Sunday, June 28, 2015

#1,777. Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (2004)

Directed By: Tom Thurman

Starring: Sam Peckinpah, Kris Kristofferson, Fern Lea Peter

Line from this film: "He left us a lasting body of orignial and haunting work and in the end, Sam Peckinpah entered his house justified"

Trivia: Won a Bronze Wrangler for Best Western Documentary at the 2005 Western Heritage Awards

Sam had two lives”, says Peckinpah’s longtime assistant, Katy Haber, at the start of this 2004 made-for-TV documentary (which was produced for the Starz cable network): “Movies that were a reality, and life that was an illusion”. A man who poured everything he had into his craft, Sam Peckinpah was an auteur, a writer / director who put something of himself in every single film. His loves, his fears, his passions and his demons were up there on the screen for the whole world to see, and as narrator Kris Kristofferson, a good friend of its subject’s, points out, this particular aspect of Peckinpah’s work, the laying bare of his very soul, is what made him a true artist.

He directed 14 films over his 25+ year career, but Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade focuses on only 8 of them, namely the westerns that were so close to Peckinpah’s heart. Having grown up on a 25-acre ranch in California, Sam Peckinpah loved the untamed frontier, a fondness he would explore first on television (writing and directing episodes of Gunsmoke and The Rifleman), then in feature films. The low-budget oater The Deadly Companions, released in 1961, was his fist directorial effort, but it was 1962’s Ride the High Country that made critics and audiences alike sit up and take notice. Based on the success of this incredibly moving film, the studio gave him a chance to direct Major Dundee, a large-scale movie starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris that was a bust at the box office. Still, his experience on Dundee prepared him for his next project, The Wild Bunch, a beautiful, violent motion picture about the dying west that a few called "trash" (the blood flows freely in The Wild Bunch, more freely than most were accustomed to seeing at that time) and others a masterpiece (critic Roger Ebert was one the film’s staunchest defenders in its early days).

Peckinpah followed this up with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (which he often said was his favorite of all his films) and Junior Bonner, a 1972 family drama set against the backdrop of a professional rodeo. Neither Cable Hogue nor Junior Bonner made much money, a fact that wasn’t lost on their director, who for years was hounded by questions about the violence in his films (“I made a movie where nobody got shot”, Peckinpah said of Junior Bonner, “and nobody went to see it”). Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid marked another high-point in his career, and has what I consider to be the finest sequence ever committed to film (for more on that, check out my review of the movie), while his final “western”, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, was roundly panned by most critics upon its release (Peckinpah biographer David Weddle called the film “A genuine work of art and a demented movie”). In these 8 pictures, Sam Peckinpah presented a vision of the west that was simultaneously romantic and brutal, lamenting the loss of a simpler time while also showing us that the line separating heroes from villains wasn’t as clear-cut as the movies of Hollywood’s heyday led us to believe.

Featuring interviews with those who knew him intimately (his sister Fern Lea, son Matthew, and frequent collaborators L.Q Jones and James Coburn), and those who drew inspiration from his films (actors Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Madsen, writer/director Paul Schrader), Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade delves into the professional and personal lives of its subject. We learn how Peckinpah’s mother influenced him early in life, only to alienate him later on when she abruptly sold the family ranch (his grandfather wanted Sam and his older brother Denny to eventually inherit it); and hear first-hand how alcohol and drugs got the best of him, cutting short both his career and his life (Peckinpah died in 1984 at age of 59). And, of course, we’re treated to clips from his movies, which only seem to get better with age.

When you think of those directors who defined the western genre, names like John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers), Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur), Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T), and Sergio Leone (The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) leap immediately to mind. So, too, does the name Sam Peckinpah. Filmmaker and scoundrel, Peckinpah was a true child of the American west, and we will never see his kind again.

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