NOT EVEN THE DEAD
Sam Peckinpah’s ode to violence
“There ain’t nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it, or you, or me.” – Bennie to Elita
This line sets the tone for Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 bleak two-fisted broiler, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Bennie, played by Warren Oates (a Peckinpah favorite), is an American expatriate barkeep and piano player in Mexico City. When a powerful Mexican known as El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) issues a million dollar bounty for – well, you can guess from the film’s title – in retaliation for knocking up his teenage daughter, a local crime syndicate sends two henchmen, Sappensly and Quill (veteran actors Robert Webber and Gig Young, playing nicely off each other), to gather information on Garcia’s whereabouts. They come across Bennie and press him for facts. Bennie plays dumb in order to buy some time to learn what he can. He visits his girlfriend and popular prostitute, Elita (Isela Vega, playing spontaneously distressed), who tells him that she recently spent the night with Garcia and that he was killed in a drunk-driving accident shortly thereafter. She knows where Garcia is buried and Bennie talks her into taking him to the site. He negotiates a $10,000 fee with the syndicate for finding the dead man. Bennie and Elita head out on a boozy road trip through the Mexican countryside, running into perverted cycle heads, rival bounty hunters, Garcia’s vengeful family and backstabbing thugs.
At Garcia’s grave, Bennie is attacked and the head taken by his competition. When he awakes, he finds Elita dead. He tracks down the assailants, snatching back the head. This sets off the film’s final scenes, in which an extremely distraught Bennie systemically guns down the syndicate and El Jefe. When Bennie tries to escape El Jefe’s ranch, he’s met by the guards’ machine guns and the film cuts to end credits, Bennie’s fate unknown.
One of the film’s most effective attributes is the use of sound. It opens with the light twang of a mandolin playing over a shot of ducks on a pond. Music acts as a tranquilizer. Elita plays guitar and sings pretty ballads. In fact, Vega and Peckinpah composed two songs for the soundtrack (“Bennie’s Song” and “Bad Blood Baby,” respectively), with a fantastic score by Jerry Fielding. But the masterful director quickly plucks the petals to show the rotten insides. There’s a stink to it all, from the people to the places.
The serene opening on the pond is immediately overtaken by clanking rowels, followed by El Jefe’s gross display of cruelty when he has his daughter stripped and her arm broken, shaming and torturing her into confessing the identity of the baby’s father. We hear the snapping bone, jalopies kicking up dust on the back roads, echoing gunshots and the hiss of cigarette light. Peckinpah is challenging our aural senses to heighten the experience and become more receptive to the unmitigated violence that ensues.
Although tame by contemporary standards, the violence is abundant and unrelenting. Ugliness is steadfast from the beginning. The screen fills with run-down motels, roadside bars with hanging pig parts and flies circling Garcia’s decomposing head in a sack. Note the algae polluted water basin outside the cemetery and Bennie’s linen suit becoming increasingly soiled throughout the film, the dried blood staining his body, and the continual damage to his car. His marriage proposal to Elita under a tree’s shade is cold, unromantic and pathetic. They have sex in the whorehouse and their intimacy is rough at best. Even a bordello queen like Elita has mileage around her eyes and lips. Dirt fills Bennie’s mouth like manure in the makeshift grave when he finds Elita killed, showing some rare tenderness, and then leaving her lifeless body behind with the decapitated corpse. It’s a wonder they can love each other. Love is impossible here.
Peckinpah’s violence is the great equalizer. It cuts ties to the past and severs any lasting emotion. It promises rebirth, but leaves no room for change. This is illustrated in the shots of destitute street children and El Jefe’s grandchildren. It is brought to a head in the final scene when Bennie crashes the baby’s christening at the ranch, cleaned up in a new suit and carrying Garcia’s head.
Violence pervades every facet, even as a sick way to curb the mayhem. This is particularly relevant when Elita appears to be a willing participant in the rape. It could be a form of self-punishment for allowing Bennie to embark on this quest. Maybe her self-sacrifice will cause Bennie to think twice about continuing on this path. But the film’s ferocity and rising body count dispel any such notion. Bennie disposes of the bikers bent on raping Elita (one of whom is played by Kris Kristofferson). He hops into Garcia’s grave with a mile long machete that’s the meanest looking blade you’ve ever seen. He catches up with his competitors and fills them with lead. When Sappensly and Quill meet up with Bennie to collect the head, Garcia’s family is mowed down except for an unarmed elderly man, one of the very few lives spared. Bennie forever silences the henchmen when they aim to take him out as well. And he doesn’t recoil when offered the chance to walk away with the money. He finally wipes out the syndicate and shoots El Jefe in front of his grandchildren and daughter, holding Garcia’s child. Bennie is no longer chasing the reward. He’s resetting the stakes to zero.
From the moment we meet Bennie, the picture belongs to Warren Oates. His face looks like a used tire wrapped around that big mouth housing those horse teeth. He delivers his lines with conviction despite his goofy oversized sunglasses and loose-fitting clothes. (It’s rumored that Oates based the look of the character on Peckinpah himself.) He acts and reacts like he’s been on this deadly trail before. He’s lanky and swivels a gun with the elasticity of a rubber band. His delivery and disposition are reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil (1953) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). (In fact, there’s a direct reference to Bogart’s character in the latter when Quill jokingly refers to himself as Fred Dobbs.) Oates makes us believe that the gun is the only religion in these parts. There’s nothing “sacred” as Bennie claims. The only morality is the one that belongs to the survivor. Redemption is an afterthought.
Outside of Oates, Webber and Young, acting is not one of the film’s strengths. Vega can’t match Oates’ dramatic chops and he easily wins every scene he shares with her. Unfortunately, the relationship between Bennie and Elita suffers because of this and at moments, feels forced and disingenuous. We feel Bennie’s heartbreak after Elita is killed. But we struggle to accept Elita’s pleas to abandon the mission or her willingness to tag along. Vega’s eyes and body language provide her strongest moments. She lacks the sophistication of the other performers, but partially makes up for it in Elita’s skin. She snakes her body in bed like a natural professional and knows how to loosen up, even when faking it with the biker. Vega is much more comfortable showing us the hooker and the victim, and this is what ultimately saves her from a total wipeout playing Elita.
Peckinpah’s pedigree was built on Westerns, beginning as a writer on television series such as Broken Arrow, Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, and directing the big screen shoot ‘em ups Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). His stylized violence and choreographed gunfights became a trademark, influencing a number of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. It’s reported that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the only one of Peckinpah’s films on which he had final cut. This could be the reason for the brutal honesty that jumps off the screen. Violence yields finality. There’s truth in death no matter which side you’re on. You can’t talk your way out of a bullet to the chest. These characters don’t bargain for mercy. There’s no time. Kill or be killed. A tired cliché made fresh and fun by Peckinpah and his main man Oates. This is the real Wild West.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay: Frank Kowalski (story), Gordon Dawson and Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Martin Baum
Starring: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber and Gig Young
Release Date: 1974