Blu-Ray Review: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Sam Peckinpah, Gordon T. Dawson
Based on a Story by: Sam Peckinpah, Frank Kowalski
Starring: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernández, Kris Kristofferson
Country: USA, Mexico
Running Time: 112 min
Year: 1974
BBFC Certificate: 18


I‘ve long been a huge fan of The Wild Bunch, but I’ve not seen much of the director Sam Peckinpah’s other work. I can remember watching Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid when I was a youngster, but I didn’t get into it and the mixed reviews some of his other work received put me off a bit. I’ve matured since then though, so I feel I might appreciate Pat Garrett more these days and I’m keen to venture further into Peckinpah’s filmography after a recent rewatch of The Wild Bunch reminded how fantastic it is. Arrow Video have helped me along by releasing his follow up to Pat Garrett, the unambiguously titled Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

The film opens powerfully with a pregnant Mexican teenager, initially relaxing by a river, being taken in shackles to see her crime lord father (El Jefe – played by Emilio Fernández), who demands to find out who the father of her baby is. She refuses to say, until she has her arm or finger broken by some thugs and she cries out “Alfredo Garcia”. This leads to El Jefe making the titular order to his gang of hired heavies and crooks. Two cold-hearted, business-like men on the hunt for Garcia end up in a small bar where Bennie (Warren Oates) plays the piano. He’s heard of the man and is willing to find him for the right price. His girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) had been sleeping around with Garcia and claims that he recently died in a car accident. Undeterred, Bennie takes Elita on a road trip to find Garcia’s body, chop off the head and deliver it to El Jeffe’s goons. This poor decision begins a domino effect though and Bennie sinks lower than it seems one man is able to descend.

It’s a grim and grimy film. Most of the characters are pretty reprehensible, even Elita has her flaws. There’s plenty of nudity, violence and general degradation as Bennie makes his bloody road trip. It certainly shares the grit and nihilism of The Wild Bunch as well as the strange sense of melancholy. The film supposedly plays like a metaphor for Peckinpah’s life and work. Like his endless problems with studio heads interfering with his films and never getting final cut on them (this was the first and possibly only time he got it), Bring Me the Head sees its hero get constantly shat on, particularly by those in positions of authority. Bennie also tries to drown his sorrows in drink with little success and loves his girlfriend but treats her poorly. You get the sense this is a surprisingly personal film then, despite the seemingly outlandish premise, so it is quite a bleak and angry affair.

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Blindspotting: Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

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The Wild Bunch is not my favourite Sam Peckinpah film. There, I’ve said it. Even worse, though, is that I don’t particularly like it. The stylized violence in the opening and closing battles is everything I expected and more, but it’s all the stuff in between (if memory serves that is) that was thoroughly disappointing. The “characters” and their attempts at manly bonding felt forced and hurt the whole experience of the movie for me. Granted, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it and I owe it a rewatch, but I found that two other views of the Old West by Peckinpah – Ride The High Country and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid – provided much stronger and more interesting characters while still splashing the blood around a bit. But they did it in very different ways…

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Ride The High Country is, for the most part, a classic Western. Told mainly via interactions between its male characters, its straightforward story reveals its themes of good, evil and redemption fairly early on and builds on them. Steve Judd (Joel McRae) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are two former partners who reconnect in their later years to help bring back a deposit of gold to the bank. With the Gold Rush winding down, many questionable characters are trying to get a final crack at a stake and the bank doesn’t believe their gold will be safe without some protection. What Judd doesn’t know is that his old friend Gil and his young impetuous associate (named Heck) plan to keep the gold for themselves – whether Judd wants them to or not. Along the way up to the mining town, they stop for a rest at a ranch run by a strict religious man and his daughter Elsa (an impossibly young Mariette Hartley). She’s looking for a way out of the restrictive setting of the ranch she’s never been allowed to leave, so she tags along with the men when they leave the next day. She’s decided to go to the mining town to marry her fiancee who works there with his brothers. Somewhat predictably, all doesn’t go as planned…Elsa’s fiancee and his progressively creepier brothers see her presence as being useful for only so many purposes – mostly sex and cooking – and to be shared by all. On the way to the mining town, Heck and Elsa flirt a bit and Heck makes a pass at her. She rebuffs him, but he insists and she needs Judd to pull him off. Judd knocks Heck to the ground and is followed by Gil giving him the same treatment. Though it shows the goodness in these two old timers (both saving the poor “defenseless” woman), it creates an awkward follow-up scene when Elsa actually apologizes to Heck (I guess for not allowing him to fully take advantage of her) and he seems to be sulking. It is quite jarring from a modern day perspective to see Elsa do this, but it almost makes sense given the obvious hierarchy of man over woman in this early part of the 20th century and her desperation to keep moving away from her father’s ranch. It also establishes firmly where Heck’s morality is based and how he can only crawl up from there.

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Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

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Most people who love the movies know the story of Heaven’s Gate. Here it is again in a nutshell. After winning three Oscars for The Deer Hunter (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor), director Michael Cimino went on to write and direct a western epic about the Johnson County Wars. Due to massive cost over runs and film delays the film ended up being 44 million dollars (while that number seems quaint in an age where the lowliest of romantic comedy costs about 40 Million – BEFORE PRINTS & ADVERTISING – it was an unheard of amount of dough to spend on a film in 1980.) At one point, the cut of the film was 5 1/2 hours long, some say this over-indulgence was mainly due to Cimino’s perfectionism and ‘man of the moment’ status.’ Case in point: After 5 days shooting they were apparently 4 days behind schedule. The film was eventually pared down to 3 hours 40 minutes. After the Deer Hunter, critics were expecting the second coming of Christ (which wouldn’t happen until 2004 with Mel Gibson’s fetishistic passion play) and lambasted the film so bad that the studio waited on the film for another 8 months, and chopped it down by another hour. Nobody went to see the film when it was released, and United Artists, the studio, went bankrupt and was bought at a fire-sale price by MGM (there is no small irony in that MGM has been similarly fire-sold several times, for varied reasons, 20 years onward.)

So how is the film? Well, I liked it. A lot. The class struggles in the film between the rich corporation (i.e. state-sanctioned rape of the working class) and the poor immigrant farmers is as relevant today as it was in the 1890s. I loved the contrast between the Harvard graduation celebrations and the frontier life celebrations. The frivolous game of defending bouquets of flowers with concentric rings of faculty holding hands while the students try to grab the flowers for honour is nicely revisited as a bloody game of survival as the residents of Johnson County defend their escaping families and attack the 50 odd armed bounty hunters. The love triangle of Kris Kristofferson’s rich man behaving like a poor man, and Christopher Walken’s poor man behaving like a rich man with Isabelle Hupert’s confident middle-class prostitute is as interesting for the relationship dynamics as for its symmetry: She charges Walken’s character for sex so as to no be ‘cheating’ on Kristofferson’s character.

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A Martin Scorsese Marathon

Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, ‘My name is on that. I did that. It’s OK’. But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.” – Martin Scorsese

For the better part of the last three decades, I have been a fan of Martin Scorsese. My admiration first took bloom in the summer of 1985, and happened to coincide with what I consider to be the discovery of my young adult life; set off the main drag of the town I grew up in, I found a small video store. Now, this in itself was no great revelation; in the years before Blockbuster came barreling into my area, forcing all the smaller video chains out of business, there were at least half a dozen such stores within a 3-mile radius. But the moment I walked into this particular video palace, I knew it was special. Where most were lining their shelves with numerous copies of the ‘hot new releases’, this one had titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, films that the others simply didn’t offer. For me, this store was a treasure trove, and I returned there often, sometimes 3-4 times a week, uncovering classic after classic, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.

And it was here that I first found Mean Streets.

Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the head for a 15-year-old from the suburbs; a marriage of images and rock music, violence and pain the likes of which I had never seen before, offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that I found all too real, and a little bit frightening. I must have rented it at least six times that summer, and as a result, Mean Streets fast became my favorite movie. More than this, it was my jumping-off point into the career of Martin Scorsese. After Mean Streets, I moved on to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two more shots to the head. Through these three films, I realized just how deep, just how down-and-dirty, and just how moving the cinema could be. They marked a turning point in my development as a film fan. Movies were no longer limited to the land of make believe; they would also be a window overlooking the real world.

Now, almost 24 years after I first walked into that video store, I’ve decided to take my admiration to the next, perhaps the ultimate, level. Over the course of the last several weeks, I sat down with everything that home video has to offer of Martin Scorsese’s work behind the camera, 26 films in all, and what I uncovered on this love-fest of mine proved to be just as enlightening as that first viewing of Mean Streets all those years ago.

As I sat watching one Scorsese movie after the other, I found myself asking, “What exactly is it that constitutes a Martin Scorsese film”? It was a question I had to pose, because I quickly realized that most of my initial beliefs, the pre-conceptions I had built up about the man and his career, only told part of the story.

For one, there was my presumption that the recurring trait in every Scorsese film was a down-to-earth quality, where the genuine, the realistic, would be favored above all else. Well, this is certainly true in some of Scorsese’s finest films, especially those where actual events served as a foundation (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator). However, it was wrong of me to discount the role that fantasy played in Scorsese’s work. The opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore looks as if it was lifted right out of Gone With the Wind, and the musical numbers of New York, New York were obvious nods to the Hollywood big-budget spectaculars of the 40’s and 50’s. There is the dreamy romance of The Age of Innocence, and the hilarious bad luck of Paul Hackett in After Hours; in short, films that have little or no basis in reality whatsoever, proving that the fantastic plays just as important a role in the great director’s work as reality does.
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