#1 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
What an exploitative, trashy title, and what a sad, beautiful film behind it. Working with independent producer Martin Baum and his connections at United Artists, Sam Peckinpah was able to find funding for the script he had written with Gordon Dawson. Leaving Hollywood behind and filming in Mexico with a largely Mexican crew, he found a way to tell a new tale in a new setting (contemporary Mexico) and fill it with such melancholy at lost things. I thought that I had hit the peak of Peckinpah’s body of work with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia just might top it.
A powerful Mexican, El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), puts out a hit on the man who impregnated his daughter for one million dollars. This is the man named Alfredo Garcia, and, yes, El Jefe says, “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia.” That’s the opening couple of minutes. This feels like an exploitation movie from the start, but then, after a few minutes of Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) spending two months tracking down the eponymous head, they zero in on a bar where Bennie (Warren Oates) works. He’s a piano player who croons as customers buy drinks for the local prostitutes that work the place. Sappensly doesn’t take too kindly to the girls’ efforts (it’s most likely that Sappensly and Quill are gay lovers, which does become thematically important later). They let him know that this Al Garcia is wanted, and Bennie plays dumb. He can tell there’s money in it, though, and he just so happens to actually know the guy to some degree. Al is an old flame of Bennie’s girl, Elita (Isela Vega), a singer and possible prostitute (this is a Sam Peckinpah movie, after all).
She had disappeared for three days the week before, and it turns out that she had seen Al then. However, she has bad news. Garcia is already dead. Killed in an accident and buried. With the knowledge that he could find Garcia, he goes to Sappensly and Quill’s boss and negotiates them up from $1,000 to $10,000, and he’s off with Elita to track down the body he needs.
The road trip to the small, Mexican town where Garcia is buried takes about forty minutes of runtime, and it’s mostly character based storytelling between Bennie and Elita, and it’s marvelous. Both are older people with a lot of regrets in their life, but they also have hopes and plans for the future. Elita loves Bennie and wants to marry. Bennie is unsure of what he wants, but he knows that $10,000 will take him where he wants to go, and, yes, he could marry Elita, too. He does love her. Their conversation by the side of the road under a tree is the kind of restrained but pained stuff that I eat up. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking as these two lost souls realize that they could find a way out of their miserable little existences together.
They decide to spend the night under the stars when two American bikers (Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts) come upon them, hold them up, and one takes Elita off to rape her. Bennie gets the best of them, kills the two, and he and Elita are off, shaken horribly by what has happened. Their vision of a future was shaken by this intrusion of violence, and things could split them apart. It’s also here where Bennie reveals to Elita the full reason he’s going, including the desecration of a corpse and grave, something she’s morally opposed to. She does everything she can to push him off the course he’s on, to just go with her, but he can’t. Even if it weren’t just his drive to accomplish what he’d set out to do, he’s also got a threat over his head that if he doesn’t find and retrieve the head in four days, the people looking for Garcia will take Bennie out, too.
After a short confrontation with Garcia’s family grieving at his grave, the pair wait until dark to dig. Uncovering the coffin and opening it to find Garcia’s veiled face, Bennie is suddenly hit in the head with a shovel, and the movie really changes. He loses everything. He loses Elita. He loses his $10,000, and even if he got the $10,000 back, what good is it without Elita? He’s going to get that head back, and, more importantly, he’s going to find out what Elita died for.
This is where the movie really embraces the weirdness. Bennie gets into a couple of different gun battles as ownership of a head in a sack, increasingly covered in flies, passes from one set of hands to the next. In the middle of this, Bennie starts a conversation with Alfredo, wondering why Alfredo was so special, why all of this needed to happen, why he had to lose Elita.
Now, Sappensly and Quill confront Bennie at one point late in the film, saving him from a certain deathly situation, presumably because they were tailing him, and when Quill gets shot, Sappensly mourns over him like Bennie mourning over Elita. Both duos were fighting and dying over this head, and both lost what they loved most. This is how you introduce extra elements into a narrative to complicate things mechanically in terms of plot while also extending thematic reach. Peckinpah may have been a mean drunk, but the man understood storytelling really well.
And what does Bennie find when he finally shoots his way to the knowledge of who was asking for the head of Alfredo Garcia? He finds El Jefe celebrating the birth of his grandchild, happy with the new situation and dismissive of everything lost (sixteen lives) in pursuit of this head that Bennie slaps down on his desk. That El Jefe just simply doesn’t seem to care sets Bennie off one last time.
This is really something special. Bennie is such a Peckinpah leading man. Worn down by the modern world, trying to escape it by flying into the past, in love with a woman of questionable morals who, nevertheless, is dedicated to him, and in search of something new and wonderful that is uniquely his, Bennie is a tragic hero of the Peckinpah mold, probably the best since Pike in The Wild Bunch. He’s equally matched by Elita, the best female character in a Sam Peckinpah movie. She’s strong and independent in ways that no other female character he’d written or directed was since Maureen O’Hara in The Deadly Companions, and Elita has more depth. She’s a broken, older woman looking for some kind of oasis in the desert of her life, and she attaches herself to Bennie, trying to save him. A lot of this film’s success goes to her. A woman like Ali MacGraw’s character in The Getaway wouldn’t have worked here.
Peckinpah was reaching a personal and professional low in his life when he made Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and I think it really fed the film’s sense of death around the corner. This is the first film in his body of work, a body of work with its own share of violence and death, that seems to confront death as a real thing that could happen to Peckinpah himself. This feels like Peckinpah grappling with his own mortality, seeing the end in front of him in the not too far distance, and wondering what he’ll leave behind, and it exudes from Bennie.
Warren Oates is wonderful as the man at the center of it all, trying his best to claw his way out of the crappy little hole he’s made for himself. Isela Vega is great as the older woman trying to make her own way out, and the two occupy most of the screentime. The entire film hangs on them, and they carry it on wounded and weary shoulders that perfectly match the story.
This is raw Peckinpah. This is Peckinpah laying himself as bare as possible. This is Peckinpah at his best.
4 thoughts on “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”
I love this movie, though I confess I don’t watch it very often. It really does feel like a movie pulled directly out of Sam Peckinpah’s brain, with cast and crew incidental in its creation. It’s similar to Eraserhead, in that you can see that it’s lived experience distilled down into images and sound, but while Eraserhead is very personal, Bring Me The Head is both expansive and shrouded at the same time. I’m glad I have an HD copy downloaded, and it speaks worlds that I’d love to have this in 4K.
It also shows how the Academy is completely worthless. Warren Oates should have won many Oscars, surely for this alone. But nope. Not even nominated. In 1975, they gave it to Art Carney, who was honored for talking muzzle velocities with Jack Slater.
The Academy is a clique. They honor their own clique and sometimes deign to give attention to those outside of it. It has never been anything like a comprehensive appreciation of a year in film.
Can you imagine Peckinpah hanging out with Billy Wilder and Cary Grant?
It bothers me none at all that the Academy ignored this mad masterpiece. The masterpiece will outlive most of what they honored that year. Though, to be fair, 1974 was a strong year with The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, and Chinatown.
Oh, trust me, the words “Academy award winner” or even “nominee” mean nothing to me. The Oscars ceased to be meaningful decades ago. In recent years, almost all “prizes” of any kind mean mostly the opposite of what they pretend to honor.
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