Their Dying Is His Living:
The Violent Offerings of Sam Peckinpah

By Robert Castle

Robert Castle has been a regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal and 24 Frames Per Second. His articles have also appeared in Film Comment, Talking Pictures, The Journal of Religon and Film, and Metaphilm. He publishes a triquarterly 'zine, Film Ex, and has a regular column, "A Sardine on Vacation," in Unlikely Stories. He makes his living as a History teacher at a small academy outside Trenton, NJ.

The Wild Bunch

"Rats is Life." - Jim Norton as Chris Cawsey in Straw Dogs

The director's role was one accepted ambivalently by Sam Peckinpah, so much so that much of his work aimed to reconcile his positions as artist, employer and businessman, and entertainer. In his August, 1972, Playboy interview, he likened himself to a hired hand and a whore. It was just a job, directing, lucrative after some successes; on the other hand, writing was the most painstaking activity ever undertaken by a man. He seemed to denigrate his status and to knock his artistic capabilities; however, a look at The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia reveals that whores, most of all, have a monopoly on humanity, nobility, and common sense among Sam's characters. Furthermore, he who hired most of the film crew willfully opposed the demands and decisions of other bossmen: studio heads and the producers. Their interference left him with unequivocal feelings: "There are people all over the place, dozens of them, I'd like to kill, quite literally kill." Metaphorically, he got his chance to kill them.

His underestimation of his films' artistic intent ("Once I'm handed something to do, then I take the material and try to work something out of it....") could be passed off as defensiveness or a macho tic or a self-effacement á la Hemingway. Additionally, it masked the subtle rift between Peckinpah and his audience. Peckinpah's name became synonymous with violence because he invented techniques that accentuated filmic violence. The Wild Bunch started it all--the film debuted in 1969 amidst a lengthy campaign to tone down movie violence--and the audience cast its vote for Sam but not necessarily for the right reasons. Sam the entertainer endured the infamy of public and critical misapprehension, creating a relationship with them as unsatisfying as the one he had had with producers and studios.

To understand Peckinpah's films one must ignore the violence and his violent reputation and see the violence from Peckinpah's direction. This will mean ignoring his pronouncements on territorialism (based on Robert Ardrey's Territorial Imperative) and his legendary conflicts within the film industry.

Yes, ignore the violent effects on the screen but do not miss their ritualistic significance. His films depend on the violent actions of characters like Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) in The Getaway, Benny (Warren Oates) in Alfredo Garcia, Pike Bishop (William Holden) in The Wild Bunch, and David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) in Straw Dogs. Violence and death are as necessary to their unity and wholeness to these films as the Eucharist is to the Mass's completion. The furious montage editing, the copious bloodletting from gun wounds, the slow-motion choreography of the men suffering these bodily wounds are not meant to excite our bloodlust but should be taken by us as sacraments of violence.

Peckinpah's ethics and form are evinced best in his sixth film, Straw Dogs, where we also discover the key to his aesthetic of violence. David Sumner takes a sabbatical to Yorkshire, England, accompanied by his wife Amy (Susan George), to write a book. The year's leave is Sumner's way of avoiding the issues and confrontations brewing on campuses in the early seventies. He can hide but not avoid the confrontations. After minor harassment and the rape of his wife, Sumner defends his house from five besieging villagers bent on raping again and killing. Sumner survives the ordeal but is stripped of his smug view of himself and his marriage is shattered. However, by taking a stand he still has himself. He also has recognized, according to Peckinpah, "the enormous suppressed violence in himself that he had been living with."

Behind the Peckinpah credo that one must take a stand to enter one's house justified, that is, be able to live oneself ever after, another, harder view of life lurks. Straw Dogs, the title, is the sign post to a deeper layer of meaning. One wonders where it comes from. The Bible? Shakespeare? (in Henry V we get close: "Trust none;/Men's oaths are made of straw"). After seeing the film in 1972, I asked my English professor, who referred me to Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching. When I finally obtained a copy seven years later, I found the following entry in Book One, poem V (Penguin ed. translated by D.C. Lau):

Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

A footnote revealed "that straw dogs were treated with the greatest deference before they were used as an offering, only to be discarded and trampled upon as soon as they served their purpose."

Peckinpah, not David Sumner, fitted the role of ruthless sage. Although Sumner (and others) act as Sam's surrogates, doing his violent bidding, the director recognizes them as surrogates when he says: "The point is that the violence in us, all of us, has to be expressed constructively or it will sink us." The straw dogs are the many characters in Peckinpah films sacrificed in the unwinding of the plot. Actors, initially, are treated with deference, but their usefulness ceases once a scene is over and the film is finsihed. The director is ruthless. Indeed, the director himself will join their unemployed ranks--Hollywood is more ruthless! The filmed violent content concurrently acknowledges and purges Peckinpah's employing the characters/ actors and the director himself being used by the studios/ producers.

According to Dustin Hoffman, Peckinpah had complained about losing control of the final editing of Straw Dogs--a complaint consistent throughout his career--but Hoffman thought it absurd since Peckinpah had already started a new film in Arizona, Junior Bonner, with Steve McQueen. The anecdote (told during a Colloquium at Penn State University in 1973) illustrates a director eager to get on with another project, abandoning the previous one as if it has already served its purpose, that there was nothing more he could do with it. In a way, the film itself becomes a straw dog; Peckinpah was ruthless to his own work.

His curiously detached attitude toward the film business can be glimpsed in a line spoken by one of Straw Dogs' eventual sacrifices, the rat catcher Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton). Upon leaving Sumner's place after a day's work, he approaches Sumner and says out of the blue: "I was just telling your missus, in a funny sort of way, I feel closer to rats than I do people. Even though I kill them for a living, you could say their dying is my living, you might say." (Notice "them" in the last sentence: does it refer to "rats" or "people"?) Cawsey's needs are satisfied by exterminating rats; his occupation, however, creates some feeling for his victims. This rat catcher, by the way, is responsible for the death of the Sumner's cat, perhaps done in a fit of professional jealousy, but Peckinpah ultimately "kills" Cawsey.

Indeed, having killed so many actors, Sam engenders empathy for his fellow hired hands on the set. He can also, in the same metaphorical violence, strike at the bigger rats at corporate headquarters counting on the film's profits, which allows Sam, in decent conscience, to cast aside the film as if it no longer meant anything to him.

Peckinpah Filmography

The Dead Companions, 1961
Ride the High Country, 1962
Major Dundee, 1965
The Wild Bunch, 1969
The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970
Straw Dogs, 1971
The Getaway, 1972
Junior Bonner, 1972
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974
The Killer Elite, 1975
Cross of Iron, 1977
Convoy, 1978
The Osterman Weekend, 1983

                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002