He caught a lucky break in 1966 when producer Daniel Melnick needed a writer and director to adapt Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel Noon Wine for television. Taking place in turn of the century West Texas, ‘Noon Wine’ was a dark tragedy about a farmer’s act of futile murder which leads to suicide. The film was a critical hit, with Peckinpah nominated by the Writers Guild for Best Television Adaptation and the Directors Guild of America for Best Television Direction.
The surprising success of Noon Wine laid the groundwork for one of the most explosive comebacks in film history. In 1967, William Goldman’s screenplay ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ had recently been purchased by 20th Century Fox; Warner Bros were interested in having Peckinpah rewrite and direct a similar adventure film, The Diamond Story. An alternative screenplay written by Roy Sickner and Walon Green was called, The Wild Bunch.
It was quickly decided that The Wild Bunch, which had several similarities to Goldman’s work, would be produced in order to beat Butch Cassidy to the theaters. By the fall of 1967, Peckinpah was rewriting the screenplay into what became ‘The Wild Bunch’. Filmed on location in Mexico, Peckinpah’s epic work was inspired by his hunger to return to films and what he perceived to be the utter lack of reality seen in Westerns up to that time. He set out to make a film which portrayed not only the vicious violence of the period, but the crude men attempting to survive the era. The film detailed a gang of veteran outlaws on the Texas/Mexico border in 1913 trying to exist within a rapidly approaching modern world. The Wild Bunch is framed by two ferocious and infamous gunfights, beginning with a failed robbery of the railway company office and concluding with the outlaws battling the Mexican army in suicidal vengeance due to the death of one of their members. Irreverent and unprecedented in its explicit detail, the 1969 film was an instant success. Many critics denounced its violence as sadistic and exploitative. Other critics and filmmakers hailed the originality of its unique rapid editing style, created for the first time in this film and ultimately becoming a Peckinpah trademark, and praised the reworking of traditional Western themes. It was the beginning of Peckinpah’s international fame, and he and his work remained controversial for the rest of his life. When The Wild Bunch was re-released for its 25th anniversary, it received an NC-17 rating, proving the film’s continued impact after so many years. Peckinpah received his only Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this film. Unfortunately a remake is in the offing.
Defying audience expectations, as he often did, Peckinpah immediately followed The Wild Bunch with the elegiac, funny and mostly non-violent 1970 Western ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’. The film covered three years in the life of small-time entrepreneur Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) who decides to make a fortune after discovering water in the desert. He opens his business along a stagecoach line, only to see his dreams end with the appearance of the first automobile on the horizon. Shot on location in the Nevada desert, the film was plagued by poor weather, Peckinpah’s renewed drinking and his brusque firing of 36 crew members. Largely ignored upon its initial release, The Ballad of Cable Hogue has been rediscovered in recent years and is often held up by critics as exemplary of the breadth of Peckinpah’s talents. Over the years, Peckinpah cited the film as one of his favorites.
His alienation of Warner Brothers once again left him with a limited number of directing jobs. Peckinpah was forced to do a 180-degree turn and traveled to England to direct ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971), one of his darkest and most psychologically disturbing films. Starring Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a timid American mathematician who moves to Cornwall, England, to live with his young wife Amy (Susan George). Resentment of David’s presence by the locals slowly builds to a shocking climax when the mild-mannered academic is forced to defend his home. Peckinpah entirely rewrote the existing screenplay, inspired by the books African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey, which argued that man was essentially a carnivore who instinctively battled over control of territory. The character of David Sumner, taunted and humiliated by the town locals, is eventually cornered within his home where he loses control and kills several of the men during the violent conclusion. Straw Dogs deeply divided critics, some of whom praised its artistry and its confrontation of human savagery, while others attacked it as a mysogynistic and fascist celebration of violence. The film was for many years banned on video in the UK, although some critics have come to hail it as one of Peckinpah’s greatest films.
Despite his growing alcoholism and controversial reputation, Peckinpah was extremely prolific during this period of his life. He returned to the United States to begin work on ‘Junior Bonner’ (1972). The story covered a week in the life of aging rodeo rider Junior “JR” Bonner (Steve McQueen) who returns to his hometown to compete in an annual rodeo competition. Promoted as a Steve McQueen action vehicle, reviews were mixed and the film performed poorly at the box office. Peckinpah remarked, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”
Eager to work with Peckinpah again, Steve McQueen presented him Walter Hill’s screenplay to ‘The Getaway’. McQueen played Doc McCoy, an imprisoned mastermind robber whose wife Carol (Ali McGraw) conspires for his release on the condition they rob a bank in Texas. A doublecross follows the crime, and the McCoys are forced to flee for Mexico with both the police and criminals in hot pursuit. Replete with explosions, car chases and intense shootouts, the film became Peckinpah’s biggest financial success to date earning more than $25 million at the box office.
David Samuel “Sam” Peckinpah (February 21, 1925 – December 28, 1984) was an American film director and screenwriter who achieved prominence following the release of the Western epic ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969). He was known for the innovative and explicit depiction of action and violence, as well as his revisionist approach to the Western genre.
Peckinpah’s films generally deal with the conflict between values and ideals, and the corruption of violence in human society. He was given the nickname “Bloody Sam” owing to the violence in his films. His characters are often loners or losers who desire to be honorable, but are forced to compromise in order to survive in a world of nihilism and brutality.
Peckinpah’s combative personality, marked by years of alcohol and drug abuse, has often overshadowed his professional legacy. Many of his films were noted for behind-the-scenes battles with producers and crew members, damaging his reputation and career during his lifetime. Many of his films, such as ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971), ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’ (1973) and ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974), remain controversial.
Frequent fighting and discipline problems while at Fresno High School caused his parents to enroll him in the San Rafael Military Academy for his senior year. After joining the US Marine Corps in 1943, his battalion was sent to China with the task of disarming Japanese soldiers and repatriating them following World War II. After discharge, he attended Fresno State College, studying history. In 1948, Peckinpah enrolled in graduate studies in drama at University of Southern California. He spent two seasons as the director in residence at Huntington Park Civic Theatre near Los Angeles before obtaining his master’s degree.
Peckinpah began working as a stagehand at KLAC-TV in the belief that television experience would eventually lead to work in films. In 1954, Peckinpah was hired as “dialogue director” for the film Riot in Cell Block 11. Director Don Siegel’s location work and his use of actual prisoners as extras in the film made a lasting impression on Peckinpah. He worked as an assistant to the director on four additional films including Private Hell 36 (1954), An Annapolis Story, (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956). Peckinpah’s association with Siegel established him as an emerging screenwriter and potential director.
On the recommendation of Siegel, Peckinpah established himself during the late 1950s as a scriptwriter of Western series of the era; he also wrote a screenplay from the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a draft that evolved into the 1961 Brando film ‘One-Eyed Jacks’. His writing led to directing, and he directed a 1958 episode of Broken Arrow (generally credited as his first official directing job) and several 1960 episodes of Klondike).
In 1958, Peckinpah wrote a script for Gunsmoke that was rejected due to content. He reworked the screenplay, and it became the television series The Rifleman, starring Chuck Connors. Peckinpah directed four episodes of the series, but left after the first year. During this time, he also created the television series The Westerner. From 1959 to 1960, Peckinpah acted as producer of the series, having a hand in the writing of each episode and directing five of them.
After cancellation of The Westerner, series star Brian Keith was cast as the male lead in the 1961 Western film ‘The Deadly Companions‘. He suggested Peckinpah as the director and producer Charles B. Fitzsimons accepted the idea. By most accounts, the low-budget film was a learning process for Peckinpah, who feuded with Fitzsimons over the screenplay and staging of the scenes. Reportedly, Fitzsimons refused to allow Peckinpah to give direction to star Maureen O’Hara. Unable to rewrite the screenplay or edit the picture, Peckinpah vowed to never again direct a film unless he had script control. The Deadly Companions passed largely without notice and is the least known of Peckinpah’s films.
His second film, ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962), was all Peckinpah’s work. He did an extensive rewrite of the screenplay, including personal references from his own childhood and he based the character of Steve Judd, on his own father David Peckinpah. In the screenplay, Judd and old friend Gil Westrum are hired to transport gold from a mining community through dangerous territory. The film initially went unnoticed in the United States but was an enormous success in Europe. The film was hailed by foreign critics as a brilliant reworking of the Western genre. By some critics, the film is admired as one of Peckinpah’s greatest works.
Peckinpah’s next film, ‘Major Dundee’ (1965), was the first of Peckinpah’s many unfortunate experiences with the major studios that financed his productions. The sprawling screenplay told the story of Union cavalry officer Major Dundee who commands a New Mexico outpost of Confederate prisoners. When an Apache war chief wipes out a company and kidnaps several children, Dundee throws together a makeshift army, including unwilling Confederate veterans, black Federal soldiers, and traditional Western types, and takes off after the Indians. Dundee becomes obsessed with his quest and heads deep into the wilderness of Mexico with his exhausted men in tow. Filming began without a completed screenplay, and Peckinpah chose several remote locations in Mexico, causing the film to go heavily over budget. Peckinpah reportedly drank heavily each night after shooting. Shooting ended 15 days over schedule and $1.5 million more than budgeted with Peckinpah and his producer no longer on speaking terms. The movie, was taken away from him and substantially reedited. An incomplete mess which today exists in a variety of versions, Major Dundee performed poorly at the box office and was thrashed by critics (though its standing has improved over the years). Peckinpah held for the rest of his life that his original version of Major Dundee was among his best films, but his reputation was severely damaged.
Peckinpah was next signed to direct The Cincinnati Kid, a gambling drama about a young prodigy who takes on an old master during a big New Orleans poker match. After four days of filming, which reportedly included some nude scenes, Ransohoff disliked the rushes and immediately fired him. Eventually directed by Norman Jewison and starring Steve McQueen, the film went on to become a 1965 hit. Peckinpah found himself banished from the film industry for several years.