Lionised by a particular kind of (mostly male) film fan, Sam Peckinpah’s accomplishments as a director are often overshadowed by his legendarily disordered personal life. And much like the man himself ‘Bloody Sam”s 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is loved and loathed in equal measure.
Critically savaged on release (Harry Medved included it alongside clunkers like Santa Claus Conquers The Martians in his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time), its reputation has nevertheless lived on in some curiously varied places: David Lynch is a fan, while it’s almost certainly the only movie to be both an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the punchline to a running joke on Radio 4 panel show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. Famously one of the few Peckinpah films not to be subject to studio intervention, this peculiarly lurid B-movie is also his most personal. It’s for this reason that Peckinpah himself loved it more than The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, The Getaway or any of his more commercially successful or accomplished movies. ‘I did Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to’, he said in 1975. ‘Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film’.
An odd and at times uncomfortable mix of Western, noir, horror, black humour and genuinely tender love story, it follows Warren Oates’s loser bartender Bennie as he travels through rural Mexico searching for the Garcia of the title. Bennie isn’t alone, though: a million-dollar bounty has been put on Garcia by an aggrieved patríÂ³n whose daughter he has impregnated, so various professional bounty hunters are also seeking to find Garcia and return with very physical proof of his death.
What follows is a customarily bloody and unusually funny Peckinpah curio, redeemed almost totally by Oates’s performance. Peckinpah scholars claim Bennie is a thinly-veiled self-portrait of the director – right down to the constant drinking and permanent sunglasses – and Oates’s depiction of flawed, desperate masculinity is built on equal amounts of sadness, rage and frustration. The essentially pointless chase for Garcia’s severed head is Bennie’s last chance at achieving some kind of redemption. Ultimately, Bennie manages a kind of nobility amongst the moral squalor of his surroundings, but only after his girlfriend and scores of others are killed and he has contended with the practicalities of transporting a rapidly decomposing human head through the Mexican heat.
The BFI’s Sam Peckinpah season offers the chance to see the film in a much better print than the notoriously poor one shown very occasionally on TV – which means that the dialogue will be audible for a start – but although the picture quality may be good, it can’t stop this from being a pretty grimy film. Indeed, your appreciation of it will largely depend on whether you trust Peckinpah enough to spend two hours with him jettisoning the Big Themes of his best work for a kaleidoscopic mix of gay hitmen, shallow graves, Kris Kristofferson as a bashful would-be rapist and Warren Oates having a one-way conversation with a dead man’s head in a calico sack. Because, like Peckinpah himself, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a mixture of the very very good and the very very bad. In this respect, it’s probably the director’s ultimate movie.