Fade in: a scorpion writhing in the dust. Its jagged red tail repeatedly plunges into its own body in a last-ditch effort at dignity and self-preservation. As the camera pulls back, we see children huddled over the desert insect, poking it... [more]
Fade in: a scorpion writhing in the dust. Its jagged red tail repeatedly plunges into its own body in a last-ditch effort at dignity and self-preservation. As the camera pulls back, we see children huddled over the desert insect, poking it with a stick and jeering at its hopeless state.
This is just the first scene of Sam Peckinpah's classic Western, "The Wild Bunch," one of the most violent morality plays on celluloid. During its first screening in 1969, 32 people walked out in the film's first ten minutes. History, however, has passed a different judgment. Peckinpah's portrayal of the individual against society has become a film classic for both academics and action-lovers. Those children, wielding absolute power over the hapless scorpion, represent Peckinpah's career-long preoccupation: the study of how the weak answer to such domination.
The finale of "The Wild Bunch" -- commonly known as "The Battle of the Bloody Porch" -- might be one of the most powerful shoot-outs in cinematic history. William Holden and his hole-in-the-wall gang make a last stand against tyranny, even at the cost of their lives. To turn tail and forsake righteous vengeance is unthinkable. Bullets fly, spitting into chests in brutal slow motion. A Gatling gun tears apart a platoon of soldiers. As the smoke drifts away down the plain, the whole gang lies strewn across a porch. Yet in grand Shakespearean manner, they have maneuvered the moral high ground perfectly.
1971's controversial "Straw Dogs" follows these same lines of desperate heroism. Setting a frail mathematician and his luscious wife against a gang of local hooligans, the film reads like an instruction manual on regaining manhood. At the film's zenith, the incensed protagonist fights back in a gun-blazing rampage that is more disturbing than satisfying. Again, Peckinpah both celebrates and criticizes the darker sides of individualism.
As a WWII Marine from the dusty California town of Fresno, Peckinpah might have drawn material for his rugged stories from real life. After studying theater at USC, he spent his early career assisting director Don Siegel, another action maven. Peckinpah soon found his niche in the hard-bitten world of Westerns, writing and directing for television series such as "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman.' He debuted as a director with "The Deadly Companions" in 1961, and he went on to shoot such grit-and-guns features as "Ride the High Country" (1962), "Major Dundee" (1965), and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973).
His naysayers denounce his flicks as glorifications of macho aggression. Peckinpah's true aspirations, however, seem to shoot higher -- his films are tragic cries for heroism in the face of a corrupt modernity. Contemporary action kings John Woo and Quentin Tarantino continue Peckinpah's celebration of humanity's search for nobility in a sea of violence. [show less]