“For me, Hollywood no longer exists. It’s past history. I’ve decided to stay in Mexico because I believe I can make my pictures with greater freedom from here.”
– Sam Peckinpah (1)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is easily Peckinpah’s bleakest, most brutal film, and that in itself is saying something. It’s also a film that seems almost wilfully self-destructive, inasmuch as it is completely uncompromising in its vision of an utterly amoral and violent world. Peckinpah was just coming off the failure of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), which despite the “stunt” casting of Bob Dylan, a number of impressive performances and some bravura sequences showcasing the director’s trademark bloodshed, had performed poorly at the box office.
In this atmosphere of professional uncertainty, pursuing a project like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was hardly designed to restart one’s career. Yet, as many of his closest associates were convinced, it was only with this film, and the later Cross of Iron (1977), that Peckinpah had what amounted to final cut; a degree of control over the final film, for better or worse, that had eluded him throughout much of his career. Even The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah’s most famous film, suffered extensive cuts and re-edits before it went into general release. People always seemed to be trying to rein Peckinpah in, and he didn’t appreciate it one bit.
Peckinpah was never chasing a “hit film”. He wanted to put his personal vision on screen, no matter the consequences. And so, despite the slapdash execution of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the unremitting savagery of the production’s script, which had been in development since 1972, when “Bloody” Sam was still a hot commodity, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was the film – or one of the films – that Peckinpah truly wanted to make, and despite the almost universally hostile reception it received, he never wavered from defending the finished product. “I did Alfredo Garcia”, he said later, “and I did exactly what I wanted to, good or bad, like it or not. That was my film.” (2)
The plot is deceptively simple: in the film’s atypically idyllic opening, Theresa (Janine Maldonado), a young woman who is visibly pregnant, sits by a river placidly considering her future. Suddenly, she is dragged in front of her father, the powerful El Jefe (literally “The Boss” in Spanish, played by the legendary actor/director Emilio Fernández, who also directed the second unit work on the film), who angrily demands to know who the father is. When Theresa refuses, El Jefe orders his henchmen to break her arm, and she finally names Alfredo Garcia, one of El Jefe’s closest associates. Satisfied that Theresa is telling the truth, he tells his lieutenants “por favor – bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia”, thus putting the film’s narrative into motion.
El Jefe hires two professional American hit men, the grimly efficient Sappensly (veteran heavy Robert Webber) and the pale and dissolute Quill (former leading man Gig Young, who only four years later, at the age of 64, would shoot his 31-year-old bride of three weeks to death, and then turn the gun on himself), to search for Garcia without success. At length, they stumble across Bennie (Warren Oates, in one of his few starring roles), a former army officer, now a down and out piano player in one of the shittiest bars in Mexico City – in fact, an actual location in one of the most dangerous areas of the city – thinking that as a “fellow American” he might be of some use.
Well, yes and no. Garcia is already dead, killed in a drunk driving accident. But there is a connection: before his death, Garcia had been seeing Bennie’s erstwhile girlfriend, the prostitute Elita (Isela Vega). Garcia is buried in a graveyard, and Bennie knows how to get there, so he makes a deal with the two hit men to give him $10,000 for Garcia’s head, and takes an unwilling Elita along to help with the spadework. Elita is justifiably uneasy; she just wants to return to Mexico City and forget about the whole thing. Propelled by the thought of easy money, Bennie presses on.
On their way, they meet two bikers (one played by Kris Kristofferson) who try to rape Elita, who seems almost willing to submit to the assault. Bennie, however, intervenes and kills them both – a prelude to the maelstrom of violence to come. He’s also convinced that Elita is still in love with Garcia, and part of his reason for bringing her along is to kill any love that she still feels for the dead man.
At length, Bennie and Elita find the graveyard where Garcia is buried. But as Bennie unearths the corpse, he’s hit over the head and knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he finds Elita dead, and Garcia’s head missing. Furious that his chance for instant wealth is slipping away, and swearing to avenge Elita’s death, Bennie sets out to reclaim the head, killing everyone in his path, including Sappensly and Quill.
Finally, at the end of a very long line of corpses, he comes to face to face with El Jefe, who has incrementally upped the reward money to $1,000,000. El Jefe comes through with the reward, but when Bennie tells El Jefe how many people have died because of the quest for Garcia’s head – which El Jefe tells Bennie to simply throw away, now that his objective has been satisfied – Bennie erupts in a rage, killing El Jefe and most of his bodyguards.
In the original script, Bennie was supposed to then shoot his way of out El Jefe’s stronghold, but during the shooting of the sequence Peckinpah realised that such a thing was both impossible and not the message he wanted to send, so Bennie, too, perishes in a final hail of bullets (3). In the entire film, except for opening sequence by the riverside – which in the end is just a cruel joke, filmed almost like a commercial – there is not one ray of hope.
As Peckinpah wrote of the film, “this is the story of a man caught up in the brutality of the world around him, who loses all sense of morality with one act of violence begetting another, until there is no return to respectability, only retribution. The lasting theme of the film is that such acts only end in disaster for those involved.” (4)
Indeed, death, and the threat of death, hangs over every frame of the film. The film’s execution is often shabby, and in the slow-motion sequences the exposure often dims slightly because the film is running through the camera at high speed; try as they might, the Mexican crew couldn’t match the utterly slick style of a Hollywood studio film.
Most of the filming was done on location, the shots often don’t match, the lighting is uneven, and the editing structure of the film seems almost slammed together, as if Peckinpah is trying to get a rough sketch of the film in the can, and is satisfied that this will be more than enough to get his point across. Yet the film ultimately seems tired, exhausted, as if it knows it can’t sustain itself; and Peckinpah was tired, too.
Unlike the frenzied energy of The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, as Peter Bradshaw notes,
unfolds at a leisured, almost lugubrious, pace with scenes allowed to unspool at a length that would never be allowed in any Hollywood thriller today. The snarling, gibbering Bennie – his bleeding heart on his greasy sleeve – is a bold contrast to the deadpan Clint Eastwood in the Dollars pictures. Elita herself is shown to be so desolate, so utterly diminished in self-esteem, that when a rapist, played by Kris Kristofferson, appears to betray a moment of melancholy and gloom before assaulting her, she is actually moved to tenderness towards him. (5)
Not surprisingly, the film was a financial failure – not a disaster, but also not a hit. But more importantly, in their reviews, the United States’ most influential critics almost unanimously suggested that with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Peckinpah had finally gone off the rails. From here on in, his films would be for the most part hack work, starting with the less than inspiring The Killer Elite (1975), and with the notable exception of the aforementioned Cross of Iron, a film whose budget was so impoverished that when Peckinpah arrived on the set every morning he literally had to check to see if there was film for the day’s work.
Some critics tried to “reason” with Peckinpah when Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was first released, but such a proposition was out of the question for the director; he had made the film he set out to make, and if people didn’t like it, he didn’t care. Pauline Kael arrived for a press conference with Peckinpah shortly after the release of Alfredo Garcia, intent on denouncing the film, but wound up spending two hours talking with him in his hotel suite, trying to convince Peckinpah that he was headed down the wrong “machismo” road, without success (6). Roger Ebert, for one, praised the film, but still characterised it as “a strange, weird masterpiece that will turn off a lot of people” (7).
That’s certainly true, and in the bizarre and macabre scenes in which Bennie packs Garcia’s head in ice to keep it fresh for El Jefe, or in the manner in which he carries on a running dialogue with it as if it could respond to him, the film enters some sort of weird Lynchian otherworld in which death and betrayal are commonplace, and the caprices of fate are the only governing forces in human existence.
And yet, as Bennie says at one point in the film, “nobody loses all the time”, and in the creation of this deathly allegory, in which Bennie charges through the film like the angel of death, Peckinpah created one of his most personal, least commercial, and most resonant films. At this point in his career, Peckinpah’s life was spinning out of control. What he’s trying to tell us here is that once that process of unravelling starts, nothing can stop it, nothing but death.
1. Peckinpah quoted in Garner Simmons, Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage, 3rd ed., Limelight, New York, 2004, p. 196.
2. Peckinpah quoted in David Weddle, “If They Move… Kill’Em!” The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, Grove, New York, 1994, p. 497.
3. Weddle, p. 494.
4. Peckinpah quoted in Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998, p. 145.
5. Bradshaw, Peter. “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”, The Guardian 2 January 2009: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/jan/02/bring-me-head-alfred-garcia.
6. Marshall Fine, Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah, D. I. Fine, New York, 1991.
7. Fine, p. 276.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974 USA/Mexico)
Prod Co: Estudios Churubusco Azteca S. A./Optimus Films Prod: Martin Baum Dir: Sam Peckinpah Scr: Sam Peckinpah, Gordon Dawson Phot: Álex Phillips Jr. Ed: Dennis E. Dolan, Sergio Ortega, Robbe Roberts Art Dir: Augustín Ituarte Mus: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández, Kris Kristofferson, Donny [Donnie] Fritts