— W.C.U.N — Pittsburgh!!


Alfredo Garcia’s head may very well be the perfect example of the MacGuffin in cinema history, the ultimate hook for character and viewer alike. This is after all not a stolen necklace, the great whatsit, Rosebud or Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase but a man’s decapitated head. At the very least it serves as one of the goriest examples of the technique while at the same time functioning as a Rosetta Stone of sorts. Al’s head perfectly embodies the castration anxiety that permeates the film while also illuminating with one grisly image Peckinpah’s allegiance with traditional masculinities will to self-destruct in the face of emasculation.


Watching this death trip for the first time, it’s easy to take it as a crude meditation on revenge and leave it at that. However, Peckinpah’s personal life (his losing battle with alcoholism and Hollywood) not to mention the unrelenting nihilism of the film complicate the matter. And when you take into account how much control Peckinpah had over the film(the first and only time he had final cut) and the fact that Warren Oates is basically imitating the director to the point that he is wearing his clothes it becomes impossible to see the film as anything but a painful, personal statement.  


One thing is certain, thematically everything is deliberate, even if the raggedness of some of the scenes suggest otherwise. Bad framing and possible stock footage all play their part, strengthening the experience in a way that more polished scenes would have rendered impotent. This isn’t a pretty film, aesthetically or otherwise and it shouldn’t be. It is, however, a minor miracle in cinema history. This is Peckinpah's Citizen Kane, the one and only time he got to pull out all the stops and make the film he wanted to make and not worry about being neutered by the studios. As a result, he gave us a film perhaps more in line with masculine anxieties than any other film before or since.


The violence is nothing new, nor the requisite over cranked scenes of said carnage but there is a terrible truth in this film that only exists as mere sketches in the rest of his work. This is not just the standard Peckinpah boilerplate about living honorably in a dishonest world, the price of revenge or man’s inhumanity to man but a confession of blinding fear at being seen for what one truly is and a fuck you to those that would judge. More than that, it is a study in self-loathing and losing on one’s own terms. 


Warren Oates gives the best performance of his career, doing Peckinpah via Fred C. Dobbs, but whatever romanticism the allusion may inherently possess, Peckinpah kills with the fatalistic realism of poverty in and around Mexico City. From the start, Oates’ Bennie is a self-serving opportunist looking for a way out of his dismal life, grinning like a fool and entertaining the tourists that wander into his cantina. When the chance to make some money off another man’s head presents itself, via two very menacing killers, Bennie takes it. All the better that the head belongs to his girlfriend, Elita’s now deceased lover. This first half of the film is standard threatened male psychodrama with Bennie literally seeking to cut the head off Elita’s boyfriend but as the couple hit the road their relationship takes center stage, playing out in what some have called “turgid melodrama” but where above all else their love for one another is made obvious and heart-achingly believable by Oates and Isela Vega’s candid performances. 


These scenes are essential in revealing Bennie’s true nature. We see him for the first time as more than just a heel, possibly even once a decent man, who is only able to escape his self-loathing with the bottle or in the company of the one person who does not judge him, Elita. Bennie’s compulsive wearing of sunglasses, even to bed, his inability to hold his own gaze in the mirror and the numerous lines of dialogue he spits at the men he either mows down in his quest for the head or watches die at others hands; Damn your eyes! Don’t’ look at me with your goddamn fucking eyes! are all symptoms of his aversion to judgment, to being seen. With Elita, there is no judgment, just frank honesty. Even when he reveals to her that he intends on cutting her dead lovers head off for money, Elita doesn’t judge him. She threatens to leave but she does not judge him. 


As if this confession is not enough to test their relationship, Peckinpah chooses to stage a strange rape scene a few minutes later in which Elita passively accepts her fate, telling Bennie “It’s okay. I’ve been here before. You don’t know the way.” This is without a doubt the most controversial scene in the film and while most critics seem to be at a loss as to why Peckinpah chose to include it, it appears to be the moment on which the rest of the film turns. It is this scene and not Elita’s death later in the film that sets Bennie on his kamikaze course. Guarded by a guitar-playing, gun-wielding biker, Bennie is forced to watch his lover accept her rape as par for the course, and he takes an inordinate amount of time making up his mind whether or not to accept it too. You can see the struggle in Oates’ face as he chokes on it and finally refuses it. Meanwhile, Elita’s participation in her own rape, by Kris Kristofferson no less, is an obvious attempt to take control of the situation and hopefully save their lives, not the misogynistic indulgence many have seen it as. For Bennie, however, Elita’s strength and cooperation is an unbearable emasculation. Everything that follows is a vivid illustration of a man lost in his masculine role. Not until Elita’s death does he see a direction to follow, a chance to redeem his masculinity. Make no mistake about it, the violence that dominates the rest of the film is as much about attrition as it is revenge.


When Bennie does finally get the head it becomes clear that he can no longer hide from the truth of his petty existence. Here is a man talking to a head in a sack. A head that has cost him what little happiness he had and that will cost him everything else by the time the credits roll. There are no other options for Bennie. He has come face to face with himself and the only respite is death. It’s telling how Peckinpah frames the graveyard scenes where Bennie prepares to decapitate Alfredo Garcia’s head; all close-ups of Bennie from the neck up, never Alfredo. In fact, we never see the head outside of its burlap sack despite being in Bennie’s possession for the last half of the film. It is after all the ugly truth of masculinity, the monster in the bag, Bennie’s albatross as he drives stubbornly toward his redemption. 


Finally, I think it’s important not to overlook the strange echo of the film’s prevalent themes that Robert Webber and Gig Young’s portrayal of two killers on Bennie's trail provides. Little is made of the duo’s sexual orientation perhaps because of the times in which the film was made but more likely by design. Regardless, Robert Webber’s final gasp for his partner's hand is so unexpected and tender that it begs to be considered a relevant aspect of Peckinpah’s intention. If Bennie is the figure of redeemed primitive masculinity refusing emasculation then are Webber and Young’s duo to be seen as the new masculinity, modern, emasculated but still just as brutal, just as effective? A reality that perhaps Peckinpah recognized but could not or would not accept.





Go Back