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A paradox who both cultivated and disdained his own legend as one of Hollywood's most notoriously difficult directors, Sam Peckinpah evoked varied responses to his often violent films that typically existed on a skewed moral plane between eras and cultures, with ambiguous quests for identity and redemption undertaken by hopelessly lost outcasts and enemies. Sometimes Peckinpah's search for meaning in film was a reflection of his own tattered life, which was cut short after years of serious alcohol and later drug abuse, leading to numerous quarrels with stars and studio executives that left him ostracized from the industry more than once. After receiving his start on television, Peckinpah made a powerful statement with only his second film, "Ride the High Country" (1962), a revisionist Western that presaged the greatness that came later in the decade. But he had a disaster on his hands with his next film, "Major Dundee" (1965), which was plagued by his increased onset drinking and a penchant for verbally abusing his cast. Practically banished from Hollywood, Peckinpah emerged triumphant with "The Wild Bunch" (1969), a classic revisionist Western that marked the true high point of his creative powers. From there, the director seemed to court controversy with every move, whether it was from the gruesome violence of "Straw Dogs" (1971) to the onset fights with Steve McQueen on "The Getaway" (1972) to the abstract minimalism of the confusing "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973). All throughout the decade, Peckinpah's health rapidly deteriorated brought on by serious alcohol abuse and later a cocaine addiction that flared up with "The Killer Elite" (1975). His final movies, "Cross of Iron" (1976), "Convoy" (1978) and "The Osterman Weekend" (1983) showed few flashes of the genius on display in the 1960s. Still, Peckinpah had already established his reputation as a great filmmaker able to elicit strong emotional responses with his kinetic and often operatic imagery, no matter how hard he tried to destroy it behind the scenes.
Born on Feb. 28, 1984 in Inglewood, CA, Peckinpah was raised by his father, David, a former ranch cowboy who became a lawyer and founded the Fresno Humane Society before becoming a Superior Court Judge, and his mother, Fern. He spent a great deal of his youth on a ranch owned by his maternal grandfather, Denver Church, the former district attorney for Fresno who served in the House of Representatives before also becoming a Superior Court Judge. On the ranch, Peckinpah learned how to be a cowboy, shooting rifles and roping cattle instead of regularly going to school like other kids his age. He attended Fresno High School for three years, where he was a member of the junior varsity football team, only to have his parents transfer him to San Rafael Military Academy for his senior year after proving to be a discipline problem. In 1943, at the height of World War II, Peckinpah joined the United States Marine Corps and two years later was sent to China, where he participated in the disarming and repatriating of Japanese soldiers. Back in the States, he studied history at California State University in Fresno, only to switch majors to drama after meeting his eventual first wife, Marie Selland, who introduced Peckinpah to the theater department.
With undergraduate degree in hand, Peckinpah continued his studies at the University of Southern California, where he adapted Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" for his senior thesis and earned a master's degree in performing arts in 1950. From there, he was a director-in-residence at the Huntington Park Civic Theatre for two seasons, before joining KLAC-TV in Los Angeles as a stagehand, where he developed an early reputation for being combative and was eventually fired after a quarrel with a studio executive. During his tumultuous time at the station, Peckinpah made several short films, which helped him land a job as an assistant editor for CBS. In 1954, he became the assistant to director Don Siegel and worked on a number of his movies, including "Riot in Cell Block 11" (1954), "An Annapolis Story" (1955) and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), some of which earned him the credit of dialogue director. Thanks to Siegel's recommendation, Peckinpah segued into television, selling scripts to popular Westerns like "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975), "Have Gun - Will Travel" (CBS, 1957-1963) and "Broken Arrow" (ABC, 1956-58). He next adapted the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones for Marlon Brando to star, which eventually became "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961), the actor's only directing effort after other writers had completely reworked the script.
Peckinpah made his directing debut on the small screen, directing the episode "The Knife Fighter" on "Broken Arrow." Meanwhile, a script he wrote for "Gunsmoke" was rejected due to content, leading him to rework it into "The Sharpshooter," which sold to Four Star Productions and was used as the pilot for the popular Western series "The Rifleman" (ABC, 1958-1963), starring Chuck Connors. He went on to create, produce and direct "The Westerner" (NBC, 1960), a critically acclaimed series starring Brian Keith that failed to capture an audience and was canceled after only 13 episodes. The following year, Peckinpah made his feature debut as a director with "The Deadly Companions" (1961), a Western about a gunslinger (Brian Keith) who shoots the son of a dance hall hostess (Maureen O'Hara) and accompanies her on a harrowing journey to bury him. With only his second film, the revisionist Western "Ride the High Country" (1962), Peckinpah reached a level of creative greatness that prompted some to call him a worthy successor to John Ford. The tale told of two ex-lawman and friends - one scrupulous but on the verge of poverty (Joel McCrea), the other of lesser morals (Randolph Scott) - who are reduced to guarding a shipment of gold, only to fall into conflict when the latter plans to steal it with a younger hired gun (Ronald Starr). Though not an immediate success upon release, "Ride the High Country" grew in stature over the years and earned its places as one of Peckinpah's finest films.
Peckinpah ran into his first bit of trouble on the set of his third film, "Major Dundee" (1965), which starred Charlton Heston as an obsessed army officer who leads a motley crew of soldiers into Indian territory on a perilous journey of revenge. Most of the trouble derived from the director himself, who drank heavily throughout the shoot and often showed up to set under the influence. Peckinpah was abusive toward his staff and even angered the typically even-keeled Heston, who allegedly threatened to drive the director through with his cavalry sword if he failed to stop. He also fired numerous members of the crew, often for frivolous infractions, while his wayward behavior drove the production 15 days over schedule. Eventually, the studio took control of the editing process and forced the director out. Upon its release, "Major Dundee" was a critical and box office failure, and tarnished Peckinpah's reputation. He sought to revive his standing in Hollywood with "Noon Wine" (1966), a little known adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's novel that he wrote for the small screen. Starring Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland, the one-hour film was presented on the umbrella series "ABC Stage 67" (1966-67) and displayed Peckinpah's previously untapped talent with more intimate dramatic material.
Because of the critical and artistic success of "Noon Wine," Peckinpah was able to launch a comeback that saw him direct one of the best Westerns ever made and garner widespread international acclaim. With "The Wild Bunch" (1969), he explored the idea of aging outlaws unable to adapt to a rapidly encroaching modern world. Starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, "The Wild Bunch" followed the outlaw gang as they make one last score and flee across to the border to Mexico with bounty hunters on their heels, leaving behind a trail of bloody mayhem. The unrelenting violence in the film was virtually unseen before in a mainstream Hollywood movie and received a heap of criticism despite the film itself being a hit with audiences. Said violence culminated in a final shootout scene that featured what became Peckinpah staples: gunshot wounds exploding blood in slow motion amidst a hail of bullets and flying bodies; an iconic scene that was virtuosic in its opera of violence and gore. Long considered Peckinpah's masterpiece, "The Wild Bunch" marked a creative and critical highpoint that he unfortunately failed to reach again.
To follow up the "Wild Bunch," Peckinpah made what he often considered to be his favorite film, "The Battle of Cable Hogue" (1970), an uncharacteristically non-violent Western comedy about a man left to die in the desert (Jason Robards), who stumbles across a lifesaving puddle of water and opens a successful shop that provides weary travelers with much needed supplies. He went back to exploring themes of violence with the controversial "Straw Dogs" (1971), which followed a timid American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) who moves to Cornwall with his British wife (Susan George), only to incur the wrath of the local men which unleashes the American's long-dormant violence. The film gained notoriety for its unrelenting violence, particularly a rape scene that led to continued censorship decades after the film was released. Concerned about being pegged as nothing more than a director of violent movies, Peckinpah next helmed "Junior Bonner" (1972), a quiet character study about a former rodeo cowboy (Steve McQueen) who returns home to Arizona, only to find his once solid family in complete disarray. Peckinpah reteamed with McQueen on "The Getaway" (1972), a gritty crime thriller about a criminal husband and wife (McQueen and Ali McGraw), who go on the run after being double-crossed by a scheming politician (Ben Johnson) after a Texas bank heist. Despite some heated drunken arguments with McQueen and the sudden discovery that the star had final cut, which angered him immensely, Peckinpah directed a much-needed hit that went on to become the second highest grossing movie of that year.
Following "The Getaway," Peckinpah entered into the most difficult part of his life and career, which was plagued by increased alcohol consumption and rapidly declining health. He explored the mythology of the Old West with the lyrical, haunting "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973), a minimalist Western that confounded many critics upon release, but which steadily gained stature throughout the years until it was fondly looked upon as one of the best films of the genre. Starring James Coburn as Pat Garrett, Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid and Bob Dylan - who also composed the score - as an enigmatic drifter, the film's poor initial reception soured Peckinpah's outlook and naturally increased his descent into alcoholism. He followed up with the darkly comic thriller "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (1974), which starred Warren Oates as a bartender forced by two hit men (Robert Webber and Gig Young) to bring the head of a deceased man who impregnated the daughter of a wealthy Mexican (Emilio Fernandez). A box office failure, the graphically violent thriller was savaged by critics, only to again rise again decades later as an overlooked Peckinpah masterpiece.
From there, Peckinpah's career hit an interminable slide beginning with "The Killer Elite" (1975), a grade-B CIA thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall that lacked the depth and inspiration of hits like "The Wild Bunch" and "The Getaway." The film also marked his introduction to cocaine via James Caan, which only served to further complicate his already destructive lifestyle. With "Cross of Iron" (1976), his only war film, Peckinpah managed to create gripping action sequences, but once again his onset drinking contributed to an overall lack of narrative focus that was once proudly displayed in his finest work. With an all-star cast consisting of James Coburn, Maximilian Shell and James Mason, "Cross of Iron" was a last attempt by a fading director to recapture past glory. In desperate need of a hit, the alcoholic and drug-addicted Peckinpah directed Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw in "Convoy" (1978), a road movie that managed to capitalize on the CB radio craze of the time to become one of his highest grossing films despite his reputation lying in tatters over his rampant substance abuse. It was five years until he directed his next and ultimately last film, "The Osterman Weekend" (1983), a convoluted Cold War thriller starring Rutger Hauer that managed to fare decently enough at the box office despite being drubbed by critics. Two months before he died, Peckinpah embarked on his final directing efforts, helming the music videos for Julian Lennon's "Valotte" (1984) and "Too Late for Goodbyes" (1984). An increasingly frail Peckinpah finally succumbed to his destructive lifestyle on Dec. 28, 1984 and died from heart failure. He was 59, and left behind a legacy that at once was both extraordinary and deeply disappointing, but served as an influence for a later generation of filmmakers that included Michael Mann, Walter Hill and Quentin Tarantino.
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