Monday, June 4, 2007

Sam Peckinpah’s Unquiet Heart, Beating Softly

By Lars Trodson

Years ago, late at night, I was watching an episode of “The Rifleman” when one of the characters stood by a door and said: “If anyone moves, shoot them.” I thought that line could have come from only one man, and that was Sam Peckinpah. Sure enough, at end of the episode Peckinpah was listed as the writer and director of the episode.

You didn’t have to be a genius to pick out this line. It was revised somewhat for perhaps the most memorable director’s signature in the history of the movies. At the end of the opening credits of “The Wild Bunch”, William Holden stands near the door of the bank and says: “If anybody moves, kill them.” And then, with a musical flourish, we see the words “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.” It packs a wallop and that film is truly one of the most exciting ever made.

A couple of years back, Peckinpah’s last interesting movie, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” was in the news because a new DVD was being released. Critic after critic, including Roger Ebert, called this film Peckinpah’s “most personal statement.”

To this day, I have no idea what it means and it smacks to me of some kind of stupid excuse to say why you like a movie as gruesome as “Alfredo Garcia” is without having to say that you actually like the tawdriness of it. Well, for the record, it doesn’t bother me, and I have yet to figure out why this movie is any more “personal” than “The Wild Bunch” or “Straw Dogs.” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” is certainly quixotic, but personal?

With little or no knowledge of exactly who Sam Peckinpah was outside of some interviews and articles, and a moving TV bio a few years back, I’ll take a stab at what I think is Peckinpah’s most personal film, and I think that is “Junior Bonner”, the second film he made with Steve McQueen in 1972. “Junior Bonner” -- McQueen plays the title character - was largely overlooked because that was also the year of “The Getaway”, which was a gigantic hit -- the biggest hit of McQueen’s career up to that time.

It takes place in the southwest in the world of rodeos and bronco busting and bull riding. There isn’t much violence in “Junior Bonner” -- outside of a barfight at the end that is played for laughs. But there is a lot of talk, there are a lot of long, regretful looks, there is the weight of time passing from the old world into the new (personified by Curly Bonner, Junior’s brother, a developer of new homes played by Joe Don Baker), there is silence, there is the physical humor, there is lusting after women, and drinking. There is always the drinking.

This is a warm movie -- as deeply hued with the human spirit as anything that Peckinpah ever did, and it contains another in a long line of McQueen characterizations that touch deep. There is also Ida Lupino and Robert Preston (as Junior’s parents, great casting) and Ben Johnson.

It seems to me this movie serves up Peckinpah’s most resonant themes, and does so draped in the kind of nostalgic, regretful mode that seems closer to who Pekinpah was -- based on what I know -- than any other film.

If you like exciting, pulp cinema, then watch “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” -- it’s exciting and odd and grungy and memorable. But Peckinpah the roughneck was also an artist of great sensitivity, and I think he had trouble existing in the changing world around him.

If you want to see how a true artist copes with that, then watch the gentility and grace of “Junior Bonner” with your family, and save “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” for drinks with the boys on a Saturday night.

Buy it here:

Junior Bonner