Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus appeared soon after Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and fuelled a kind of critical hysteria about escalating violence on screen. Fifty years on, with the missing flashbacks restored (if not the throat-slitting), the violence remains pretty shocking – as Peckinpah intended – but the film’s tale of necessary endings looks more like a valediction to the role of maverick authors in the studio system. The original story idea was set in the late 19th century and Peckinpah sharpened it by relocating it to the Tex-Mex border in 1914: the railroads are spearheading a corporate putsch in the US, and Villa is fomenting revolution in Mexico. Veteran chancers Pike Bishop (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) have been driven south in search of declining spoils, while Bishop’s one-time buddy Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) has evaded jail by signing up as a hired gun for the railroad. All of them know their end is near, but the film gives them one last opportunity to fulfil their adolescent dreams and find a kind of moral purpose. From the opening ambush to the closing suicide mission, these are men going for what they’re sure is their manifest destiny. It redefines the notion of a ‘blaze of glory’.
It’s not only Lucien Ballard’s magnificently elegiac Technicolor cinematography which lends the film its valedictory cast. Peckinpah was still wounded from the Major Dundee wars (he lost his battle for the final cut, and that film has never been fully restored), and it’s easy to see this tale of men reaching for justification in the last act of their lives as paralleling Peckinpah and his team’s own struggles against a fast-changing and increasingly corporate film industry. Not hard either to see why the director needed full control: this is intricate, considered filmmaking, in which every shot, every cut, every dissolve is integral to the whole.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: Walon Green, Roy N. Sickner. Scen.: Walon Green, Sam Peckinpah. F.: Lucien Ballard. M.: Lou Lombardo. Scgf.: Edward Carrere. Mus.: Jerry Fielding. Int.: William Holden (Pike Bishop), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch Engstrom), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Edmond O’Brien (Sykes), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch), Jaime Sánchez (Angel), Emilio Fernández (generale Mapache), Strother Martin (Coffer), L. Q. Jones (T. C.). Prod.: Phil Feldman per Phil Feldman Productions, Inc., Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, Inc.. 35 mm. D.: 145’. Technicolor.
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Céline Ruivo (Cinémathèque française)