and rot in Alfredo Garcia, much like the aforementioned “head.”
“El Jeffe,” a powerful Mexican patron, demands his daughter reveal who is responsible for her pregnancy. She resists, so he has his henchman strip her naked and torture her until she reveals it’s Alfredo Garcia– a man El Jeffe had treated as a son. Unsurprisingly, he utters the film’s title, sending henchman, hit-men and assorted goons across land and sea to find the purported “gigolo,” for a million dollar bounty. Enter Bennie (Warren Oates) a saloon piano player, and avowed drunk, approached by “businessmen” played by the shockingly recognizable Gig Young and Robert Webber, who after slapping down a prostitute to show they mean business, offer him $10,000 to find Garcia and bring them the oft mentioned “head.”
It’s never clear why Young and Webber decide to gamble on Bennie, other than that he’s the only gringo in sight, but Bennie is resourceful. He strong-arms his girlfriend cum-prostitute, Elita (Isela Vega), who admits she had been with Garcia for the last three days, but that he had just died in a car accident. Soaked in alcohol and jealousy, Bennie takes Elita on a nightmarish journey to find Garcia’s grave. He tells her it’s because he wants proof the man is dead, not admitting the proof he wants is “physical,” and a take-away. On the road, the two discuss their love for one another, and Bennie asks Elita to marry him.
Before long, the ugliness that plagues Peckinpah’s society seeks Bennie and Elita out, and the star-crossed lovers are held at gunpoint by a duo of American bikers. Elita is taken into the woods to be raped by a young Kris Kristofferson. As is usual with Peckinpah, this isn’t a straightforward rape, but much like his polarizing Straw Dogs: a degrading scenario that becomes arousing for the woman. Kristofferson can’t bring himself to rape her, so, naturally, Elita approaches and seduces him. Bennie, meanwhile, overtakes and shoots one biker, finds Kristofferson and his woman together and kills him as well.
The couple’s ugly journey continues. Once they come upon the grave, Bennie begins to dig up the corpse, but is knocked unconscious. When he awakens, Elita is dead and buried in the dirt. The corpse of Garcia, beneath her body, is missing its head. Bennie chases after two of the hired goons who took the head and murdered his love. A gun battle results, with Bennie gaining possession of the head. By now, the evidence is starting to “ripen” as flies surround Bennie’s car, and so he begins a continual search for ice to keep the head from completely rotting away.
This “heart of darkness” journey back to businessmen Young and Webber becomes more nightmarish as Bennie’s sanity gives way to hallucinations and paranoia. He has conversations with the head, who he’s now on friendly enough terms to call “Al.” and after several more shootouts, brings the head directly to El Jefe for an act of final redemption.
Peckinpah claimed that Alfredo Garcia was the only film he made that was released as he exactly intended. There is “internet rumor” that in the original release, a scene of Bennie’s initial reaction to his lady love’s murder included an act of necrophilia, but that does not exist in this restoration, and it is doubtful that “scene” ever existed. Beyond that, Peckinpah’s film speaks for itself, however muddled or confused the politics, psychology and themes may be.
I have my doubts about this film. Far greater voices of film criticism than mine have found it to be great. One of its earliest defenders was none other than Roger Ebert, who called it “some kind of bizarre masterpiece.”
I believe, however, that Alfredo Garcia does not stand the test of time. Yet, I don’t think all films necessarily have to do that to still be considered art, they just need to have some element of resonance. I’m not sure I can find that needle in this haystack, Much like the work of David Lynch, who defies his audience to find meaning, Peckinpah is functioning within the same universe. And while Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of Peckinpah’s, I feel Tarantino is a better filmmaker than Peckinpah, with a stronger sense of filmic grammar.He takes his grisly love of misguided works like Alfredo Garcia with a grain of salt. Were its remake in the hands of Tarantino, or even Robert Rodriguez, they would no doubt not only inject it full of their own self-referential humor and satire, so its basic inaccessibility could become consumable for all, they could navigate its ambiguity and incomprehensible politics to find a clean and present voice.
Either way, all serious film lovers should definitely watch and weigh in on Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. To this day the jury is out, and a majority of critics and writers find a wealth of evidence that belies my somewhat provincial opinion.
Twilight Time’s release is the best way to experience the film. It comes chock full of meaty extras, including several audio commentary tracks by Writer Producer Gordon T. Dawson, Film Historian Nick Redman, documentaries’ Passion & Poetry: Sam’s Favorite Film which includes interviews with Kris Kristofferson and Isela Vega; A Writer’s Journey, an interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, theatrical and television trailers, a well-written forward by essayist Julie Kirgo and more. The image transfer is pristine, while the audio, most probably based on less-than-stellar source material, is muddy.
Roger Ebert said it best: “(Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is) probably not a movie that most people would like.” So if you choose to take the journey, keep an open mind, and bring friends with you who can handle its misogyny and nihilistic politics. As for me, I’ll be over here.