Sam Peckinpah – The Autumn Years
Based on the screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer, ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’ offered Peckinpah the opportunity to explore themes that appealed to him: two former partners forced by changing times onto opposite sides of the law, manipulated by corrupt economic interests. Peckinpah rewrote the screenplay, establishing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as friends, and attempted to weave an epic tragedy from the historical legend. Numerous production difficulties, including an outbreak of influenza and malfunctioning cameras, combined with Peckinpah’s growing problems with alcohol, resulted in one of the most troubled productions of his career. The film finished 21 days behind schedule and $1.6 million over budget. Enraged, MGM head James Aubrey severely cut Peckinpah’s film from 124 to 106 minutes, resulting in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid being released in a truncated version largely disowned by cast and crew members. Critics complained that the film was incoherent, and the experience soured Peckinpah forever on Hollywood. In 1988, however, Peckinpah’s director’s cut was released on video and led to a reevaluation, with many critics hailing it as a mistreated classic and one of the era’s best films.
In the eyes of his admirers, ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (1974) was the last true “Peckinpah film.” The director himself claimed that it was the only one of his films to be released exactly as he intended it. An alcohol-soaked fever dream involving revenge, greed and murder in the Mexican countryside, the film featured Warren Oates as a thinly disguised self-portrait of Peckinpah, and co-starred a leather bag containing the severed head of a gigolo being sought by a Mexican patrone for one million dollars. The macabre drama was part black comedy, action and tragedy, with a warped edge rarely seen in Peckinpah’s works. Generally hated by the critics, the film’s reputation has grown in recent years, with many noting its uncompromising vision as well as its anticipation of the violent black comedy which became famous in the works of such directors as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.
His career now suffering from back-to-back box office failures, Peckinpah once again was in need of a hit on the level of The Getaway. For his next film, he chose ‘The Killer Elite’ (1975), an action-filled espionage thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall as rival American agents. Peckinpah allegedly discovered cocaine for the first time, this led to increased paranoia and his once legendary dedication to detail deteriorated. Through it all, the film was completed and did decent box office business, though critics panned it. Today, the film is considered one of Peckinpah’s weakest films, and an example of his decline as a major director.
Peckinpah was offered the opportunity to direct the eventual blockbusters, but he turned them down and chose instead the bleak and vivid World War II drama ‘Cross of Iron’ (1977). The screenplay was based on a novel about a platoon of German soldiers in 1943 on the verge of utter collapse on the Crimean Peninsula. While not suffering from the cocaine abuse which marked The Killer Elite, Peckinpah continued to drink heavily causing his direction to become confused and erratic. The production abruptly ran out of funds, and Peckinpah was forced to completely improvise the concluding sequence, filming the scene in one day. Despite these obstacles, the film’s war footage was stunning and James Coburn, in the lead role of Rolf Steiner, gave one of the finest performances of his career. Cross of Iron was noted for its opening montage utilizing documentary footage as well as the visceral impact of the unusually intense battle sequences. The film was a huge box office success in Europe, but performed poorly in the U.S., eclipsed ultimately by the space adventure Star Wars, though today it is highly regarded and considered the last gasp of Peckinpah’s once-great talent.
Hoping to create the elusive blockbuster, Peckinpah decided to take on ‘Convoy’ (1978). The film was an attempt to capitalize on the huge success of Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Addictions or not, Peckinpah still felt compelled to turn the genre exercise into something more significant. Convoy turned out to be yet another troubled Peckinpah production. The director’s health became a continuing problem, so James Coburn was brought in to serve as second unit director, and he filmed many of the scenes while Peckinpah remained in his on-location trailer. The film wrapped 11 days behind schedule and $5 million over budget. Surprisingly, Convoy was the highest-grossing picture of Peckinpah’s career, notching $46.5 million at the box office. But his reputation was seriously damaged. For the next three years, Peckinpah remained a professional outcast.
By 1982, however, Peckinpah’s health was in poor shape. Producers Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer were undaunted, as they felt that having Peckinpah’s name attached to ‘The Osterman Weekend’ (1983) would lend the suspense thriller an air of respectability. Multiple actors in Hollywood auditioned for the film, intrigued by the opportunity. Many of those who signed on, including John Hurt, Burt Lancaster and Dennis Hopper, did so for less than their usual salaries for a chance to work with the legendary director. Peckinpah brought in the film on time and on budget, delivering his cut to the producers. Davis and Panzer were unhappy with Peckinpah’s version, which included a grossly distorted opening sequence of two characters making love. The producers changed the opening and also deleted other scenes they deemed unnecessary. The Osterman Weekend had some effective action sequences and some strong supporting performances, but Peckinpah’s final film was critically panned.
Peckinpah was seriously ill during his final years, as a lifetime of hard living caught up with him. Regardless, he continued to work until his last months. He died of heart failure on December 28, 1984. At the time, he was in preparation for shooting an original script by Stephen King entitled The Shotgunners, which later became a book called The Regulators.