Sam Peckinpah | From Torture to Tenderness and Back

“Killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple. It’s bloody and awful. And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere.” – Sam Peckinpah

In 1970, controversial director Sam Peckinpah released the comedic The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It is a movie that displays none of the ultra-violence the filmmaker made his name with and became known for. After all, he established himself as someone who wanted to display what lurks in the dark recesses of society.

Consistently pushing forward with new ideas – now 36 years after his death, Peckinpah’s trademark style – rapid editing through the use of multiple cameras and footage played at different speeds – is still being replicated. It’s also fully on display in his 50-year-old comedic Western.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue remains the light in the otherwise dark of Peckinpah’s career. It stars the always dazzling Jason Robards (Long Day’s Journey into Night) as the enterprising prospector title figure. The film follows Cable as he is double crossed and left for dead in the desert by his partners. Dying, and crawling through dirt in the sweltering sun, he begs God for salvation, and the almighty delivers in the form of a watering hole.

From here, Cable’s fortunes turn round. He sets up a business at this watering hole which, as luck would have it, is situated between two towns. Over time, he expands the land into a motel-pitstop. What’s heartwarming in The Ballad of Cable Hogue is the way Peckinpah, skillfully twists the story away from that of the standard Spaghetti Western. Here, he develops characters further, using the West as a simple backdrop to a deeper tale.

Although the film retains some of the grittier elements often associated with Westerns, it is a tale of good fortune and even love. The latter comes in the form of the town prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens). She brings out the heartache, and even sensitive side of Cable. One scene, in particular, featuring Cable bathing Hildy contains the sort of tenderness that would not usually be associated with anything under the name Sam Peckinpah.

Released in 1970, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is the midpoint of the filmmaker’s dive into human savagery – sandwiched between The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. What came before and what came after Cable Hogue’s release were two motion pictures that were anything but uplifting, or even entertaining.

Questioning the reasoning behind the director’s need to create them can be a mind-numbing exercise. In some respects, they mirrored the ongoing Vietnam War which had already invited violence into the American home. But the director moved from an X-rated movie into a (PG) G-rated movie with Cable Hogue, and then back into the X-rated category.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Like most of Peckinpah’s best work, The Wild Bunch is a western. That said, it’s one far removed from the normal, run-of-the-mill oaters you’d see midday on Film4. It is a movie which is poignant in certain aspects, in how it achieves to chart the last days of the Wild West at the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, it’s an epic for that theme alone. However, any poignancy it has is overshadowed and nudged to one side by the arcane violence which runs through it.

Set in 1913, the film tells the story of aging outlaw Pike Bishop (William Holden) who prepares to retire after one final robbery. The character mirrors the Wild West itself and the decaying way of life. The ‘Bunch’ is Bishop, along with Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) and brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector Gorch (Ben Johnson). Together we see the bonding and brotherhood of men together, joined by greed and values which amount to hollow ideals. Their final job does not go to plan, when Bishop discovers the heist is a setup, and links it to his old partner Deke (Robert Ryan).

The characters are old men of the frontier, people who have lived a life surrounded by the brutality of fighting to survive. Now, in their later years, they are trying to find a meaning in their existences, only to realise the world has outgrown them. The violent action sequences project this idea perfectly. The first robbery nets very little payoff while the second on the train leaves the Bunch empty handed. The ending, meanwhile, sees the character of Deke become enlightened to the fact that the meaning of life is simply to continue.

All that aside, it’s the film’s multi-angle, quick-cut editing that is truly remarkable, especially given the time in which it was made. In retrospect, for all its controversy The Wild Bunch tells a story which needed to be told. It’s a movie connecting two centuries, two worlds, shot in such a way that it brought out a rare beauty within the blood and dust.  

Straw Dogs (1971)

Following the palette cleanser of Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs is the film where Peckinpah drags viewers into his abyss. Indeed, it holds none of the hallmarks found in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. For one, it is not a western, nor is it set in America. It certainly does not spare the audience any upheaval, also. It is simply a dangerous film.

Straw Dogs follows the story of a young, married couple David (Dustin Hoffman), and Amy (Susan George). The pair become disillusioned by late-60s America in the grips of political unrest and instead seek a quieter life. They decide to return to Amy’s backwater birthplace of Cornwall in the UK. There, David feels even more isolated, distanced from the locals, and his wife. That is until things go far, too far.

While David is proving his masculinity on a hunting trip, and Amy is left alone, she is raped. First by a once boyfriend from long ago, then at gunpoint by another local. It is this sexual assault scene which generated a lot of the film’s controversy. Naturally, it is horrific, brutal, and unsettling, particularly in how prolonged it is.

This overlong scene is used to justify the carnage leading to Straw Dogs’ finale. This is where David finally becomes the alpha male, protecting his home, and his wife from the brutality as five of the locals – including the rapists – attack their home. It is purity that David is protecting. In a twist though, it is not that of his wife, but the childlike innocence of the village pariah, the intellectually disabled Henry Niles (David Warner).

Nevertheless, with boiling oil, hunting traps and ingenuity, the locals are brutally dispatched. In Straw Dogs, Peckinpah uses sexual violence to condone physical violence – suggesting that the latter is a necessity, or perhaps a consequence of the former.

Upon release, Straw Dogs split critics. Some understood the exploration into the dark side of humanity that Peckinpah was trying. Others hammered it, saying it left them unnerved and disgusted. One can’t deny though it sent a flare into the artistic world for directors to become more controversial, more daring.

Even though A Clockwork Orange was also released that year, Straw Dogs seemed to have a bigger impact in terms of its influence on 70s cinema. After all, classics Deliverance and Death Wish both use the controversial theme of sexual assault to justify a retaliation of violence.

Post-Straw Dogs, the filmmaker toned it right down once again. In a bid to break mainstream as he did with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Peckinpah shot gentle, heart-warming movie Junior Bonner. It stars Steve McQueen as the title protagonist and rodeo rider – a man who is reaching the end of his career and who reconnects with his family while facing the inevitable.

It is one of Peckinpah’s finest films of the 70s, yet nonetheless fell through the cracks, overshadowed by bigger releases that year. However, Peckinpah cited another possible reason for the movie’s failure: “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”

You might also like More from author