Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) is one film that will probably be eternally misunderstood, as it skates a surreal edge of parody and seriousness that can rarely be comprehended by modern twinkie-headed viewers. It is one film that has been marked by far-divided criticism, making many 'worst of' lists, yet making Roger Ebert's top list. Peckinpah is best known for his film THE WILD BUNCH and his 60s television writing and directing of GUNSMOKE, THE WESTERNER, and KLONDIKE. He is universally renowned for breathing an edgy, stylized form into violence, often seen by the shoot-out. His work, in this fashion, influenced many great moderns, including Scorsese, Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Walter Hill.
Peckinpah was one step down the hill at this point in his career, coming off of the critically panned PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. His previous film, THE GETAWAY was a highly fashioned hit starring Steve McQueen. He'd also had a growing reputation as explosive and hostile director, with such films as STRAW DOGS and MAJOR DUNDEE, depicting a stinging violence and defamation toward women. Unfortunately, the critical flushing that GARCIA received probably broke him down; y'know, two turds in a row kind of thing. I recently viewed this film to see what I thought about its 'love it or hate it' cult status.
I have little claim to clearing the confusion about whether it's 'good' or 'bad,' but either way its both enjoyable and infuriating, like Peckinpah's best work throughout his entire career.
The film begins with an innocent girl admiring her pregnant body by the water. This soon turns into exposed breasts and a broken arm before 'el jefe' of a Civil-War era Mexican town. This town boss claims the stud that impregnated her 'was like a son.' Then he offers a cool million US to a stack of American looking 70s gringos to 'bring him the head' of the stud Alfredo Garcia. As fine a premise for any Tarantino film you'll see, I assure you.
These creepy, greasy American bounty hunters team up for the dough and somehow find their way to a somehow different tiny little Mexican town (stock airplane footage in tow). There they find an American piano player named Bennie (Warren Oates) who just happened to have a girlfriend who'd slept with Alfredo not a week earlier. Oh by the way, Alfredo's dead from drunk driving. Following this? It's easy. Bennie's offered a cool 1% for the delivery of the head to the slick gringos, who have shop set up in some Playboy meets Bonanza plush hotel, giving Bennie $200.00 to work with.
At this point the film dissolves abruptly into a wretchedly filmed 45 minutes of lifeless script concerning Bennie and a female floozie. Watch out, everyone, Bennie is falling in love with his crab-having ho-bag chiquita. We're subjected to eye-rollingly bad scenes of their growing love and sordid backstory (Bennie -- they said four days to get the head or they kill you, moron! Perhaps it's time to wrap up the f'in picnic, y'know?) More talk of marriage, more talk of love, more talk of marriage, chiquita almost raped by Kris Kristofferson, more talk of...memories... you get the gist...
These middle reels will have even the most sedate of viewers scratching their necks and reaching for the popcorn. There's an immense amount of time devoted to Bennie's back-story about his issues of commitment, love and devotion. All of this is undoubtedly a reflection of Peckinpah's problems and growing addiction to coke and booze (though the coke wouldn't come in later, until James Caan would turn him in on in THE KILLER ELITE). Hey, man we don't care. Get to the frickin' machine gun.
It's only the direct turn the film takes when Benny is smacked on the head with a shovel at the gravesite that makes up for the smoldering heap previously exposed. The final 30 minutes of the film are much more indicitive of the style that Tarantino, Scorsese, even possibly Coppola would revere and flat-out steal. The tale of revenge, madness, drunkenness and violent retribution. The action scenes in classic rhythm and style of the 70s grindhouse nature. Slow motion shoot-em-ups with quick edits of cars crashing, cheap blood popping limply from an extra's chest, grimace! chest clutch! It's Hollywood dramatic violence at a form so fundamental to today's filmmaking it's almost like watching an instructional video on how to film violence. Oh yes and gleefully for the sake of itself -- childlike self-indulgence jarring the half-asleep audience from their semi-slumbers. A shovel to the head!
Right to the end 'shot' of the film it all stays consistent on the theme of ultimate vengeance. It's the only way to make up for so much character development in the first half of the film, not to mention the script is worsened by stiff delivery between the characters, tricky and confusing on-location sites, uneven lighting, funky musical scoring; much of the film seems like a ruse to further fuel the violent delivery.
But to what effect? The unique catharsis Bennie has does lead to somewhat shocking cinema; but Peckinpah seemed to lean too heavily on the staging of his final themes to keep this audience interested. It dissolves into a clean and taut shoot-em-up, with morals left to the audience's meddle, which I usually dig, but did we really need to wait for 90 minutes?
However, history has leaned kindly on this, potentially Peckinpah's last classic. His career is infamously riddled with his warring with production companies and his spending of more and more time in his on-location trailer (sniff sniff) while his assistants did the work. While in no way on par with THE WILD BUNCH, GARCIA does manage to touch upon the concepts of insanity, greed, revenge, lust and martyrdom all in two reels. Perhaps this film was the most telling of Peckinpah's inner demons, as his career careened farther away, so too did Bennie's sanity, until he found himself way too deep in for his own good. Talking to a head in a bag.
Either way, it's chock full of nudity, bitch-slapping and throw-down gun fights (especially the scene where an entire Mexican family gets machine-gunned down), even though you won't believe me until about 80 minutes into it. As a genre-crossing stew of 70s style and lingo, alcoholic-driven themes of self-depreciation, and hackneyed divisions of exploitation cinema, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is unique and surprisingly enduring.