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September 5 - September 12

Sam Peckinpah, Blood Poet

The legend and legacy of Sam Peckinpah (1925-84) is complex and multi-faceted. Peckinpah is often celebrated as an inveterate stylist whose camera and editing innovations point towards the auteurist cinema of the 1970s New Hollywood. At the same time, he is also acknowledged as a soulful revisionist, an artist who extended John Ford’s devotion to the Western through works such as the meditative Ride the High Country and the satirical Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, films that essentially rescued the genre from irrelevance by reinvigorating such central themes as the ethical penumbra enshrouding the law, the clash of traditional morality and technology, the fatal tension between anarchic individualism and an increasingly civilized frontier and the slow, spiraling death of the West.

Far better known, however, is the Peckinpah who achieved considerable notoriety for the startlingly graphic and often disturbingly beautiful violence that defines his most celebrated and contested films. Peckinpah gave a new depth of meaning and expression to screen violence, using gun smoke and fresh blood as almost painterly media and refining such signature devices as slow motion cinematography and “flash” montage. The intense and protracted violence of key Peckinpah films—especially Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch—transformed the director into a household name. Together with their uneasy violence, the perceived misogyny of Peckinpah's films made him an object of steady controversy.  Peckinpah chafed at the sobriquet “Bloody Sam” applied by critics, and complained that the striking counterpart of his gentler films—such as the sensitive character studies The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner—was
consistently ignored.

Like Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles before him, Peckinpah was a recalcitrant visionary destined to clash with the Hollywood brass who reluctantly employed him. Peckinpah's too, was a tragically compromised career, plagued by impatient studio executives who tried to mutilate, if not destroy, ambitious projects like Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch.  Peckinpah’s erratic record of box office hits and misses, combined with his own self-destructive tendencies, saw him increasingly pigeonholed as an unreliable "action director,” denied the bigger budget projects that he craved.

Peckinpah has only recently been re-evaluated as critics and scholars have discovered the thematic richness and complexities of his films. Most notable is Peckinpah's powerful examination of the privileges and discontents of masculinity and the bitter failure of the American dream of individual freedom. More than simply an object of controversy, the violence and frequent nihilism of Peckinpah's cinema powerfully distills the raw experiences of the civil rights movement, Vietnam and political assassinations of the 1960s into a vision of a lawless, ragged world that still resonates today.

Special thanks to Paul Seydor; Mary Tallungen, Disney.

Read the Boston Phoenix review of the series

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Friday September 5 at 7pm

warren oates in alfredo garciaBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young
US 1974, 35mm, color, 112 min.
Print from MGM

Warren Oates is given his ultimate star vehicle in Peckinpah's dark tale of a washed up petty hood and lounge pianist who sees a last chance for redemption in the dangerous bounty offered by a powerful local landowner. The film sets off on a drug-sodden road trip that inevitably turns sinister as desperate mercenaries compete for the promised fortune in a frenzy of savage greed that recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of Peckinpah's favorite films. Although today Alfredo García’s unwavering nihilism seems wonderfully counterbalanced by the film's shaggy-dog narrative and visual style, the film's unusual tone resulted in a box office disaster, and Alfredo Garcia became the last of Peckinpah’s films that he would also write. The film’s stature has grown steadily over the years, and it now takes its rightful place in the top ranks of Peckinpah’s achievements and as an enduring cult favorite.

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Friday September 5 at 9:15pm

charlton heston in major dundeeMajor Dundee

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Jim Hutton
US 1965, 35mm, color, 136 min.
Print from Sony Pictures

Peckinpah’s ambitious epic focuses on a little-known chapter of American history—the fateful adventures of a ragtag group of Confederate prisoners, outlaws and freed slaves led by Cavalry officer Dundee into battle against the Apaches during the final days of the Civil War. While Columbia Studios expected a Western and the film's star, Charlton Heston, envisioned a serious treatment of the Civil War, Peckinpah instead set out to craft a searing portrait of an obsessive Captain Ahab in the desert. The new extended version of the film presented here restores a crucial twelve minutes of recovered footage that clarifies plot points and adds a more tragic dimension and depth to the character of Dundee. Far closer to Peckinpah's original vision, this version also features a newly composed film score that more accurately reflects the director’s intentions, and does away completely with the original score, which was imposed on the film despite Peckinpah’s furious objections.

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Saturday September 6 at 7pm

kris krstofferson as billy the kidPat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan
US 1973, 35mm, color, 122 min.
Print from Warner Bros.

Peckinpah's revisionist Western follows closely in the footsteps of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, combining comedy and satire to read Billy the Kid's death at the hands of a professional assassin as an expression of the corporatization of the West, a potent symbol of the frontier's transformation from a zone of anarchic freedom, where pre-modern values both good and bad can flourish, to a place of soulless commerce. Beneath Peckinpah's habitual themes of male friendship and its betrayal lies a rich subtext suggested by the presence of Kris Kristofferson as Billy and Bob Dylan as a mysterious trickster figure—suggesting that rock and roll may offer a new kind of Wild West, the rock star a new breed of desperado. MGM outraged Peckinpah by cutting fifteen minutes from the film, crucial footage that has been carefully restored in this new version, which approximates Peckinpah’s original.

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Saturday September 6 at 9:15pm

susan george in straw dogsStraw Dogs

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, David Warner
US 1971, 35mm, color, 118 min.
Print from Swank Motion Pictures

Peckinpah’s most controversial and difficult film depicts the terrible long night suffered by an American mathematician and his wife after they move to her small Cornish hometown. Dustin Hoffman stars as the withdrawn scholar forced into violence by the savagery of locals who threaten his wife and home. Straw Dogs raised a storm of controversy by giving free rein to the cruel misogyny that surfaces from time to time throughout Peckinpah's films. Pauline Kael—herself a champion of Peckinpah and hardly a doctrinaire feminist—nailed the film’s raw power and sour sexual politics by famously dubbing it “a fascist work of art.” Over the years, others have countered by drawing attention to the film's complex vision of suffering and victimization in general and its deep ambivalence toward its protagonists.

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Sunday September 7 at 3pm

cowboysRide the High Country

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Mariette Hartley
US 1962, 35mm, color, 94 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Together with the late Westerns of Ford, Hawks and Boetticher, Ride the High Country—which was originally intended as the last of Boetticher's Renown series—marks the transition from the classical Western to the genre's long revisionist period. In his last screen appearance, Randolph Scott plays a retired lawman hired to escort a shipment of gold through bandit territory. Peckinpah’s recurrent themes are already legible in his second feature: codes of honor and their betrayal, greed as a corrosive force and the fragility of friendship. While Ride the High Country's meditative and autumnal qualities give it a surprising emotional depth, the film also displays Peckinpah's consummate skills as an editor. Considered to be impossible to edit, Columbia Pictures uncharacteristically gave the film to its journeyman director to cut, resulting in an important early example of the radical montage for which Peckinpah would become justly famous. Although Ride the High Country was largely ignored during its initial release, it was fervently championed by Andrew Sarris and drew the attention of Pauline Kael and other enlightened critics.

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Sunday September 7 at 7pm

steve mcqueen in junior bonnerJunior Bonner

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino
US 1972, 35mm, color, 103 min.
Print from Swank Motion Pictures

Peckinpah’s elegiac portrait of an aging rodeo cowboy is, together with The Ballad of Cable Hogue, one of his gentlest films. Like so many of Peckinpah’s protagonists, the title character is a man who has outlived his time, returned from his wanderings to discover that his brother has sold the family homestead out from under their parents. Deliberately avoiding any vendetta story lines, Peckinpah turns away from plot to focus instead on the milieu of the cowboy—the cattle drive and the rodeo—revealed in marvelous slow motion and montage sequences. Most unusual is the extended familial portrait that emerges, one of the rare instances where Peckinpah avoids the ritualized fraternity of a male group. Junior Bonner's rich focus on character and milieu over story places it alongside such other staples of 1970s American cinema as the films of Robert Altman and the early work of Martin Scorsese.

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Sunday September 7 at 9pm

james coburn in cross of ironCross of Iron

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason
US/West Germany 1977, 35mm, color, 133 min.
Print from Connaissance du Cinema/Tamasa

Hailed by Orson Welles as one of the great anti-war films, Cross of Iron follows a squadron of Nazi soldiers on the Eastern front during the twilight of the Second World War. Drawing from his own WWII experiences, Peckinpah drew a multi-layered portrait of the enemy, focusing on the tensions between a battle-hardened sergeant, wonderfully played by James Coburn, and the arrogant Prussian martinet who commands the squadron. Cross of Iron's sympathetic portrayal of Nazi soldiers makes clear Peckinpah’s pacifist convictions, revealing the Germans not as sadistic villains but ordinary troops fighting desperately for their lives and those of their cohorts. The film was cut by several minutes for its initial US release, however the HFA will screen a rare European print of the full-length version.

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Monday September 8 at 7pm

Noon Wine

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson
US 1966, video, color, 60 min.
Print courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive

Labeled as refractory after the fiasco of Major Dundee, Peckinpah found himself in a difficult spot, blackballed by the studios and abruptly fired from The Cincinnati Kid after only a few days. Peckinpah retreated to his first passion—writing—turning out scripts for both film and television. Among these was his nuanced adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Noon Wine,” which earned the approval of the notoriously difficult Porter, and Peckinpah's assignment to direct the telefilm version of this story of a farmer estranged from his community and family by his steadfast defense of a falsely accused hired hand. One of Peckinpah’s most restrained and haunting variations of his favored theme of violence as a necessary evil, Noon Wine was a success, opening the door for Peckinpah’s return to filmmaking.

The Rifleman: The Marshall

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Chuck Connors, R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates
US 1958, 16mm, b/w, 30 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Peckinpah’s earliest writing and directing jobs were for television Westerns, where he found his first success as a creator of the popular Rifleman series starring Chuck O’Connor. The series’ second episode, “The Marshal” is Peckinpah’s first collaboration with Warren Oates, who plays an early version of the seedy types that would become one of his specialties.

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Monday September 8 at 9pm

steve mcqueen and ali macgraw in the getawayThe Getaway

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
With Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson
US 1972, 35mm, color, 122 min.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive

The Getaway was Peckinpah’s bid to make a conventional genre film-- one in which the forward motion of the plot is never interrupted by melancholy ruminations, extended flashbacks (or flash forwards) or complex montage sequences. Among the film's exceptional qualities are its relentless, restless pace and its wonderful pairing of matinee idol Steve McQueen as the crook and the gorgeous Ali MacGraw as his partner. Based on a novel by pulp master Jim Thompson and scripted by future auteur Walter Hill, The Getaway is a tough noir tale that reveals Peckinpah's talent for lean, propulsive filmmaking is equal to that of his mentor Don Siegel.

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Friday September 12 at 7pm

the wild bunchThe Wild Bunch

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
US 1969, 35mm, color, 145 min.
Print from Warner Brothers

Peckinpah’s classic tale of aging desperados determined, against all odds, to forge one last stand, gives new meaning to Hemingway’s dictum of “grace under pressure.” The Wild Bunch gained instant notoriety for its extended sequences of orgiastic violence, with less attention paid to the technical and artistic genius behind them— Peckinpah’s combination of distinct camera setups and the complex, lyrical montage and slow motion camerawork that extended the pioneering work of Kurosawa and Arthur Penn, two directors Peckinpah greatly admired. The film is riveting not only for its violence but also for its vision of a forgotten generation of obsolete warriors, not unlike the wandering ronin so prominent in the films of Kurosawa and Kobayashi. The extraordinary cast of weathered tough guys, helmed by William Holden and Robert Ryan, seem an almost Shakespearian embodiment of the studio system’s decline, a gang of vanquished matinee kings complete with the hoary Edmund O’Brien as their bellowing Fool.

The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage

Directed by Paul Seydor.
US 1996, 35mm, color, 34 min

In 1995, seventy minutes of black-and-white footage shot on the set of The Wild Bunch were discovered at Warner Brothers. That footage became the basis for  this insightful documentary about the film, directed by Paul Seydor, an editor and author of an early book-length studies on Peckinpah. Using previously unseen on-set footage, stills and interviews with surviving members of the film’s cast and crew, Seydor explores the making of The Wild Bunch, focusing on the construction of several of the film’s famous sequences.

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