Sam Peckinpah was an American director who is famous for his innovative perspective on the Western film genre. Whereas for many other directors, Western films were the means of depicting heroism and adventure, Peckinpah offered a different view of the traditional Western plot. In his films, he explored serious topics and social conflicts that had a strong autobiographical element to them1. This essay will explore the defining characteristics of Peckinpah’s films that affected the development of the Western genre in the future.
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Life and Career
Sam Peckinpah was born in 1925 in California. Although he is most famous for his work as a director, he was also an actor and a screenwriter. Peckinpah’s career in Hollywood began in 1950 when he was appointed a dialogue director to Don Siegel2. While working closely with Siegel, Peckinpah was able to improve his understanding of directing styles and techniques, which influenced the quality of his further work (Prince 4 1999). Between 1955 and 1960, Peckinpah worked for television, where he wrote and directed series. Despite being a recognized and successful writer and director, Peckinpah had a lot of conflicts with producers and studios throughout his career3. His unique vision of a contemporary society, as well as his determination to convey this vision to the audience, have largely shaped his pictures and their production process. Some of Peckinpah’s most famous films include The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron, and others. Despite the variety of plots and stories explored in Peckinpah’s films, several defining characteristics distinguish them from other films in the Western genre.
Peckinpah’s contribution to the Western genre can be measured in terms of the defining characteristics of his films, which were later adopted by later works in the genre. Indeed, Peckinpah’s works were notable in their interpretation of the genre, as well as in their portrayal of serious social conflicts. The defining characteristics of Peckinpah’s films are violence, autobiographical elements, the conflict between heroism and heroics, morality, tension, and future outlook. It is also important to note Peckinpah’s use of camera techniques, particularly in depicting violence.
Explicit violence was among the key characteristics that Peckinpah has introduced into the genre. The vast majority of his films, including The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, were full of violent and bloody images, found disturbing both by the audience and by the critics. Welsh states that Peckinpah attempted to test the limits of on-screen violence. However, the inclusion of violence in his work served a unique purpose, highlighting the events and conflicts existing in the films4. Contrary to some other Western directors, Peckinpah refrained from romanticizing Western stories and plot; instead, his films presented a depiction of life in the Wild West in a violent yet realistic way, stressing the moral conflicts that he attempted to explore in great detail.
Peckinpah’s portrayal of violence was also unique in its justification, or lack thereof. Whereas in other Western films, characters engage in violent acts out of necessity, Peckinpah’s characters are rather unpredictable in their acts of violence. There is no distinction between heroes and villains in their use of violence; in fact, violence serves to blur the lines between good and bad, thus also enhancing the conflict between heroism and heroics, which is evident in most of Peckinpah’s works.
As noted by Prince, the use of camera and montage that characterized Peckinpah’s filming of violent episodes was also revolutionary5. Most of the Western films before Peckinpah refrained from depicting graphic violence not only due to moral concerns but also due to the lack of an effective filming technique to portray violence and bloodshed realistically and powerfully. After The Wild Bunch, “Peckinpah’s use of multiple cameras, montage editing, and slow-motion quickly became the normative style for rendering screen violence”6.
Most of Peckinpah’s main characters are broken and damaged, caught in the fast-changing environment of the new American world, and unable to adjust to it. For instance, in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “the rumpled, broken protagonist and his insidiously smooth, well-heeled employers bring to mind Peckinpah’s plight in Hollywood”7. With a history of drug and alcohol abuse and strained relationship with producers, Peckinpah’s protagonists were all somewhat autobiographical. Through exploring their fate in his films, Peckinpah attempted to present a personal interpretation of his struggles. Such an autobiographical element was not common among Western film directors of the time. By including it in his work, Peckinpah showed that fictional characters could be used to represent real-life issues and conflicts that are about the society of the time.
Another important aspect of Peckinpah’s autobiographical elements is that they enhance the director’s involvement in the film. Callenbach explains that the autobiographical aspects of Peckinpah’s works serve to underline the importance of the issues and conflicts depicted to him, such as social injustice, lack of future perspectives, and moral ambiguity8. The fact that Peckinpah included autobiographical elements in his works and characters signify his involvement in the subjects explored in films. This contradicts the norms of the genre that existed before Peckinpah, as most other directors were more invested in the plot than in its meaning and relevance to the modern world.
Heroism vs. Heroics
The conflict between heroism and heroics was a persistent theme of Peckinpah’s work. However, one of the most prominent examples of this conflict can be observed in The Wild Bunch. Where other Western directors emphasized the character’s heroic qualities and actions, praising them for resisting injustice and restoring order, Peckinpah presents a more realistic look at the outlaws’ life and principles. Despite the seemingly strong focus on loyalty, ethics, and friendship that is evident in The Wild Bunch, as well as in many other films by Peckinpah9, the director portrays these values in a way that implies that they do not apply to the outlaws’ lifestyle. The characters depicted by Peckinpah represent these values in a way that is disturbing for the audience (e.g., the scene where Bishop kills a wounded gang member), yet representative of the society he chooses to portray.
The actions of the characters are filled with heroics, yet the fundamental question that Peckinpah asks the audience is whether or not they are heroes. Moving away from romanticizing the Western lifestyle and values, Peckinpah wants to show the audience what such lifestyle meant, including violence, injustice, and immorality. The stark contrast between Peckinpah’s portrayal of the West and the romanticized image presented in works of other directors is, perhaps, among the key reasons for the critical acclaim and the persistent interest in his films.
The exploration of heroism in the context of outlaws’ lifestyle that is evident in Peckinpah’s films is prominent in future Western films. In particular, a darker image presented by Peckinpah has influenced the revisionist Western works, which, similarly to Peckinpah, are somewhat critical of the traditional Western genre norms. The lack of idealization of the characters has also affected the audience’s perception of some of the other Western films, which might appear too light-hearted and unrealistic when compared to Peckinpah’s works.
Social issues, including oppression and cruelty, are also among the key themes explored by Peckinpah in his films10. For instance, in The Wild Bunch, the director addresses the conflict between Americans and Mexicans and its influence on the lives of civilians trapped between two forces. However, even more, prominent is the indifference of people to the struggles faced by others. In the opening scene, the shooting kills many civilians, including women and children. Yet, this appears to be normalcy rather than a significant event. By Peckinpah, society is not violent or brutal, but indifferent and ignorant. Arguably, these are the characteristics of the contemporary society that Peckinpah wanted to recreate in his work.
One of the most famous scenes depicting indifference and ignorance as the society’s key failures can be observed in the opening titles of The Wild Bunch when Pike and his team pass by a group of children who are watching a scorpion burn. The portrayal of children, who are the symbol of the rising generation, is rather brutal and unprecedented for the film of the time. As noted by Prince, “these are not the typical children, icons of sentimentality and innocence, that were so prominent in earlier generations of the film”11 The image of children watching the dying scorpion with impatience and excitement on their faces signifies the brutality of the society in which the action takes place. As the scene precedes the shooting at the beginning of the film, it also conveys the director’s view that the fault is not on the outlaws, but on the cruel and ignorant society that raised them so.
Conflict and Tension
The escalated drama of Peckinpah’s films is also one of the innovations that he brought into the Western genre. Peckinpah introduced a multi-level conflict, where each of the main characters is at war with himself, his enemies, and the society in general. Peckinpah does not internalize the conflicts experienced by the characters; instead, he makes them more prominent and apparent to the audience, thus adding more tension to the story. Although the characters lack development and remain roughly unchanged throughout the film, externalization of the conflict allows the director to explore significant social issues that would normally drive character development. For instance, he recognized the failure of contemporary society but chose to present it rather indifferently, as a permanent feature of American society.
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By opting not to resolve secondary conflicts, Peckinpah questioned the society’s capacity for change while at the same time urging people to see similar issues in modern society. Peckinpah also erased the differences between the civilians, the law enforcement, and the outlaws in the majority of his works, implying that each group possesses similar character failures and weaknesses. Such a scheme distinguishes Peckinpah’s films from other Western works, where there are distinctive borders between good and evil. Therefore, Peckinpah’s portrayal of conflicts that exist both on the internal and external levels adds tension to his works by improving their accuracy and relevance.
Finally, despite the critical portrayal of society and its defects, Peckinpah’s films offer no positive resolution or hope for a change. Most of his films can be characterized by a sense of finality. Throughout the films, it is acknowledged that the characters have neither hope for a better future nor a desire to change their ways. Similarly, the society portrayed by Peckinpah is incapable of changing. Both the primary and the secondary characters remain unchanged throughout the story. However, this does not necessarily indicate the author’s belief that the society cannot be changed; on the contrary, some argue that the stability and fatality depicted by Peckinpah serve to highlight the need for change, thus attracting the audience’s attention to pertaining social issues12.
Overall, Sam Peckinpah was a talented director that has made a significant contribution to the development of the Western film genre by offering a different perspective on traditional Western plots and themes. The innovations brought by Peckinpah were both technical and thematic. For instance, he was the first among Western film directors to depict explicit violence using montage editing and slow motion. Also, he also explored important themes of hope, social failures, and heroism in his work. By refusing to romanticize the Western plots and stories, Peckinpah contributed to the development of the genre, while at the same time attracting the attention of filmmakers and critics to the darker side of the Western films.
Briley, Ron. “Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah.” Film & History 44, no.1 (2014): 87-89.
Callenbach, Ernest. “Peckinpah: The Western Films by Paul Seydor.” Film Quarterly 33, no. 4 (1980): 21.
Miller, Mark Crispin. “In Defense of Sam Peckinpah.” Film Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1975): 2-17.
Prince, Stephen, ed. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Welsh, James M. “Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah – Book Review.” The Journal of American Culture 35, no. 4 (2012): 376-377.
- Miller, Mark Crispin, “In Defense of Sam Peckinpah,” Film Quarterly 28, no. 3 (1975): 2.
- Prince, Stephen, ed., Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4.
- Welsh, James M., “Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah – Book Review,” The Journal of American Culture 35, no. 4 (2012): 376.
- Prince, The Wild Bunch, 2.
- Miller, “In Defense of Sam Peckinpah”, 2.
- Callenbach, Ernest, “Peckinpah: The Western Films by Paul Seydor,” Film Quarterly 33, no. 4 (1980): 21.
- Briley, Ron, “Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah,” Film & History 44, no.1 (2014): 87.
- Prince, The Wild Bunch, 82.
- Ibid, 2.
- Ibid, 17.