Did Sam Peckinpah have the personal insight to realize that his romanticization of losers and ne’er-do-wells was a self-fulfilling prophecy? He found success directing television westerns, and was recognized in his own lifetime as a major talent, yet sabotaged himself at every given opportunity. His battles with studio bosses and producers were the stuff of legend, and his dedication to chemical abuse, famously with alcohol and ultimately with cocaine, are a paean to self-destruction on a grandiose scale. Despite this, he somehow made films at once epic and personal, nearly all of them odes to failure and the futility of human accomplishment.
The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s most successful film, both critically and commercially. In the last decade of his career, Peckinpah’s films became erratic jumbles of nonsense with occasional glimmers of a mastery of craft (The Killer Elite, Convoy), but before he was too deep into his downward spiral, Peckinpah made an alcoholic fever-dream of a movie with one of the greatest cinematic losers of all time, Bennie, in the oft-overlooked cry for help, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
The plot is thus: The powerful El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) demands the head (literally) of Alfredo Garcia, who impregnated his daughter. El Hefe’s reach is far, and his agents eventually find a lead via Bennie (the late, great Warren Oates), a piano player at a dive bar in a Mexican slum. Bennie sees an opportunity for a handsome sum of money, and goes to retrieve the head (unbeknownst to El Hefe’s people, Garcia is recently deceased). Things go violently, insanely wrong for Bennie in every conceivable way, but he presses on, doggedly, as his grip on reality loosens.
Were Bennie’s dreams of fortune limited to just his own demise, the movie would be a typical “man on a mission” genre film, albeit with the Grand Guignol plot device of a severed head. But Peckinpah (who co-wrote the screenplay) had to mix his own demons in Alfredo Garcia, specifically his voluminous issues with women. There are two schools of thought in regard to his depictions of women: The standard wisdom is that Sam Peckinpah was a monarch of misogyny, abusing anything on screen (and in life) with ovaries. There is plenty of evidence to support this; most of the women in his films are shot, raped, slapped, tortured, used, abused, or left to the periphery. The counter-point, admittedly put forth by middle-aged male film critics, is that Peckinpah made an attempt to show how miserable it is to be a woman in violent patriarchy, and the abuse that they suffer at the business end of his camera is an accurate examination and reflection of the real-world hell women face everyday. Personally, I think neither is quite right; Peckinpah had serious issues with women, but I believe someone as self-reflective as Peckinpah was using his art to, if not exorcise his demons, then at least examine them.
The issue of Peckinpah’s treatment of women cannot go ignored in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Bennie’s fiancé, Elita (played beautifully by Mexican actress Isela Vega), suffers more than any woman put on screen short of a Hershel Gordon Lewis gore-fest. She’s a hostess at a hotel (maybe… her job his vague); Alfredo Garcia was her first love. Bennie brings Elita along on his picaresque through Mexico (unaware Bennie intends to decapitate the corpse of her former lover). Her physical and emotional treatment in the film is damn hard to watch. While Bennie seems to legitimately care for her, in intimate moments he defaults to cruelty. He offers her marriage and talks about grave robbing in the same scene. He is as likely to call her a whore as he is to show tenderness. His treatment of Elita goes from touching to ugly in an instant— and that’s only the abuse she gets from Bennie; the world of Alfredo Garcia is a lot more vicious than Bennie is capable of.
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia’s other woman of note is El Jefe’s daughter, Teresa (Janine Maldonado), who is tortured and beaten on the orders of her own father. Despite the heaps of abuse, (and what makes me take issue with the simple argument of “Sam Peckinpah hated women”) both of Teresa and Elita posses an inner strength, a capacity for love, wisdom, and a willingness to forgive that makes the black-and-white misogyny assertion leveled against Peckinpah too elementary. Of course, I am a middle-aged white dude, so I should shut the fuck up.
Peckinpah’s issues with women could fill a book but he was not a man of singular bugaboos. Peckinpah had problems with capitalism, especially during the Nixon administration, under which he made his best work. An arresting facet of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s commentary on the patrician nature of capitalism, and his (relatively) subtle assertion that, in its way, the evils of capitalism are medieval in nature. When the film opens, Peckinpah tricks the viewer into thinking we are watching something from the 19th century; bandoleer-wearing gauchos and cowboys guard El Jefe’s compound. When the film expands, suddenly we are thrust in the modern world of cars, motorcycles, jets, etc. The agents of El Hefe who find Bennie, played by Robert Webber and gin-soaked Gig Young, are analogous to corporate yes-men, who have little concern or imagination beyond value of a dollar.
The power structure in the film borders on satire: El Jefe offers a million dollars for Garcia’s head, which is managed by his subordinate, Max (Helmut Dantine), who contracts Webber and Young, whom subcontract Bennie, who (more or less) further subcontracts to Elita, each party getting a smaller and smaller piece of the money (Bennie is offered ten grand, plus two hundred dollars for expenses). Despite all working for the same organization, each party (plus one or two not mentioned) is trying to kill each other or participate in a game of one-upsmanship. There is no camaraderie (except between Webber and Young, who are strongly implied to be lovers) or professional courtesy; There are just a bunch of terrible people solely interested in money. Looking at Oates’ characterization of Bennie, gaunt and consistently clad in oversized sunglasses (worn at all hours), many have noted his physical similarity to Peckinpah, which drives the anti-capitalist argument home. Bennie is a pawn of corporate greed, just as Peckinpah was a pawn of studio coffers. As Peckinpah wavered between his own professionalism and his resentment toward the men who pulled his stings, Bennie wavers between greed and his own sense of right and wrong. Both the real and the fiction men wound up on the edge of madness, but only Bennie spent his last days muttering to a severed head.
Peckinpah had a deep love of Mexico and Alfredo Garcia puts this love on the forefront. The film is lovingly shot, capturing the Mexican interior as a place of beauty, and the people as honorable and straightforward. The movie liberally takes potshots at gringo tourists, shoving a tour-bus full of ignorant, camera-wearing Americans into scene after scene, and movie is peppered with the “Ugly American” stereotype. Though Mexico is filmed with affection, Pechinpah doesn’t shy from the country’s poverty; as the film sinks into madness, the land south of the border is as much a hell-scape as it is an idyll pastoral.
Writing and commenting about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia could (and probably should) take volumes. It is a singular film, the autobiography of a drunken soul (witness how often characters are seen taking swigs of tequila), a violent nightmare and the last great work by a director who ended his career shooting Julian Lennon videos. Along with Oates and Fernandez, the film is peppered with cameos and bit parts by Peckinpah’s ad hoc repertory company, including Richard Bright, a slew of Mexican actors from The Wild Bunch, and in the most troubling scene in the film, Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts. The film is not comfortable, but like the best movies, if you’ve seen it, you will not forget it.