A quest for the eponymous head becomes a deranged trip into blood-soaked psychosis in this, the late Sam Peckinpah’s most personal and outrageous film. It’s certainly the closest Packinpah ever came to making an out-and-out horror movie, and the results, to me at least, suggest that he should have done more work in the genre, as it definitely suited him.
We know “Bloody Sam” Packinpah as the master of movie mayhem, as demonstrated in bullet-ridden masterworks like THE WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. He pioneered the slow motion violence technique that has since been utilized by nearly every action moviemaker the world over. Alas, what those subsequent filmmakers have failed to capture is the poetry and lyricism with which Packinpah infused his films—his good ones, anyway. He was extremely prolific during the seventies, not to mention a raging alcoholic and drug abuser, and the majority of his work from the latter half of the decade (most notably THE KILLER ELITE and CONVOY) was far from great…or even good.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, released in 1974, is widely considered one of Packinpah’s lesser films, having been made during the period when his personal demons were starting to get the better of him. Critics exorciated it, audiences were indifferent and it was even given a place of honor in the popular seventies tome THE FIFTY WORST MOVIES OF ALL TIME (alongside LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and IVAN THE TERRIBLE).
Thankfully, however, the perception of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA as a failure appears to be changing. The audio commentary on MGM’s recently released DVD by three Peckinpah scholars is appropriately effusive, and, as something of Peckinpah fanatic myself, I believe it may just be the great man’s most important film. It was one of the few Peckinpah films made with complete freedom from the clueless studio heads who dogged him throughout his career, and presents his deeply personal vision of the pain and suffering of the human condition in its most undiluted form. I have, however, heard rumors that a scene in which the protagonist has sex with his lover’s corpse was in the original release print but subsequently cut by United Artists. Does anyone out there know if there’s any truth to this rumor, and if so then does the offending footage still exist?
A young pregnant woman sits by a lakeside watching the sun rise. Her reveries are interrupted by her sister, who informs the young woman that her father wants to see her. It turns out the old man, a wealthy land baron known as El Jefe, is deeply upset about his daughter’s pregnancy, and demands she tell him who the father is. The obstinate girl refuses, but her loving father manages to make her confess by having a henchman break one of her fingers—she shouts the name Alfredo Garcia, and El Jefe immediately places a million dollar bounty on Garcia’s head.
The million dollar prize rouses every bounty hunter in the land into action, including a couple slimeballs who recruit Benny, a bartender and all-around loser, to find Garcia—or at least his head! This Benny does, after a boozy sojourn with his main squeeze, a Mexican prostitute who gives him a bad case of crabs. She knows of Garcia’s whereabouts, though, and the fact that the man is dead; she kindly leads Benny to the grave, but is killed at the sight by a pair of rival bounty hunters. Benny is left for dead himself, but manages to crawl out of Garcia’s open grave, track down his would-be murderers, kill them and requisition Alfredo Garcia’s precious cabeza.
From there events take a turn for the twisted, as Benny travels around with the severed head in a canvas bag, finding it quite an agreeable companion despite the fact that it attracts flies. He takes to carrying on long chats with it and manages to blow away his slimeball employers, as well as their even slimier office-bound superiors. That leaves El Jefe himself, who Benny, together with his trusty head, confronts at a heavily fortified compound. The ever-resourceful Benny quickly turns El Jefe’s fortress into a slaughterhouse, gunning down several armed goons and, with the full support of his nemesis’s daughter (who eagerly shouts “Kill him!”), El Jefe himself. Benny’s final words are to the spirited young woman, whom he entreats to “take care of the kid and I’ll take care of the father” before riding off into a hail of gunfire.
Admittedly, this film is a little raggedy around the edges—alright, it’s very much so, but that’s a prime reason for its considerable power. This is about as far from slick Hollywood filmmaking (a style Peckinpah was forced into for much of his career) as possible. The editing often feels choppy in the way it ignores quite a few fundamental laws of filmmaking in its quest for truth at any cost. Peckinpah always loved close-ups, and lets that penchant run wild here, with, again, little respect paid to the type of cinematic grammar taught in film schools. The result is an often unpolished style that nevertheless manages to capture quite a few unforgettable moments. An example: a key emotional scene played in the shadow of a tree, which, as critic Pauline Kael has pointed out, is not the best of Peckinpah’s career, but which is unforgettable nonetheless because of the brilliant performances of Warren Oates and Isela Vega, which Peckinpah goes out of his way to detail at any cost. Oates, who essayed his first ever lead role here, was simply never better in a film; with his ever-present sunglasses and singularly sleazy wardrobe, he cuts quite a striking figure, one many claim was closely modeled on his director.
Where Peckinpah really succeeds, of course, is in the scenes of violence and mayhem, which have a hallucinatory grandeur that remains unmatched by any other filmmaker. This is particularly true in the outrageous roadside slaughter precipitated by a maniacally grinning, machine gun toting Gig Young, and the climactic office building gundown, which remains one of Peckinpah’s best ever shoot-outs (and no surprise, as the suit-wearing victims were apparently explicitly patterned after the real-life “suits” Peckinpah struggled with on a daily basis). And let’s not forget the unforgettable opening sequence, with the pregnant girl getting her finger broken; it’s perhaps the film’s most unpleasant scene, yet Peckinpah keeps the violence offscreen, imparting it via a horrific cracking sound.
Another key factor is the overall atmosphere of grit and decay. Shot on location in quite a few sun-baked Mexican locations, this is definitely one of the dirtiest movies of all time: flies, broken windows and dented cars are constants, while everything and everybody appears to be covered in several layers of grime. The result is a deeply nightmarish vision of Hell on Earth, Sam Peckinpah style.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA
United Artists Corporation
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Martin Baum
Screenplay: Gordon Dawson, Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: Alex Phillips Jr.
Editing: Garth Craven, Robbe Roberts, Sergio Ortega, Dennis E. Dolan
Cast: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Gig Young, Robert Webber, Kris Kristofferson, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernandez, Chano Urueta, Jorge Russek, Don Levy, Donny Fritts, Chato Gonzalez, Enrigue Lucero, Janine Maldonado