By Koraljka Suton
During the making of Ride the High Country in 1962, director Sam Peckinpah was ordered by MGM to stop filming on location (Mammoth Lakes, near Bishop) due to unfavorable weather conditions and to relocate to Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles instead. Peckinpah allegedly saw to it that none of the cast and crew members remain sober during the six-hour bus ride back to L.A. A cast member recalled asking the director whether he had always wanted to make movies, to which an inebriated Peckinpah said: “Yeah, pretty much. I’m thinking this may be my last one. It’s not worth going through all this nonsense.” Then he was asked what he would have done had he not become a filmmaker. His response? “I seriously considered being a Buddhist monk at one time.” When taking into account the overwhelmingly positive reviews that Ride the High Country received despite the studio’s complete lack of faith in it, it turns out that directing it proved to have been worth going through all that trouble after all. And lucky for cinephiles everywhere, not only was Peckinpah’s second feature film not his last one, but it became the first of his many memorable movies still piquing interest all around the globe. Had the director gone to a monastery instead of pursuing filmmaking, the world would have been deprived of critically acclaimed—albeit controversial—masterpieces such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971), as well as many other feature films Peckinpah would come to direct in the years to come, before ultimately dying of heart failure in 1984 at the age of 59. But although Ride the High Country was the seed from which the director’s revisionist approach to Westerns would ultimately grow, it wasn’t nearly as graphically violent as his following features, which would eventually earn him the nickname “Bloody Sam.” Sam was not bloody just yet and the controversy around his persona wasn’t nearly as widespread.
According to actor James Drury, who played a substantial, although supporting role in Ride the High Country, Peckinpah was on his best behavior for the majority of time on set: “He was innovative, imaginative, always anxious to work with actors on their characters. He’d get involved in heavy-duty discussions but he didn’t overdirect—he’d consult. He had a tremendous amount of respect for McCrea and Scott and they had a lot of respect for him. They were pleased to be working in the picture. At that point, he was a happy man. We knew him at his best and most likable.” Western legends Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott were, of course, the leading men chosen for the roles of former federal marshal Steve Judd and his fellow ex-lawman Gil Westrum, respectively. The movie follows Judd, hired to transport a gold shipment from a mining camp to a small town, as he recruits his old friend Westrum, as well as Westrum’s young sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). Unbeknownst to Judd, his two companions have no intention of allowing the shipment to reach the town, but even their plans get temporarily disrupted when Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley), a young woman they helped escape the clutches of her religious father, joins them on their journey.
For both Scott and McCrea, Ride the High Country was nothing short of a swansong (although McCrea would come to shoot four more films before his retirement, none of which managed to achieve the greatness of Ride the High Country), the same way the movie itself is a eulogy of sorts for the Western genre’s previous decade. Peckinpah’s masterpiece about “salvation and loneliness,” as he himself described it, depicts the old West dying out along with its legends, paving the way for the dawning of a new era. The theme of lonely individuals who have somehow outstayed their welcome in the time-space continuum they are forced to inhabit is a prevalent one in Ride the High Country and continued being the driving force behind Peckinpah’s following features. The director explores this notion by focusing on two characters who mirror each other perfectly, each one reflecting back to the other who he might have been, had he made different choices i.e. reacted differently to the circumstances he found himself in. It is precisely this mirroring that sets the stage for redemption that both Judd and Gil are ultimately allowed to achieve, indicating how that which we perceive as our wickedness is more often than not circumstantial and therefore—redeemable.
But had Peckinpah not greatly interfered in the script itself, it is questionable how well these themes would have strung a cord with movie enthusiasts and critics alike. In search of a great script, producer Richard Lyons asked writer William S. Roberts for a recommendation. The latter introduced him to N.B. Stone and neglected to say how Stone’s alcoholism affected his career, rendering him an unreliable co-worker. After having finally read Stone’s 145-pages-long draft, Lyons declared it to be “awful.” Embarrassed by the whole ordeal and wanting to help his friend’s career, Roberts offered to re-write the script entirely and insisted on being left out of the credits, which meant that Stone was ultimately credited as the sole author. And while the rewritten script proved to be better than the draft, it was still, as Lyons put it, “a diamond in the rough.” And this is where Peckinpah came in, knowing “how to cut it to really bring out its brilliance.” Not only had the director changed the original title—Guns in the Afternoon nevertheless remained the title under which the movie was released in Europe—and rewritten the dialogue in merely three to four weeks’ time, but he had also made the most significant plot change—the one at the very end. By reversing the all-too-familiar trope of the bad guy getting what was coming to him, Peckinpah made an even more poignant point about the importance and strength of redemption, implying that our inherent goodness is in us the entire time, just waiting for us to gain awareness of its existence. In other words, every individual has the right to salvation, provided he responds to the same circumstance with a different choice.
Even though filming lasted only twenty-six days, Peckinpah had trouble getting his movie completed, let alone distributed. MGM studio’s production head Sol Siegel enabled Peckinpah to make the first cut on Ride the High Country, together with editor Frank Santillo. But before the duo could finish editing, Siegel was replaced by studio executive Joseph Vogel, who fell asleep while watching the rough cut and subsequently described it as the worst movie he had ever seen. Although Peckinpah was barred from the studio, Santillo and Lyons wanted the movie to be cut as the director intended, so they consulted with him in secret, playing him sound mixes over the phone. Due to the studio’s aforementioned lack of faith in the movie, it was put on the market as the lower half of double features, resulting in Ride the High Country being a commercial disaster in the US. Nevertheless, it managed to become one of MGM’s highest grossing films in Europe during its run. Despite the unfavorable conditions that Peckinpah’s movie was exposed to (weather and otherwise), it managed to stand the test of time—it was hailed in years to come as the director’s first great film. And rightfully so.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
Here’s a rarity: Sam Peckinpah & N.B. Stone’s screenplay for Ride the High Country [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
LUCIEN BALLARD, ASC
Lucien Ballard has to be ranked among the greatest of Hollywood cinematographers. He began his career at Paramount as editor and assistant to the great cameraman Lee Garmes on Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco‘ starring Marlene Dietrich. Ballard then entered the next phase of his training when he struggled to make all forms of genre films a bit distinguished. The late 1930s saw his credits accumulate, even through work on many a two-reeler including the comedies of The Three Stooges and Charlie Chase. His principal employer, Columbia Pictures, may have been on Poverty Row, but it afforded Ballard the perfect place to learn to shoot Hollywood films quickly and efficiently. World War II, with many talented cameramen off working for the military, provided him with a chance to move up to top Hollywood productions. He jumped from Columbia to Twentieth Century-Fox, a top studio. In the mid-1940s he became a bit of a celebrity as the husband of Merle Oberon and the cameraman who struggled with Howard Hughes to create the idiosyncratic Western, The Outlaw. But then his career stuck and he returned to shooting lower-budget fare. He achieved a measure of excellence with The Killer Is Loose and Buchanan Rides Alone for Budd Boetticher, and The Killing for Stanley Kubrick. In 1962 his career took a turn for the better and he began to achieve fame as an exceptional cameraman with work for director Sam Peckinpah. Their Ride the High Country stands as one of the most beautiful of Westerns. This final phase of Ballard’s career was underlined with greatness for the clean, elegant visual style he brought to the Western just, ironically, as that form was passing from the movie screen.
“With Sam he made five pictures from 1972’s Ride the High Country and 1969’s The Wild Bunch to 1972’s Junior Bonner. Like his directors, Ballard was considered to be a ‘man’s man.’ When I was a camera assistant doing freelance commercials in the late 60s, some of the grips and juicers who had worked with him regaled me with stories. One of Ballard’s favored tricks (I was told) was to always carry a walking stick both as a pointer for set lighting and as a prod for lads he felt were not moving about fast enough.” —John Bailey, Route 66, Lucien Ballard and the Coleman
A candid conversation with the screen’s “Picasso of violence,” Playboy interview, August 1972. “The director’s role was one accepted ambivalently by Sam Peckinpah, so much so that much of his work aimed to reconcile his positions as artist, employer and businessman, and entertainer. In his August, 1972, Playboy interview, he likened himself to a hired hand and a whore. It was just a job, directing, lucrative after some successes; on the other hand, writing was the most painstaking activity ever undertaken by a man. He seemed to denigrate his status and to knock his artistic capabilities; however, a look at The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia reveals that whores, most of all, have a monopoly on humanity, nobility, and common sense among Sam’s characters. Furthermore, he who hired most of the film crew willfully opposed the demands and decisions of other bossmen: studio heads and the producers. Their interference left him with unequivocal feelings: ‘There are people all over the place, dozens of them, I’d like to kill, quite literally kill.’ Metaphorically, he got his chance to kill them.” —The Film Journal
Kael compares you to Norman Mailer and says you’re both in the same machismo bag, but the difference is that Mailer worries about it. For you, she thinks it’s the be-all and end-all.
I like Kael; she’s a feisty little gal and I enjoy drinking with her—which I’ve done on occasion—but here she’s cracking walnuts in her ass. Look, what if they’d given me War and Peace to do instead of Trencher’s Farm? I’m reasonably sure I’d have made a different picture.
But you picked The Siege of Trencher’s Farm yourself, didn’t you?
I didn’t pick anything. I’ve never picked any of my films. Except one, The Ballad of Cable Hogue. That’s the only movie I ever picked to do.
Tell us how it works, then. You’re offered a lot of projects—
I’m looking for a job. I’m a whore. I go where I’m kicked. But I’m a very good whore.
Whatever material you’re given to work on, you then proceed to make it your own picture. There’s certainly no mistaking the Peckinpah touch.
The Peckinpah touch! Jesus! Read the goddamn book. You’ll die gagging in your own vomit.
When you say you’re a whore, isn’t that a half-truth at best? If you weren’t as good as you are, no one would pay any attention to you; there are plenty of whores around.
Once I’m handed something to do, then I take the material and try to work something out of it and, not to sound too goddamn pompous about it, what I put into it is what I see, how I feel about how things are or the way they’re going. But I try to tell a story, above all, in terms of the material I’m given, and very seldom have I been given a decent piece of material.
What interested you most about what became Straw Dogs?
What really turned me on was the amount of money I was given to do it. You start with the money and after you get that into focus, you try to figure out what the hell you’re doing. In this case, David Goodman and I sat down and tried to make something of validity out of this rotten book. We did. The only thing we kept was the siege itself.
David Sumner, the character Dustin Hoffman plays in the movie, is an intellectual who’s running away from himself and refuses to take a stand on anything. You portray him as a kind of worm. When he does take a stand, it’s an excruciatingly violent one and you imply that he becomes a man through this resort to violence. And that he enjoys the mayhem.
Totally wrong. I don’t know what movie you saw. There’s a point in the middle of the siege when David almost throws up, he’s so sick, and he says, “Go ahead, pull the trigger.” He’s sick of it, sick of himself, sick of the violence that he recognizes in himself. I can’t believe anyone can miss this in the movie. He’s just used a poker to kill a man who’s just tried to kill him. He looks at what he’s done with despair and absolute horror and he doesn’t care at that moment whether he lives or dies.
What about the last shot in the movie, when Hoffman is driving away from the scene of that carnage? One critic saw a look of enjoyment on his face when he tells the half-wit he doesn’t know his way home anymore.
It’s not enjoyment at all. Neither Dustin nor I interpreted it that way. The line was written while driving to location on the last day of shooting. David Warner had cued it off at rehearsal by saying, “I don’t know my way home.” I turned to Dustin and said, “And you don’t either, and that’s the whole point of the picture.” “Yes,” he said, “and I’ll say it with a smile, because the irony is too much for him to say it straight.” Dustin wanted to do it that way and he was right. David Sumner had recognized in himself the enormous suppressed violence that he had been living with. And once it had come out, there was no going back. You see, he really set the whole thing up. He could have stopped it any one of a dozen times. He was testing his wife; he was testing himself. He was maneuvering himself into a situation where he’d be forced to let the violence in himself out, as a lot of so-called pacifists and supposedly passive people do. You remember reading about that kid who shot 45 people from the top of a tower on some campus? Boy, there was the honor student, the good guy, the boyscout leader who was kind to his mother and small animals. Whether he enjoyed shooting all those people isn’t the issue. The issue is that he did it. He had all that violence in him and he went up into the tower and let it out. Now, you hear all this talk about the violence in Straw Dogs and in some of my other pictures, as if that violence were contributing to the violence of our society. The point is that the violence in us, in all of us, has to be expressed constructively or it will sink us. I’m a great believer in catharsis. Do you think people watch the Super Bowl because they think football is a beautiful sport? Bullshit! They’re committing violence vicariously. Look, the old basis of catharsis was a purging of the emotions through pity and fear. People used to go and see the plays of Euripides and Sophocles and those other Greek cats. The players acted it out and the audience got in there and kind of lived it with them. What’s more violent than the plays of William Shakespeare? And how about grand opera? What’s bloodier than a romantic grand opera? Take a plot, any plot—brother kills brother to sleep with the wife, who then kills her father, and so on and so on. Want to have some fun? Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When you point things like this out to the New York cats, they tell you it was all art, which is crap. These plays and operas and stories were the popular entertainment of their day.
But they weren’t as concerned as you are with the physical details of violence. The violence in your pictures is executed lovingly, superrealistically and almost always in close-up.
You can’t make violence real to audiences today without rubbing their noses in it. We watch our wars and see men die, really die, every day on television, but it doesn’t seem real. We don’t believe those are real people dying on that screen. We’ve been anesthesized by the media. What I do is show people what it’s really like—not by showing it as it is so much as by heightening it, stylizing it. Most people don’t even know what a bullet hole in a human body looks like. I want them to see what it looks like. The only way I can do that is by not letting them gloss over the looks of it, as if it were the seven-o’clock news from the DMZ. When people complain about the way I handle violence, what they’re really saying is, “Please don’t show me; I don’t want to know; and get me another beer out of the icebox.”
Many people want to put a stop to whatever, on television or movie screens, could contribute to the public violence of our time. Are they wrong?
I think it’s wrong—and dangerous—to refuse to acknowledge the animal nature of man. That’s what Robert Ardrey is talking about in those three great books of his, African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract. Ardrey’s the only prophet alive today. Some years ago, when I was working on The Wild Bunch, a friend of mine came to me with African Genesis and said I had to read it because Ardrey was writing about what I was dealing with, that we were both on the same track. So after I finished Wild Bunch I read him and I thought, wow, here’s somebody who knows a couple of nasty secrets about us. Straw Dogs is about a guy who finds out a few nasty secrets about himself—about his marriage, about where he is, about the world around him. Some people don’t like facing that sort of thing; it makes them itch. You see, David Sumner gets the blinkers pulled off. The man said you can’t go home again and David can’t either. He can go on—we all can—but he can’t go back to what he was. I don’t know what could be clearer.
What about his wife, Amy? What does she find out about herself?
Well, there are two kinds of women. There are women and then there’s pussy. A woman is a partner. If you can go a certain distance by yourself, a good woman will triple it. But Amy is the kind of girl—and we’ve all seen them by the millions—they marry, they have some quality, but they’re so goddamn immature, so ignorant as far as living goes, as to what is of value in life, in this case about marriage, that they destroy it. Amy is pussy, under the veneer of being a woman. Maybe because of what happens to her, she’ll eventually become a woman.
Are you implying that Amy couldn’t become a woman until David became a man?
No, David was always a man. It’s just that he didn’t see deeply enough into himself. He didn’t know who he was and what he was all about. We all intellectualize about why we should do things, but it’s our purely animal instincts that are driving us to do them all the time. David found out he had all those instincts and it made him sick, sick unto death, and at the same time he had guts enough and sense enough to stand up and do what he had to do.
But Amy was the instrument of his self-discovery, wasn’t she? Didn’t she push and prod him to “act like a man”?
She didn’t know what she wanted. She pushed him, as you say, but not in any constructive way. To start out with, she asked for the rape. But later she could barely bring herself to pull the trigger to save his life. I don’t know whether they’ll get back together again. At least they’ll have to deal with each other on a different plane. What I hope he does is keep going in that car at the end—not turn back. He obviously married the wrong dame. She is basically pussy. What I favor is marriages made in heaven, and that’s the only place marriages ought to be performed. And speaking of rape, I’d like to point out to Miss Kael and these other so-called critics that rear entry does not necessarily mean sodomy, as they said in their reviews. In the picture, Amy is taken by one guy she used to go with and then she’s taken from the rear by another guy she didn’t want any part of anywhere. The double rape is a little bit more than she bargained for. Anyway, I guess Miss Kael and her friends have anal complexes. Perfectly justified in this day and age.
If Amy is pussy, why did David marry her?
Come on, that’s beneath you. Most of us marry pussy at one time or another. A smart, unscrupulous cunt can always use her looks to get some poor slob to marry her. And in marriage, so often, especially if the man is lonely, he will clothe her in the vestments of his own needs—and if she’s very young, she’ll do the same thing to him. They don’t really look at what the other person is but at what they want that person to be. All of a sudden the illusion wears off and they really see each other and they say, “Hey, what’s all this about?” Now that David can see himself, too, he can begin to build his life. As for her, probably she’ll never change.
You sound like a man who’s had a lot of experience with pussy.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the advantages of being a celebrity is that a lot of attractive pussy that wasn’t available to you before suddenly becomes available. Groupies and star-fuckers abound and you certainly don’t have to marry them, though a lot of poor fools do.
How do you account for the mutual attraction of stars and groupies?
It’s the same thing that attracts all men to women, and vice versa. Men are primarily turned on by physical beauty, magnetism, or maybe just the way a woman moves and the kind of atmosphere she surrounds herself with. But what attracts a woman to a man is entirely different. It has a lot more to do with where a man is with his life. I’m not talking about money; I’m talking about success. I’m talking, really, about territory. How much and where and how secure. It’s the most basic human urge. Watch the behavior of any herd. Who’s got the cows? The biggest, strongest bull. And every year he has to fight off all challengers until eventually someone does him in. But while he reigns, he has it all his own way. It’s the most basic and fascinating evolutionary process there is.
Ethologists might agree with you, but it’s doubtful that women’s lib would buy much of what you’re saying.
I ignore women’s lib. I’m for most of what they’re for, socially as well as politically and economically, but I can’t see why they have to make such assholes of themselves over the issue. Those bull dykes and the crazies in their tennis sneakers and burlap sacks—just try to explain a few facts of life to them. Like the fact that I have a penis that thrusts into a woman and she has a vagina to receive me. The basic male act, by its very nature, starts out as an act of physical aggression, no matter how much love it eventually expresses, and the woman’s begins as one of passivity, of submission. It’s a physical fact. Except to a bull dyke. Not that I’m knocking lesbianism. I consider myself one of the foremost male lesbians in the world. I don’t care what goes on in people’s heads; we are physically constructed in a certain way and we’ve been handed a set of instincts to go with the machinery. Tell that to any of these women’s lib freaks and they’ll swear you’re a male-chauvinist pig. What can happen when you deny your basic instincts and drives is what Straw Dogs is all about. I read somewhere recently that some cat was having trouble making it with women today because half the ones he took to bed began by making geographical demands. They lay out a whole sexual battle plan before they start. They want this, they want that. You’re expected to provide instant satisfaction by delivering like some kind of computerized acrobat. That’s logistics, not sex—and certainly not love. In sex, when you do it only for yourself or the other person, you’re masturbating either yourself or her. Any good whore knows more about sex than Betty Friedan.
Do you really like whores?
Of all the whores I’ve been with—American, Chinese, English, Mexican, any nationality—I’ve failed to end up in some kind of warm personal relationship with only about 10 percent. I’ve lived with some good whores. They’ve taken me home or I’ve taken them home. We’ve been human beings together. I never thought of these women as objects to be used. I put a lot of the relationships I’ve had with whores into the love story of Cable Hogue and his whore, Hildy. They had a relationship that was truer and more tender than that between most husbands and wives. The fact that she was a whore and went to bed with men for money didn’t change anything. Most married women fuck for the money that’s in it.
Regardless of your relationship with whores, doesn’t the fact that you relate so well to them signify some need on your part to remain either superior or emotionally uninvolved?
Possibly, but I believe it signifies mostly that I like an honest woman, a woman who’s honest with herself and the people she cares about. Not infrequently, in one way or another, she turns out to be a prostitute.
Come to think of it, most of the women in your movies have been prostitutes.
You find something good, you stay with it.
Like violence. You’ve always dealt with it, haven’t you?
One of my big themes. But if you want to find out something about violence in this country, you ought to talk to the people in our prisons, as I’ve been doing lately in connection with The Getaway. Those guys’ll wake you up. For them it’s a way of life, a life lived according to certain codes. There are some things you do and others you don’t do. The whole thing is built into the fabric of their lives, as it was for those cats in The Wild Bunch. They were people who lived not only by violence but for it. But the whole underside of our society has always been violent and still is. It’s a reflection of the society itself. Do you know, people came up and threw punches at me because they were incensed by the violence in The Wild Bunch? These pacifists came up and actually tried to hit me. They didn’t understand who they were. In George Bernard Shaw’s play The Devil’s Disciple, a preacher discovers his true nature, which is that of a man of action, a man of violence, and the man of action discovers he’s really a preacher. Doesn’t that suggest anything to you?
That maybe you’re a bit of a preacher yourself.
Right on. Something to do with my background, maybe.
Do you think pacifists are dishonest with themselves or out of touch with reality? Or just plain unmanly?
Of course not. True pacifism is manly. In fact, it’s the finest form of manliness. But if a man comes up to you and cuts your hand off, you don’t offer him the other one. Not if you want to go on playing the piano, you don’t. I’m not saying that violence is what makes a man a man. I’m saying that when violence comes, you can’t run from it. You have to recognize its true nature, in yourself as well as in others, and stand up to it. If you run, you’re dead, or you might as well be.
When you say that someone is a real man, what do you mean by it?
That he doesn’t have to prove anything. He’s himself. My dad put it another way. When the time comes, he used to say, you stand up and you’re counted. For the right thing. For something that matters. It’s the ultimate test. You either compromise to the point where it destroys you or you stand up and say, “Fuck off.” It’s amazing how few people will do that. So if I’m a fascist because I believe that men are not created equal, then all right, I’m a fascist. But I detest the term and I detest the kind of reasoning that labels that point of view fascistic. I’m not an anti-intellectual, but I’m against the pseudo intellectuals who roll like dogs in their own verbal diarrhea and call it purpose and identity. An intellectual who embodies his intellect in action, that’s a complete human being. But sitting back and quarterbacking from the stands is playing with yourself.
David Sumner in Straw Dogs is the first intellectual you’ve ever made the hero of a movie.
He’s not a hero. He’s a heavy. I’m crazy about heavies.
Is that how you felt about your characters in The Wild Bunch? You’ve been quoted as saying that you hated Pike Bishop, the Bill Holden part, and his buddies, that they were dangerous and had to go; but the way you handle them in the movie seems to contradict you. It expresses respect and even love for them and what they stand for.
Sure I loved them. I love outsiders. Look, unless you conform, give in completely, you’re going to be alone in this world. But by giving in, you lose your independence as a human being. So I go for the loners. I’m nothing if not a romantic and I’ve got this weakness for losers on the grand scale, as well as a kind of sneaky affection for all the misfits and drifters in the world.
Aren’t your losers and misfits conformists to outdated codes?
Outdated codes like courage, loyalty, friendship, grace under pressure, all the simple virtues that have become clichés, sure. They’re cats who ran out of territory and they know it, but they’re not going to bend, either; they refuse to be diminished by it. They play their string out to the end.
But isn’t the hard truth about the frontier that it had no real code—other than survival of the fittest?
Yep, but I don’t make documentaries. The facts about the siege of Troy, of the duel between Hector and Achilles and all the rest of it, are a hell of a lot less interesting to me than what Homer makes of it all. And the mere facts tend to obscure the truth, anyway. As I keep saying, I’m basically a storyteller. I’m not even sure anymore what I believe in. I once directed a Saroyan play in which one of the characters asked another if he would die for what he believed in. The guy answered, “No, I might be wrong.” That’s where I am. I’m not going to get between my audience and the story. I hate the feeling in a theater of being more aware of what the director’s doing than of what’s actually up there on the screen.
Is that why you like doing Westerns, because the West is almost the only mythology we have?
Hell, no. I came by it naturally. My earliest memory is of being strapped into a saddle when I was two for a ride up into the high country. We were always close to the mountains, always going back to them. When my grandfather was dying, almost his last words were about the mountains. We’d summer in them and some winters I ran trap lines in the snow. We loved that country, all of us. My granddad, Denver Church, had a 4100-acre cattle ranch in the foothills of the Sierras, about 25 miles east of Fresno, and the whole family, the Peckinpahs and the Churches, had been wandering in that country since moving out from the Midwest in the middle of the 19th Century. We even have a mountain named after us.
Have you used your family as characters in your pictures?
No, they got too respectable. They went into real estate, politics, the law. My mother, who’s still very much around, believes absolutely in two things: teetotalism and Christian Science. My father was a judge. He believed in the Bible as literature, and in the law. He was an authority, and we all grew up thinking he could never, ever be wrong about anything. The law and the Bible and Robert Ingersoll were our big dinner-table topics. When I was still a kid, Dad made me go to the trial, in his court, of a 17-year-old boy accused of statutory rape. He thought it would be a good lesson for me. It was, but not for the reasons he thought. In addition to being a judge, my dad was probably the worst cattleman in the business. He went broke 13 times. And in the mountains, he made his own laws. He believed that you didn’t hunt unless you ate what you killed. But he claimed that all the animals on his land were his to do what he liked with. I was 20 years old before I knew there was such a thing as a hunting season or a game warden, and I was 30 before I began paying any attention to it. The people, the places in that area! It’s mostly all gone now. Fresno’s like a little LA today, and the country around it is chopped up with new roads and resort facilities and overrun with all these shit-ass tourists and campers. My brother Denny and I were in on the last of it. A lot of the old-timers dated back to when the place had been the domain of hunters and trappers, Indians, gold miners—all the drifters and hustlers. All that’s left now are the names to remind you, and what names: towns like Coarsegold and Finegold, Shuteye Peak, Dead Man Mountain, Wild Horse Ridge, Slick Rock. And the old-timers had their stories to tell, too. Denny and I rode and fished and hunted all over that country. We thought we’d always be a part of it. The last few years I haven’t even been hunting anymore, but I’m thinking of taking it up again.
Do you agree with your father that it’s wrong to hunt unless you eat what you kill?
Yes, and you also shouldn’t kill more than you can eat. A deer tastes good, but it’s also beautiful animal. Anyone will kill, though, if he gets hungry enough—even those who refuse to hunt at all, for moral reasons. A gnawing in the belly is a great equalizer of principles. Of course, most men kill only out of principle, and then it’s usually his fellow man. Nice principle.
Do you think it’s possible, as one critic once said about you, that you’re really a 19th century man and that in your work you’re living vicariously the period you’d have preferred to live in?
When you’re doing a picture, first of all, the period matters less than what the thing is about. You become all the characters. I’ve been every character in my pictures. The actors do the same. They wear each other’s parts to try them on for size, to test them and themselves, sometimes against each other. But I did like that period in American life. And I liked the period I grew up in, the Thirties. It was a different America. We hadn’t run out of ground.
With your hard-nosed WASP background and your commitment to the outdoors, how did you make the leap into show business?
By chance. I was just out of the Marine Corps after World War II and I had nothing very specific in mind. Denny had gone into law. The only thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to do that. I went back to school, to Fresno State, because I had nothing better to do. There I met my first wife, Marie, who wanted to be an actress. Fresno State had a small but active theater department and I tagged along after Marie one day into a directing class. It turned me on right away. I especially dug the plays of Tennessee Williams, and my big project at school was a one-hour version of The Glass Menagerie that I adapted and directed. I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone. He’s easily America’s greatest playwright. I’ve always felt strongly moved by him. I’ve also directed Streetcar, as well as most of his one-acts. He’s a tremendous artist and I wish him the best of luck, always. I think I learned more about writing from having to cut Menagerie than anything I’ve done since.
Writing was what opened doors for you, wasn’t it?
Yeah, but it was hell, because I hate writing. I suffer the tortures of the damned. I can’t sleep and it feels like I’m going to die any minute. Eventually, I lock myself away somewhere, out of reach of a gun, and get it on in one big push. I’d always been around writers and had friends who were writers, but I’d never realized what a lot of goddamn anguish is involved. But it was a way to break in. I paid my dues in this business. I was a gofer, a stagehand. I swept out studios and I watched a few good people work. Then I started writing and finally selling TV scripts. And after a while I decided to try my hand at movies. I always had two or three projects going at a time. I’d put everything into them and I’d sell a few and then they’d disappear. I wrote two pretty good scripts in those days, and what happened to them was typical. One, Villa Rides, was produced with Yul Brynner in the lead. It was awful. I’ve put in a lot of time in Mexico and I know Mexican history. Brynner said I didn’t understand Mexico and Villa Rides is the result of the changes they made. It’s a phony. The other script became One-Eyed Jacks, directed by and starring Brando. I had adapted the thing from a novel by Charles Neider called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, based on the true story of Billy the Kid. It was the definitive work on the subject, but Marlon screwed it up. He’s a hell of an actor, but in those days he had to end up as a hero and that’s not the point of the story. Billy the Kid was no hero. He was a gunfighter, a real killer. But I don’t want to knock actors. Some of my best friends are actors. It was Brian Keith, who’d worked with me on The Westerner series, who got me my first movie-directing break. He’d been signed to star opposite Maureen O’Hara in The Deadly Companions and he persuaded the producer of the picture, who happened to be Miss O’Hara’s brother, to take me on. It wasn’t the best deal in the world: I wanted to make a picture and this guy wanted to push me around. The script needed lots of work, but I’d get told to go back in my corner. Brian knew we were in trouble, so between us we tried to give the thing some dramatic sense. The result was that all of his scenes worked, while all of hers were dead. I found out about producers, all right.
You’ve always had trouble with producers. Are there any you’ve ever enjoyed working with?
One, maybe two, and even then not much. I don’t work well under people. I think there has to be one person who’s making a picture and that person has to be the director. Producers are often only administrators and they’re too interested in defending their own prerogatives. I’ve got a temper and I can’t stand stupidity, so I’m always at war with these cats. I want control of everything, from the script to the cutting room. And if I don’t get what I want from people, I put them on the bus. The trouble with producers is you can’t do that to them. Everybody else comes and goes on a picture, but the producer and the director are with it from beginning to end. The best producer is a guy who’ll let you make your own movie. There aren’t many around.
What directors have that clout?
Kurosawa has it. Fellini. Bergman. But no American has it. Some, like Kubrick and Nichols, think they do, but they don’t. It’s not just a question of what happens to you during shooting and editing: it’s what they do to you once the film is entirely out of your hands. Huston once almost had total control, but he blew it on The Red Badge of Courage, when he walked away from the cutting of the picture. I’m a great admirer of his, anyway. Every picture of Huston’s has tried not only to tell a story but to make some kind of statement. The perfect films of this kind are The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I wish I could make a film that good. Compared with John Huston, I’m still in seventh grade—but I’m moving up.
We’ve heard that Huston didn’t run out on Red Badge, that he had another commitment.
Well, even if he did run, I wouldn’t blame him at all. This isn’t a game. There’s too much at stake. And the woods are full of killers, all sizes, all colors. I didn’t know about all of this when I was just a writer. I couldn’t stand being so alone with myself, and it was very, very hard work; but writing has one very big advantage over directing: You only have to deal with yourself: you can escape into your fantasies and be a king. The outside world. as far as a writer’s work goes, is limited to dealing with an agent and maybe a couple of editors, some of whom can be pretty good people. But a director has to deal with a whole world absolutely teeming with mediocrities, jackals, hangers-on and just plain killers. The attrition is terrific. It can kill you. The saying is that they can kill you but not eat you. That’s nonsense. I’ve had them eating on me while I was still walking around. My basic job is dealing with talent in terms of a story and getting it on. I wish the rest of it were that simple. But there’s all the shit that comes before and after.
Now that the big studios don’t control the industry anymore, don’t you and a few other top directors have much more freedom to make the kind of movies you want to make? Isn’t that what the so-called New Hollywood is all about?
I’m not talking about Hollywood, new or old. What I’m talking about is money, doctor. That’s what it’s all about. Unlike a novelist, for instance. I’m dealing with a product that costs several million dollars. When you’re dealing in millions, you’re dealing with people at their meanest. Christ, a showdown in the old West is nothing compared with the infighting that goes on over money. To get my films made, especially at the beginning, I always had to lie and cheat and steal. It was the only way I could cope with all the muscle that stood behind the weight of the money. And even then I couldn’t win. MGM saw Ride the High Country as a low-budget quickie they could throw away in the second halves of summer double features, and if I’d tried to talk to them about the basic theme of that picture, which was salvation and loneliness, they’d have fired me on the spot. Even so, they hated what I’d done, and they threw me out before I could finish cutting, dubbing and scoring. Major Dundee, which had a good man in it, Chuck Heston, and could have been something, was butchered by the studio and the producer turned out to be a weasel whose real talent was for poisoning wells. Marty Ransohoff fired me from The Cincinnati Kid after only four days. He gave a story out to the trades that I was vulgarizing the picture by injecting a nude scene into it. There was a scene in a hotel room between Rip Torn and this girl who was playing a dreary little hooker. Well, we worked on it and the scene got sadder and sadder. It just happened that the girl turned out to be naked under her coat. It was only one element in a much bigger scene. But I learned one thing about Marty: He had a tremendous hatred of real talent. It was nearly four years before I worked again. I got by on moonlighting, borrowed money and an occasional script. I couldn’t get people on the phone or get through a studio gate. I was out. It wasn’t until Danny Melnick, who’d seen High Country and liked it, hired me to adapt and direct Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine on television that I found myself back in business. And when word got out that I was being hired, Melnick got calls from people who not only had never worked with me but who didn’t even know me. They all tried to warn him off me.
A lot of cats in this business are overpaid and guilty about it. To them I’m a threat.
Or maybe you just haven’t gone out of your way to make friends in the movie business. In any case, after Noon Wine, you really established yourself. Didn’t this make things easier?
Not much. My next two pictures, Wild Bunch and Cable Hogue, got made but were practically wiped out. Warner Bros. cut Wild Bunch to pieces and you have to go to Europe to see the picture in anything like the version I made. Cable Hogue was thrown away in multiple release despite the fact that people had begun to pay some attention to my work and Wild Bunch made a lot of money for the studio. Before I started on Straw Dogs. I had five pictures in the can, not one of which was visible anywhere in this country either at all or in anything like the form I wanted it to be in. What I’d done had been butchered or thrown away. The worst that can happen to a novelist is that his book goes out of print, but it survives somewhere, in libraries, at least, in its original form. There are people all over the place, dozens of them. I’d like to kill, quite literally kill. You know, you put in your time and you pay your dues and these cats come in and destroy you. I’m not going to work for people who do that anymore.
So where are you going from here?
Logistically or spiritually?
Logistically, all I want out of my work now is health and happiness for my precious family, as Williams puts it in The Glass Menagerie. That means I’ll keep working. I have two scripts in hand at the moment, but they both need work. All scripts need work.
Why do you feel you always have to rewrite?
No matter how good a script is, you have to adapt it to the needs of the actors.
How about your own needs? All your scripts, whether originals or adapted from a book, have a distinctive style, a unique kind of language, that identifies them as yours.
The Peckinpah touch again? Well, some people think my pictures are pretty dreadful, including your movie reviewer, who I’d like to see cut a tin bill and go out and pick shit with the chickens.
We’ll give him the message. You seem to be pretty vulnerable to what people think of you.
I think the role of the critic is very important to films, and that’s why I get so goddamn angry when the critics don’t pick up on good films and go along with bullshit, as they did on Bogdanovich’s film, The Last Picture Show, which was a crashing bore, and ignore something like Two-Lane Black-top, which I thought was a potential work of art. The Last Picture Show was artsy-craftsy, jacksy-offsky and a real pain in the ass. I was supposed to have dinner one night with Ben Johnson, who was superb in it, but I knew Peter would be there and I’d have to hit him right in the fucking mouth, so I didn’t go. I really hated that film.
What films have you liked recently?
My own. I make marvelous films. I think Junior Bonner, which I shot in 40 days, may possibly be my best picture. I’m truly delighted with it. And I don’t think McQueen has ever been better, which is saying a lot. The picture’s about three days in the life of a bull rider, a loner on the rodeo circuit.
Are there any other films, besides your own, that you’d care to talk about?
I haven’t seen much. But I loved Dirty Harry, even though I was appalled by it. A terrible piece of trash that Don Siegel really made something out of. Brilliantly done. Hated what it was saying, but the day I saw it the audience was cheering.
What about The Godfather?
Haven’t seen it—but I hate Coppola, too.
Because I hear the film is great and the only movies I want to like are my movies. I don’t want any other son of a bitch making good movies.
So you hate the good directors as well as the bad ones.
I detest every filmmaker except the innocuous ones. I love Ross Hunter. Ross Hunter is my idol. I’d like to be Ross Hunter. He knows where it’s at, baby. But you asked me back there where I was going logistically and spiritually and I’ve only answered the first part of the question.
Spiritually, I need rest and refreshment, and that usually means Mexico. I’ve been working steadily now for a long time and I’m tired.
Why do you always go back to Mexico?
Mexico has always meant something special to me. My Mexican experience is never over. I first went there right after the war, because I’d been to China with the Marines and wanted to go back there and couldn’t after the Communists took over. Mexico was the nearest place to go, and it was a time of going. We were all on the road in those days, just as Kerouac wrote about it. I loved Mexico. I stayed three months that first trip and I’ve gone back ever since. I took Marie there first. My second wife was Mexican. And I married my current wife, Joie, in Juárez, when we got to El Paso with The Getaway. Everything important in my life has been linked to Mexico one way or another. The country has a special effect on me.
Can you define it?
You bet I can. In Mexico it’s all out front—the color, the life, the warmth. If a Mexican likes you, he’ll touch you. It’s direct. It’s real. Whatever it is, they don’t confuse it with anything else. Here in this country, everybody is worried about stopping the war and saving the forests and all that, but these same crusaders go out the door in the morning forgetting to kiss their wives and water the flowers. In Mexico they don’t worry so goddamn much about saving the human race or about the wheeling and dealing that’s poisoning us. In Mexico they don’t forget to kiss each other and water the flowers.
You don’t put much faith, we gather, in social or political solutions.
None. You know what this country’s all about, doctor? It’s advertising. It’s brainwashing. It’s bullshit. It’s hustling products and people, making no distinction between the two. We’re in the Dark Ages again. Look at who the people are voting for—Nixon, Wallace—killer apes right out of the caves, all dressed up in suits and talking and walking around with death in their eyes. And what’s the alternative to these cats? Humphrey and Muskie? Two guys with absolutely no souls of their own, no concept of where they stand, who they are, no fundamental morality.
And George McGovern?
I doubt whether he’s tough enough to cut it. If he turns out to be, they’d better throw a metal shield around the poor bastard and keep it there. The rifle shot that rang out in Dallas in 1963 was a very big and ugly noise. You know, I wouldn’t film any part of The Getaway in Dallas. We were set to go in there and shoot some railroad sequences. I was driving around and I stopped for a stop sign and I looked up and there was this plaque on a building and I realized I was at that crossing. I said, “Let’s get the hell out of here. We aren’t going to shoot any part of my picture in this town.” You want to go shopping at Neiman Marcus? Fine. Great store, the greatest in the world. But staying in Dallas to put some part of yourself on the line there? No. Anyway, to get back to politics, I guess I agree with something my brother said some time back. The time will come, he said when you’ll look back on Harry Truman as possibly the best President this country ever had. Even Eisenhower was better than these guys. At least he knew who he was. He wasn’t dead and the society wasn’t dead.
What about those who are fighting to change things? America seems to be full of good causes these days and good people actively committed to them. Don’t you think there are some grounds for optimism, for hope?
No. Boredom will kill them off. The country has no attention span. We’re television oriented now. We’d better all wake up to the fact that Big Brother is here. And now, with cable TV and video cassettes coming in, no one will ever have to get up off his ass, even to go to the corner for a movie. It’s awful. One of the great things about going to a movie or the theater is the act itself—the getting out, the buying of the tickets, the sharing of the experience with a lot of other people. Eighty percent of the people who watch television watch it in groups of three or less, and one of those three is half stoned. Most people come home at night after work, have a couple of knocks before dinner and settle down in their living-death rooms. The way our society is evolving, doctor, has been very carefully thought out. It’s not accidental. We’re all being programed, and I bitterly resent it.
What can we do about it?
We have to water the flowers—and screw a lot.
You think love is the answer?
What are you, some kind of nut? All I know about love is: Don’t fuck with it.
Well, at least you’re making money these days. What are you doing with all of it?
I’ve got four kids and a big load to carry. I don’t own much and I don’t want to. I still have an ocean-front lot I bought years ago in Malibu and a small cattle ranch outside Ely, Nevada, but I’m trying to unload both of them. I’m selling everything I can. I want to get rid of this creature-comfort thing.
What’s wrong with some of the more pleasant amenities success can bring you? Why not live a little?
I live plenty. I like good drink, good food, comfortable clothes and fancy women. But if I get sucked into this consumer-oriented society, then I can’t make the pictures about it that I want to make. I’m a goddamn nomad. I live out of suitcases and my home is wherever I’m making a picture.
If the money means so little to you and you don’t care about possessions, then what do you really want from your career? Is it just an ego trip?
Fuck you, buddy. OK, ego has a lot to do with it, sure. But it’s not what the game’s about, and you know it.
If it’s a game, then what’s the game about?
I’ll put it to you this way. I’ve come a ways and I’ve paid a price. It’s cost me plenty—maybe my sanity and at least a couple of marriages—and I’m not sure the game is worth it. Sometimes I want to say the hell with it and pack it in, but I can’t do that. I stick or I know I’m nothing. Then I look around and I notice I’m not entirely alone. There are maybe 17 of us left in the world. And we’re a family. That family is composed of the cats who want to do their number and get it on. It’s the only family there is. My father said it all one day. He gave me Steve Judd’s great line in Ride the High Country: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”
SAM PECKINPAH BY SAM FULLER
When he was in Koln, Germany scouting locations for his 1972 film Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstrasse, lifelong newsman Samuel Fuller was invited by a local journal to review any recent picture that had caught his fancy. We are delighted to reprint the result of that invitation here, with the auteur’s permission. Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979. —Sam Peckinpah by Sam Fuller, Parallax View
Listen to the audio interview with Sam Peckinpah (MP3 format, approximately 48 minutes) conducted by Tony Macklin. The Peckinpah interview was conducted in his living quarters at Burbank Studios. Published in the Summer 1976 issue of Film Heritage.
“I only have questions,” Sam Peckinpah tells Barry Norman in this seldom seen interview from December 1976. “As a filmmaker I must look at both sides of the coin, and do my best as a storyteller. I have no absolutes. I have no value judgments,” Peckinpah goes on to say, before asking, “Why does violence have such a point of intoxication with people? Why do people structure their day on killing?” This is an incredibly honest and brilliant interview with Peckinpah, who doesn’t flinch form any of Norman’s questions—discussing his ignorance, his mistakes—explaining why he was wrong in thinking it could work as catharsis in The Wild Bunch, and why he was “a good whore.” —Dangerous Minds
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. Photographed by N/A © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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