Sam Peckinpah was already an experienced director (and screenwriter) before he came to make his first feature The Deadly Companions in 1961. He had worked extensively in television, usually on Western shows such as Gunsmoke and The Westerner. The Deadly Companions was produced by its star Margaret O’Hara, for whom Peckinpah claims he worked as a hired hand. He was allowed very little input in the writing and thus it lacks his typically strong authorial signature.
Despite this, the film is in many ways an unusual Western. Yellowleg, a former Union cavalry officer played by Brian Keith, star of Peckinpah’s television series The Westerner, accompanies Kit (Margaret O’Hara) and the body of her dead son across Apache territory to be buried with his father. It is as much a fight for survival as it is a search for redemption. Yellowleg is at the end of a five-year hunt for the confederate soldier who tried to scalp him. With the man as his unwitting companion he is left to question what to do after he takes his revenge – how he might live without his driving motivation. However, perhaps to give the producer/star Margaret O’Hara more screen time (certainly more than any other woman in a Peckinpah film), the film develops into a romance, moving away from the revenge thriller that the opening seemed to promise.
The town they are leaving, Gila City, certainly matches the Peckinpah ideal of a Western town. The taming of the West is rarely a positive thing in his films. Women and children, those Western symbols of civilisation, are as nasty in their own ways (gossiping and teasing) as the gunfighters. The hypocrisy of the townsfolk is exposed through a dispute over whether it is Monday or Sunday, and through the closing of the bar, as the saloon becomes the chapel (for those who believe it is Sunday). The congregation whisper aloud snide comments about the undesirables, Kit and her fatherless son. These are characters who clearly mirror the abstinence marchers caught in the crossfire at the start of The Wild Bunch (1969).
The Deadly Companions is a decent but unremarkable Western, let down by a confusing ending (re-cut without Peckinpah’s approval), some poor dialogue and some two-dimensional characters, particularly Billy the black-clad gunman. But the biggest problem is that we have learnt to expect something a little bit different from Peckinpah. Not just the flawed heroes and the filthy ‘gutter trash’ (usually played by Strother Martin – the preacher in The Deadly Companions) but a sense of humour and some bizarre occurrences, such as the arrival of motor cars, or the camel vs. horse race in the brilliant Ride the High Country, made just a year later. Unsurprisingly (for 1961), there are none of the voguish stylisations of late-sixties Hollywood, such as slow motion, sunlight glares on the camera lens and split-screen photography, that Peckinpah made his own. And although The Deadly Companions has a theme song beautifully warbled by O’Hara it is nowhere near the great soundtracks of The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and the Bob Dylan score for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
The Deadly Companions is as uninspired a beginning to a career as the CB-radio comedy Convoy (1978) was an end. Fortunately, Sam Peckinpah made many great films in between.