Legendary director Sam "The Wild Bunch" Peckipah's alcohol-soaked Western-infused Mexican noir - which he also claimed to be the only film he ever made which was released exactly as he had intended - is undoubtedly one of the most underrated and underappreciated cult classics of all time. Shot on a nothing budget (little over a million-and-a-half dollars) on location in Mexico, it starred frequent Peckipah collaborator Warren Oates in a thinly-veiled self-portrait of the famously alcoholic director, increasingly obsessed with the self-destructive quest that he has been tasked with.
"Tráiganme la cabeza de Alfredo García!"
A powerful Mexican crime lord wants to find the man who got his teenage daughter pregnant: Alfredo Garcia. More specifically, he wants the man found, and killed. To this end he puts his two best hitmen to work, who, in turn, enlist the help of a local piano player and bar manager with a military background, Bennie. When Bennie discovers that Garcia is already dead, he thinks that he has struck gold; easy money now as all he has to do is recover the head from the buried dead body. If only it were that simple...
A high scorer in my own personal Top 10, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is also the favourite film of none other than ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano – the master auteur behind one of my other favourite films of all time: Sonatine. Yet, upon release, instead of being critically lauded, it was panned and promptly placed on the Worst 50 Films of All Time list. Oh how they were wrong.
At the time, however, it was easy to rag on Peckinpah. Borne out of TV-based directorial work, the legend’s entire film career was a litany of wild hits and panned misses, alternating packs and troughs like a furious heartbeat, diminishing with time as his inner demons took over; alcohol, drugs, failed relationships, obsessive behaviour, self-destructive tendancies – all exacerbated by no end of, often quite justified, film studio interference and mistrust. Increasingly flawed, his films would swiftly go downhill, but not before they reached their peak – with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
“Nobody loses all the time.”
Sure, the man reached international fame half a decade earlier with 1969’s The Wild Bunch – probably his most celebrated film – and had struck prominent controversy with his flawed but powerful survival feature, Straw Dogs, before unleashing a double-bill of Steve McQueen efforts, culminating in the well-crafted crime thriller, The Getaway, but he had faced an uphill struggle all the way.
For years the violence in the director’s features would be misunderstood – his anti-violence, anti-Vietnam sentiments in The Wild Bunch would be lost amidst the flurry of expertly-staged action setpieces. Indeed, whilst one of his biggest successes, it would also prove to be his ultimate downfall. Peckinpah wanted to deglamourise violence – rob Westerns of their romanticism and instead portray things the way they are, blood and all. He thought that he would, in turn, rob audience members of their rose-tinted view of cinematic violence by showing it in all its bloody reality.
Of course the opposite would be true, and audiences would since and forevermore flock to his films specifically to see his particular style of slo-mo ultraviolence – something which damaged the commercial success of his less action-based project (he would famously remark of his first McQueen pairing, Junior Bonner, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.”). The Studios wouldn’t help, only adding fuel to the fire by promoting even his non-violent features as action-packed. It was a recipe for disaster, further exacerbating the situation, and muddying the waters rather than giving voice to this strangely anti-violence eccentric.
“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground. Or the man that’s in it. Or you. Or me.”
After taking even greater steps to de-romanticise the genre, with the stunning revisionist Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Peckinpah was once again plagued by interfering studios, exiled for going way over budget, critically panned and, commercially, a failure. He was also suffering personally at the time – a few years earlier he’d dipped over the border into Mexico and gotten married to an English lady who he doted on but – ultimately – assaulted in an alcohol-fuelled rage. She filed for divorce, his alcohol intake increased exponentially, and, ousted from Hollywood, he went over to Mexico, stating “I believe I can make my pictures with greater freedom from here.”
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia was borne out of that self-destructive streak, coupled with a new-found freedom in Mexico (the likes of which the similarly-outcast Gibson would find on his underrated Get the Gringo – aka How I Spent My Summer Vacation) where he could work his magic and refine his vision without fear of interference from higher powers. Peckinpah took the simple premise suggested by his Ballad of Cable Hogue co-writer and friend, Frank Kowalski – the “bring me the head of...” idea, only the twist was that the target was already dead – and grounded it on a strikingly raw self-portrait in his obsessive, self-destructive, alcohol-soaked lead character.
He further infused the story with a pure metaphor for his own hatred of the Hollywood money-making machine: he was the outcast who refused to give up; he was the world-weary veteran who was all-too-easily manipulated by those around him (the studios), dangling money like carrots, yet beating his films with the stick; he was the one-man-Army who wanted to take the fight to these rich oppressors, no matter how much damage it would do to his career. He was Bennie, the broken anti-hero wading through hell to make some damned statement, to make a difference, despite the fact that he knew that it was not going to end well for anybody involved.
“I've been no place I wanna go back to, that's for damn sure.”
To this very personal end he enlisted the help of the great Warren Oates who, in turn, delivered a pitch-perfect, career-high performance that would superbly capture the director’s very personal intentions behind the character. From The Hired Hand to Two-Lane Blacktop; Badlands to Race with the Devil, underappreciated at the time, Oates would go on to garner a significant cult following which now includes the likes of Quentin Tarantino himself. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia would mark his fourth feature film collaboration with Peckinpah, and the highlight of their work together.
Clearly embracing the director’s desire to paint key – and very tragic – aspects of himself into the role, Oates would even go so far as to wear Peckinpah’s own trademark sunglasses to get into the part, and convincingly disappeared into a sea of mumbling monologues, oftentimes delivered in an alcohol-haze, to the only companion in sight: a disembodied head.
“Come on, Al, we’re going home.”
Utilising a largely Mexican supporting cast, including Isela Vega, as Elita, the prostitute that loves Bennie, but was in love with Garcia as well; and The Wild Bunch’s Emilio Fernandez as ‘El Hefe’, the (god)father who puts the hit out. Peckinpah does draft in a few familiar faces, though, including 12 Angry Men’s Robert Webber and Gig Young (who would later join Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite) as the two suit-wearing hitmen on Garcia’s trail; and the ever-reliable Kris Kristofferson (Peckinpah’s Billy the Kid himself) as a would-be rapist biker.
Yes, I said would-be rapist. This is a Peckinpah film after all. His trademark action and violence may be present and accounted for, but his trademark treatment of women was pretty consistent across his movies too, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was no exception. To be fair, Isela Vega probably received better treatment than most every other woman he’d ever cast, getting a far more expressive character to play, who largely spoke her mind and didn’t just spend her time with her breasts out getting slapped and abused (c.f. The Wild Bunch and Cross of Iron).
But it wouldn’t be a Peckinpah movie without a bit of that, and he certainly incorporates some of The Getaway’s ‘protagonist slaps around the woman he loves because she slept with another man’ themes into his Bennie-Elita-Garcia relationship. The biker attack is more perplexing, however. It’s curious that he chose – after the highly controversial sex-then-rape scene in Straw Dogs – to once again blur the lines in such a way, having Kristofferson’s gun-wielding biker attempt to rape Vega’s prostitute, before seemingly losing interest and wandering off, only to have her follow him and supposedly come on to him. Elita’s simple, tragically honest words to Bennie as she is led away to be raped:
“I’ve been down this road before, and you don’t know the way.”
Ah well, Peckinpah’s view of the world was certainly twisted; a world of nihilism and barbarity, blood and brutality. Drowned in tragedy, his characters were often doomed from the outset and yet, fully-aware of their fate, they still sought out redemption and meaning within this damaged, unforgiving world. Peckinpah had escaped to Mexico to find a Paradise for filmmaking freedom, but the Mexico he depicted on film was little more than dirty, bloody hell. And his heroes were circling the drain to get there.
On the way, though, the bodies would – of course – fall, by the dozen. It’s easy to assume that Peckinpah features were pure action, disguised as crime thrillers or revisionist Westerns, but that’s only because his slo-mo violence was so striking and stand-out, that this is what he is best remembered for. In actuality, the majority of his most famous features only boast a couple of major action set-pieces – the bookended spectacles of The Wild Bunch; the police chase and epic finale of The Getaway – and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is no different, although Bennie’s journey to demented avenging angel pivots at its core to turn into a shotgun-blast of ever-crescendoing shootouts. Oates growls “No!” repeatedly and insistently as each successive assailant draws to fire upon him; he’s not ready to die yet – even though he knows full-well that that is precisely where he is heading – he will die when he’s good and bloody ready.
Perhaps this was Peckinpah’s own true swansong. It may have flopped at the US Box Office – finding surprising success in International territories, who clearly favoured the colourfully exotic flavour of the dirty Mexican adventure – and attracted rampant critical scorn, but it was the last movie that he made precisely the way he wanted to make it – without any Studio interference dictating what should or should not remain in the final cut and editing out what they did not like (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Osterman Weekend), censoring the sex or violence (Straw Dogs) or misrepresenting the film in its promotion (Junior Bonner). It was also the last movie he would make that would be fuelled by his alcohol-soaked genius, rather than derailed by his latter, cocaine-soaked missteps. And don’t be confused by the contemporary Mexican setting (which may have been dictated by the restrictive budget, but worked wonders in the end result): Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has the same beating heart and aching soul – and the same very lifeblood – as all of his great revisionist Westerns.
“I’ve killed people... and worse, a whole lot worse.”
Many acknowledge the importance of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, flock to the controversy of Straw Dogs, or simply enjoy the effortlessly cool, McQueen-centric action of The Getaway. Yet few are drawn to the far more personal, semi-autobiographical Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Blending the tragically flawed personality of the director himself with a metaphorical tale of his own self-destructive obsessiveness, channelled through the gritty teeth-clenched command of Warren Oates, and boasting all of the director’s trademark finely-tuned editing and distinctively stylistic action, as well as a hauntingly melancholy score by Jerry Fielding, it remains an underrated work of pure genius; one of those cult classic masterpieces that you may never have even heard of. Highly recommended.
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