I believe Sam Peckinpah to be one of the most underrated directors in modern American cinema. We praise Scorcese to the sky (albeit deservedly) for ultra-violent work like Taxi Driver, yet tend to dismiss Peckinpah as a shallow director of action film and westerns.
Nothing could be further from the truth. When I watch this movie, it reminds me of what movies are all about, it is instructive, it elevates the consciousness of the form, which tends to be a factor in all great art.
`Alfredo Garcia’ actually has more in common with Cocteau’s `Orphee’ than action vehicles; like it’s predecessor, it is an adaptation of the Orpheus myth, albeit more subtle. I’m not going to get exhaustive in analysis, but will highlight some of the most obvious metaphors and references:
The first blatant clue is early in the film, after Benny (Warren Oates) gets the contract to bring back Alfredo Garcia’s head, he tells his girlfriend `this is our golden fleece, baby.’ Orpheus, of course, was one of the Argonauts who accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece.
When Orpheus was killed, his head was torn off, yet it continued to sing. In the same way, it is Alfredo’s head luring Benny to the sweet tune of $10K, enough to start a new life, enough to find happiness. (Note also, when Benny asks
But Benny is in fact himself Orpheus, Alfredo Garcia simply his double. To wit, Alfredo had been sleeping with Benny’s woman; her love is split between the two of them. More obvious is the scene when the two hit men come into Benny’s piano bar, showing him the picture of Alfredo and asking if he’s knows his whereabouts. Benny’s reply is `You got me.’ (Note also the thematic foreshadowing in this scene when Benny ask the Gig Young character for his name and he replies `Fred C. Dobbs’, the name of Humphrey Bogart’s doomed character in `Treasure of Sierra Madre.’)
Our introduction to Benny is as a jaded singer in a low rent piano bar in Mexico. However, like Orpheus, he is able to inspire even the pathetic patronage to sing with relish.
Orpheus was said to be able to tame even the wild beasts with his sweet lyre, and later in the film, when Benny finds himself in great jeopardy, having fallen under the power of two random psycho’s in the badlands (great Kris Kristopherson cameo by the way,) he uses the guitar to overcome his captor, first lulling him with song, then bashing him with the instrument.
Like the doomed Orpheus and Euridice, before Benny can marry his true love, she is randomly killed. In the old myth, Euridice is slain by an actual snake, in this film, she it is human snakes, i.e. devious, treacherous men.
(As Benny returns, cracking up over the death of his lover, he beings talking to Alfredo’s severed head, now rotting in the heat. Could this be a statement on the rotten reality of the materialistic American dream?) Regardless, the head is clearly `singing’ to him, although now it may be a bitter song of regret.
I don’t want to spoil the ending (which is far more true romance than Tarantino’s screenplay and the subsequent film of the same name, if one is familiar with the Tristan & Isolde paradigm,) but suffice it to say, at `the gates of the underworld,’ home free, Benny, like Orpheus cannot resist `looking back’ at his departed lover, and bring about his ruin.
The opening to this film is indisputably one of the greatest in cinematic history. As a parting note, I will elucidate this claim, as most people tend not to get it:
Set in Mexico, the film is a modern western and to bring this home, Peckinpah must bridge time.
It opens with old time Mexican music and an antique-looking black and white photo, which shifts into color and becomes the opening shot, a pastoral scene by a pond.
We see a pregnant girl in a very simple, homespun white gown dangling, her feet in the water. A maid in the garb of a timeless Mexican peasant, complete with shawl, comes up and consoles her. Two well dressed cowboys, complete with spurs and Colt .45’s in their gun belts, approach to fetch her. In the background, a few more cowboys on horses ride past, one holding a rifle. In the background is an old style adobe building. Everything is right out of the 19th century.
This timeframe is reinforced when the girl is led to her father’s office, the first view of which is of old-style oil paintings, on of a conquistador. This is actually a great hall with the architecture and furnishings of the 19th century. Her father, the quintessential Mexican Don from innumerable westerns is surrounded but surrounded by women in black, various functionaries, a priest and some nuns, all the antique garb of the era.
It only towards the end of the scene, if you looks very closely, will you notice that one man, a gringo, is wearing a dark banker’s suit and has on a modern looking tie.
And very quickly after this, we cut to a motorcycle and then a line of cars driving out of the courtyard of the great house! And the next major cut is to a jet plane landing.
The film opens in the old west and after the set up, phases us abruptly into modern times when it is actually set. I’m not sure how this can be described as anything other than genius.
It is moments like this, along with great depth of character, emotion and theme, dramatic and symbolic unity, that makes this film an artistic achievement.
In my limited sphere of understanding, Peckinpah is as much in the ranks with Kurosawa and Pasolini, as with John Ford, Sam Fuller and other great Western and Action directors.
Great art, great entertainment and a quintessential action flick; this is a tremendous film that bears multiple viewings.