Here's how director Sam Peckinpah described his motivation behind The Wild Bunch at the time of the film's 1969 release: "I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times. The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico. The strange thing is you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line." All of these statements are true, but they don't begin to cover the impact that Peckinpah's film had on the evolution of American movies. Now the film is most widely recognized as a milestone event in the escalation of screen violence, but that's a label of limited perspective. Of course, Peckinpah's bloody climactic gunfight became a masterfully directed, photographed, and edited ballet of graphic violence that transcended the conventional Western and moved into a slow-motion realm of pure cinematic intensity. But the film--surely one of the greatest Westerns ever made--is also a richly thematic tale of, as Peckinpah said, "bad men in changing times." The Wild Bunch is a masterpiece that should not be defined strictly in terms of its violence, but as a story of mythic proportion, brimming with rich characters and dialogue and the bittersweet irony of outlaw traditions on the wane. --Jeff Shannon Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid may be the most beautiful and ambitious film that Sam Peckinpah ever made. The time is 1881. Powerful interests want New Mexico tamed for their brand of progress, and Sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is commissioned to rid the territory of his old gunfighting comrades. He serves fair notice to William Bonney--Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson)--and his Fort Sumter cronies, but it's not in their nature, or his, to go quietly. Peckinpah's theme, more than ever, is the closing of the frontier and the nature of the loss that that entails. But this time his vision takes him beyond genre convention, beyond history and legend, to the bleeding heart of myth--and surely of himself. This is one strange and original movie. In 1973 most American reviewers responded by panning it and deriding its director, whom they saw as having betrayed the promise of Ride the High Country, been swept up in his own cult of violence, and become incoherent as a storyteller. Coherence wasn't helped by MGM's cutting at least a quarter-of-an-hour out of the finished film and removing a bitter, retrospective prelude. Subsequent releases have restored a lot of material, and now there's more widespread appreciation of the depth and power of Peckinpah's achievement. The cast, teeming with fine character actors, is extraordinary, making the gallery of frontier denizens vivid and resonant. --Richard T. Jameson What does it tell us that Sam Peckinpah's most joyous and life-affirming movie is also his most underappreciated? The Ballad of Cable Hogue was made in that singular moment when, having just completed The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah knew he was back in the game as a feature-film director; and before anyone (including Peckinpah himself?) had an inkling of how completely he was about to redefine the Western genre, contemporary American filmmaking, and his own personal legend. Cable Hogue is a splendiferous entertainment: a grufty Western tall tale, a lusty comedy, and also (in critic Kathleen Murphy's phrase) "a musical about the economic and emotional complexities of capitalism." Its title character--Jason Robards in a great, exuberant gift of a performance--is an ornery varmint left by two scurrilous partners (L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin) to die in the desert. Besides such Peckinpah regulars as Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, and Gene Evans, the movie features Stella Stevens in her career-best role as Hildy, Hogue's best reason for getting into town now and again, and David Warner, an itinerant preacher and full-time lech who becomes his soulmate. Lucien Ballard photographed, and there's a charming song score (by Richard Gillis) whose neglect is as mystifying as that of the film. Above all, there is Sam Peckinpah exulting in the lyrical, heart-filling possibilities of making a motion picture, trying just about anything, and finding it beautiful. This film was his personal favorite. --Richard T. Jameson Ride the High Country is the one Sam Peckinpah movie about which there has never been controversy--save at MGM in 1962, when a new studio regime opted to dump this beautiful, heartbreakingly elegiac Western into the bottom half of a double-bill. Westerns rarely even got reviewed back then, so it's wellnigh miraculous that critics discovered the movie and raved about it. Newsweek called it the best American picture of the year. Veteran cowboy stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea portray aging gunslingers in the twilight of the Old West. The slow-building tension between longtime friends--one still true to the code he's lived by, the other having drifted away from it--anticipates the tortuous personal dilemmas played out to the death by Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Benny and Elita in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The action scenes are powerful, if only beginning to suggest the radical technique with which Peckinpah would astonish audiences in just a few years. But his feeling for flavorsome dialogue, Rabelaisian humor, and full-blooded character acting is already unmistakable. McCrea and Scott are simply superb. The two proposed that they swap roles before filming got underway, and the question of who got first billing was settled by flipping a coin. Both men retired once the film was in the can. They knew they'd never top it. --Richard T. Jameson
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