A notoriously difficult director who nearly destroyed his career before it began, Sam Peckinpah almost single-handedly recreated the Western with his violent, ambiguous vision. He made a mess of his life with alcohol and drugs, leaving behind a tattered reputation and a long list of enemies. But he was also an incredible filmmaker whose best work ranks alongside Hollywood greats like John Ford, John Huston
and Howard Hawks. Here are six of his best movies.
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With shades of John Ford
, Peckinpah directed the classic Western starring Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in his final picture before the actor retired. Both played former lawmen and friends tasked with guarding a cache of gold, though Scott lacks moral fiber and plans to rob the shipment with a younger outlaw (Ronald Starr). Their plan to convince the more upright, but hopelessly broke McCrea to join them goes awry and leads to a bloody conclusion. Ride the High Country
was only Peckinpah’s second film, but already he was displaying a level of greatness that would come to fruition at the end of the decade with another classic Western.
Peckinpah was off to a great start in the early 1960s, but severely damaged his reputation and career with the disastrous Major Dundee
(1965). Somehow he was able to emerge from those ashes and mount a huge comeback with The Wild Bunch
, one of the best Westerns ever made. Starring William Holden
, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan, the revisionist take on the classic Hollywood genre followed a group of aging outlaws fleeing both the law and an encroaching modern world toward the Mexican border, while leaving a trail of bodies and mayhem behind. The operatic violence in the final shootout – without a doubt one of the best ever filmed – was vintage Peckinpah and underscored what became the director’s masterpiece.
Peckinpah followed the ultra-violent Wild Bunch
with the decidedly non-violent Western, The Ballad of Cable Hogue
, which he considered to be his all-time favorite. Jason Robards starred as the titular Cable Hogue, a man left to die in the desert who is unexpectedly saved by finding water where he thought there wasn’t any. With a new lease on life, Hogue turns the water hole into a thriving business along a stagecoach route where he fends off all manner of attackers, but ultimately fails to stop the march of progress. Yes, there are moments of violence herein – it is
a Western, after all – but the director’s uncharacteristically comic tone makes this a true anomaly in the Peckinpah canon.
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Peckinpah sparked a great deal of controversy over this classic thriller, which starred Dustin Hoffman as a meek-and-mild mathematician who moves to England with his British wife (Susan George), where the locals start to terrorize them. But buried beneath the mathematician’s timid façade lies a deep current of violence, which he unleashes with unrelenting fury. Straw Dogs
was Peckinpah’s darkest and most disturbing film, underscored by a traumatic and prolonged rape scene that triggered calls that the director was celebrating misogyny, sadism and vigilantism. Peckinpah had his defenders, of course, but the film was still edited by the studio before its release. It wasn’t until the unedited version was released on DVD in 2002 that American audiences were able to see the film in its entirety.
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After directing Steve McQueen in the quiet character drama, Junior Bonner
, Peckinpah reunited with the actor on this gritty crime thriller that co-starred McQueen’s soon-to-be wife, Ali McGraw. One of the best heist movies
ever made, The Getaway
followed McQueen and McGraw as husband and wife criminals who run of the Mexican border after being double-crossed following a Texas bank job. Hot on their trail is a ruthless accomplice (Al Lettieri), who hunts them down from the money he tried to take from them. Despite on-set difficulties with McQueen, partly fueled by alcohol, The Getaway
was one of the most successful movies of 1972 and gave Peckinpah a hit that he desperately needed.
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By the time he directed Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
, Peckinpah’s battle with alcoholism was starting to turn against him, and the film’s lack of critical and commercial success only made matters worse. This lyrical, often enigmatic Western featured strong performances by James Coburn as Pat Garrett, Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid, and Bob Dylan
as an enigmatic drifter who joins forces with The Kid, but suffered under the weight of Peckinpah’s heavy-handed mysticism. Still, it’s beautifully photographed and features a great soundtrack from Dylan, making this complex Western definitely worth the time to watch.