Peckinpah is hard whiskey, as a friend told me, and he was right.
His best films are uncompromising views at violence, masculinity, and friendship in an uncaring world. His worst films are victims of his later, much deeper descents into alcoholism and drug addiction. Sam Peckinpah’s work is hard-edged and rough, not the sort of thing for mass audiences who go to the movies for a good time. He did offer that once with the Steve McQueen vehicle The Getaway, but most of the rest are the sorts of things that take two full steps into the realm of exploitation.
However, to call Peckinpah’s work exploitation would be an insult. Peckinpah’s work is filled with really well-written characters, especially the men (there are a couple of well-written women), and strong ideas. A movie with a title like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia you expect to be all exploitative nonsense, but when Peckinpah delivers a weird, touching tale of loss at the same time, it’s a surprise and incredibly worthwhile.
He was an out-of-control personality, though. Getting into fights, abusing his crew, and generally losing his ability to maintain any kind of composure on set because of his unyielding need for booze (rumors of him drinking four full bottles of whiskey or vodka a day during filming were common) limited his ability to function as the manager of a film set. He relied heavily on a loyal cadre of crewmembers to push things along.
Anyway, here’s the messy, sometimes glorious, and almost always interesting ranking of all of his films, and do check out the rest of my definitive rankings. They’re very definitive.
“It’s always unfortunate when directors go out on their worst films.”
13. The Killer Elite
“I assume that the tight leash that Martin Baum had on Peckinpah was all about money and scheduling, not about what was actually filmed. If it were, I can’t imagine Baum being happy with dailies. There’s no fire to this film. It’s surprisingly flaccid.”
“It simply doesn’t work. Its contemporary popularity somewhat escapes me.”
11. Major Dundee
“This is a rough and tumble vision of the west during the Civil War, and it really needed more time to flesh things out.”
10. The Getaway
“He manages the action well in addition to the tension. He couldn’t help Ali MacGraw’s somewhat limited performance and the script really needed another pass to focus more on the characters, but the end result is a good, tense chase through the Texas countryside.”
“It’s not a last masterpiece from Peckinpah, but it is one final solid effort before he decided to go truckin’ in an effort to find financial success again.”
“Is this movie some kind of lost gem of Peckinpah’s career? Maybe. The first four-fifths of the film are something special, but that ending is just not at the same level at all. I think the film ends up working despite the ending, though. I kind of love that first four-fifths.”
“Junior Bonner (terrible title, by the way) is an affecting little movie from a man who had become known for violence. He doesn’t rid himself of the violence here, it’s just too baked in the cake of who Peckinpah is to completely free himself of it, but the canvas feels more intimate while still touching on the themes that really drove Peckinpah: men out of time and the transformative power of violence between men.”
“Surprisingly gentle and quiet, it paints the portrait of a man who has to learn to let go, even if the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest (with a last-minute save up its sleeve).”
“This is evidence that Peckinpah was more than just a solid director. His writing on The Westerner helped prove that, but it’s nice to see the evidence in feature film form as well. He understood the western, male relationships, and even disappointment in old age. This is his The Last Hurrah, in a way, only made by a much younger man. This is a wonderful film.”
“After the intelligent mess that was Major Dundee and the emotionally gripping little portrait in “Noon Wine”, The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah going for broke. He made a film that is fully his, and it is a very strong drink for sure.”
3. Straw Dogs
“This is a great thriller, Peckinpah’s best film up to this point in his career. This is the best combination of his ability to work with characters and actors and his strong handle on violence with a purpose. It’s uncomfortable at times, extremely and intentionally so, and it provides no easy answers to his character questions. There are no easily tied bows at the end here. It’s messy, brutal, and bloody, and nobody comes out clean.”
2. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
“Still, I can’t really argue with the overall results. It gets into this melancholic groove that I just fall into easily. It’s probably the most Peckinpah movie Peckinpah had made up to this point. The movie that most fully embraces the things he was trying to say as a filmmaker. I loved it.”
1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
“This is raw Peckinpah. This is Peckinpah laying himself as bare as possible. This is Peckinpah at his best.”
19 thoughts on “Sam Peckinpah: The Definitive Ranking”
Have you done another director where the difference between his best movies and his worst is so great? I think he did some truly great movies, you have several at 3.5 and 4, but you have some at 1 star, which counts as a complete failure. I vaguely remember from the biography that he spent a year (or a few?) in Mexico mostly just drinking and doing drugs, that must have taken at least some toll on him, maybe that explains his last few.
(you are correct that Junior Bonner is a lousy title)
Carpenter, Gilliam, and Hawks have similar spreads. Most of the time, you find that the worst films of a director are still distinctly theirs in their own unique ways. They’re not impersonal failures, but personal ones. For directors with really large filmmograhies, you can also find this kind of spread (Hitchcock has a couple of real stinkers, as does Ford). Wilder’s last movie, Buddy, Buddy, is just a general slog that feels like a Wilder movie gone all wrong.
The Mexican years might be around Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. He loved Mexico, I know that, and a large portion of his filmography was filmed there. From what I understand, what really undid him was his introduction to cocaine by James Caan and friends on the set of The Killer Elite. It took a troubled man and sent him over the deep end.
I have a feeling it won’t be popular, but I agree with Alfredo Garcia being number one. I don’t think anyone else could have made that movie.
He once told Ray Bradbury that he really wanted to film “Something Wicked This Way Comes” which would have been something. Not sure what, but definitely something. (Gene Kelly also wanted to make it).
But he sounds like another film-maker whose own worst enemy stared at him from the mirror.
Peckinpah with Something Wicked This Way Comes…he’d probably reset it in Mexico and Will would fall in love with the local prostitute.
I kid, I kid, but that could have been interesting.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is just so purely Peckinpah but also wonderfully built. It’s everything he could be as a filmmaker in one film. Everything you need to know about him is there, and it’s great to boot.