Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Brutal Sympathy: Women in Peckinpah’s Westerns

Teresa (Sonia Amelio) and General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) in The Wild Bunch

Can a filmmaker obsessed with machismo also be feminist? With Sam Peckinpah, you wonder. His luminous westerns – Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972) – are lyric meditations on machismo. They’re about cowboys, outlaws, drifters and rodeo stars caught in a changing world, and the last flaring up of their spirits before they are pinioned by the machinery of that change. But they are also about how those men relate to the women they encounter on their journeys, women, like them, trapped by circumstance and fighting to retain some glimmer of their humanity. The gloriously spacious landscapes of the American west (shot in each case by Lucian Ballard), with the teeming blues and yellows of wide skies and sweeping country, express the paradoxical entrapment these characters feel, their longing to break free and their uncertainty of what they’d be breaking free to, but they also infuse the movies with a kind of moral spaciousness. The characters, male and female, have room to be who they are, without judgment before the eyes of the camera. That’s the romanticism of Peckinpah’s westerns, and it often comes out in romantic plots that bring together pairs of lovers in sublime meetings of equals. 

It’s not exactly that Peckinpah stands out among the work of other American New Wave directors for his sensitivity to female experience – not in a generation that includes Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant), Robert Towne (Personal Best) and Brian De Palma (Carrie, Blow Out). It’s the way he gets at that experience that is so unusual and so dazzling. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can refract a feminist sensibility through male, at times misogynistic, perspectives. That’s what Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch, which, unlike Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue or Junior Bonner, has no heroine or even any single female character on screen for more than a few minutes. Instead, the women are diffuse, and they become part of the imagistic tapestry of the movie, indissoluble from its human vision and moral dimension. In the sensory overload of its turbulent pacing the feminist ideas can feel oblique and at times almost encrypted, but it’s Peckinpah’s most complicated examination of romantic sympathy.

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch

The guys in The Wild Bunch are a band of aging outlaws, led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), looking for one last score before they turn in. But the last score – the robbery of a Texas bank (the town is called Starbuck) – goes awry: they’re preempted by a gang of bounty hunters headed by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), Pike’s former partner, and they escape a bloody gun fight that mows down dozens of civilians in the cross-fire only to find a decoy instead of the loot they expected. The Wild Bunch ends in an even bloodier and more horrifying shoot-out – it’s a tragedy about the decline of these anti-heroes – but first it takes us through their last days together, into their failing and surging hopes for some kind of freedom, and into their memories.  
The members of the Bunch don’t understand the women they sleep with – usually prostitutes, but in the case of Pike and Angel, lovers now dead or left behind – and the movie takes their perspective, so much so that even when women appear on the screen, they rarely speak, or they speak in Spanish without subtitles. With the exception of one exquisite scene, which I’ll talk about in a moment, they seem to keep to the corner of the screen, or else they appear in flashes.  If you think Peckinpah’s objectifying these women by failing to give them voices, then you’re missing the glory of his filmmaking here – the way he can show, in poetic glimmers as though at the margin of consciousness, what the men fail to see, without every breaking sympathy with them (they’re brutal, but they’re still the heroes). The women might be images but they’re not devices or decoration. As in still photography, their faces tell of full, teeming interior lives that are not unspooled in narrative: the open fear on the face of a girl peering out behind the walls of a house as the Bunch enters a Mexican village on horseback; a woman nursing her baby against the sounds of marching soldiers counting off (“un, dos, un, dos”) in Mapache’s stronghold. (The camera pans out from a close-up of the child suckling at its mother’s breast until we can see the mother’s face, watching the soldiers out of the corner of her eye.)

Peckinpah directs William Holden and Aurora Clavel on set
The Wild Bunch is built up from images like these, always seen through the eyes of the men, accumulating in a furious torrent. Peckinpah doesn’t distinguish between visual and dramatic ideas. And he gets performances of such poetic physicality so in sync with the spirit of his movies that the movies themselves can feel like they were built around a single gesture or expression. (Think of the loose, limber style in Junior Bonner that seems to extend from Steve McQueen’s easy muscled grace as he rides that rodeo bull.) The images are sometimes micro-performances. In a flashback, Pike’s lover, Aurora, undresses for him in front of the bedroom mirror and holds back her hair as she blows out a candle, a beat before her husband bursts in with a gun and shoots her. It’s a quietly beautiful moment, with all the flickering luminosity of the candle, and it has a depth Peckinpah seems to intentionally steal out from under us when the candle goes out and the bullets are fired.

The most complex scene with a female character feels like an extension of one of these brief scenes. Angel (Jaime Sanchez), one of the outlaws in Pike’s gang and the only Mexican, encounters his ex-lover Teresa (Sonia Amelio) in Agua Verde, the stronghold of the revolutionary General Mapache who has ravaged their native town. While Angel abandoned his home to join up with the Bunch in a bid for freedom from poverty, Teresa survived the massacre of the town by becoming one of Mapache’s prostitutes. Teresa’s scene comes in at just under two and a half minutes, from the moment Angel spots her in the crowd, calling out happily to Mapache, through her momentary exchange of words with Angel (in Spanish, and without subtitles) once he catches her eye, to Angel, possessed by fury, pulling out his gun and shooting her in the chest as she sits laughing on Mapache’s knee. Unless you can follow the Spanish, you experience the scene between Teresa and Angel in sounds and images: it’s pure sensuality. Amelio gives her entire performance in her face, and Peckinpah films her in exquisite close-ups that read like the cinematic equivalent of Greek tragedy (she’s like one of the women in Euripides’ proto-feminist The Trojan Women). 

Why does Angel shoot Teresa? How you read Peckinpah’s use of women in The Wild Bunch probably rests on how you read this scene, and because Peckinpah uses the language barrier to playfully obscure the content of their conversation, you have to read the scene the way you read all the scenes of women, as an image. I suppose you could see this as a moment of sexual jealousy and rage against a woman who resists sexual subservience. And in a way it is, but there’s more here. Angel doesn’t see Teresa as a possession he’s lost control of: He identifies with her. Like Angel, Teresa left the village to cobble together some kind of life for herself. She abandoned the town, but so did he; her betrayal is his betrayal. “I left the village so I wouldn’t starve,” she tells him. “But now I’m happy. Very happy.” (Her face, with its contortions of grief and regret and gleaming with the vehement determination to survive, say something else.) Angel kills Teresa in a shattering moment of self-recognition. He kills her because he can’t make her two-dimensional otherwise. It’s violence used against the emotional complexity of the movie, against the fullness of feeling and all the contradictory responses that fly in the face of objectification.

Angel (Jaime Sanchez) confronts Teresa (Sonia Amelio)

Sympathy is Peckinpah’s great subject because he’s incapable of romanticizing it: he shows how it can produce both redemption and spectacular violence. The sympathy that brings lovers together in a meeting of equals in Ride The High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue is the same sympathy that makes Angel kill Teresa, Deke, the bounty hunter in The Wild Bunch hamstrung into pursuing his former gang, prefer to let civilians get mowed down in the cross-fire of a gun fight than take down his ex-partner Pike when he has a clear shot. And so The Wild Bunch, a movie about sympathy and identification, ends in a senseless apocalypse of violence, almost a cleansing, from which a new band of weathered rogues emerges, warily, to fight another day. Nothing can keep these men from defending and protecting one another, from finding uncanny reflections of themselves in the actions of others (what makes Pike any better than the General Mapache, the movie asks, what makes the corrupt sheriff Harrigan any better than the convicted criminal Deke), but nothing can stop the violence either. 

There is a feminist premise in The Wild Bunch, but you ultimately can’t claim it as a feminist movie because it won’t sit still long enough to be one. Peckinpah can’t get comfortable with any one response to what he shows you and so the furious force of the images and their erupting, unpredictable emotional content explodes the moral dimension you expect from a western.  Pauline Kael called it “a brilliantly directed and photographed study in confusion” because it even exceeds its premise as a realist anti-war film – Peckinpah gets lost in the violence as in an abstracted reverie. The images take over. But its confusion is also what makes it a riveting study in sympathy: the movie is driven inexorably forward by its angry spiritual restlessness. As Peckinpah builds battle scenes as visual montages of abstracted perspectives, each image refracted through the eyes of another character, he gets a cubist effect. He’s creating an abstracted history painting, like Picasso’s Guernica, but in moving images. And in a way the moving images allow Peckinpah to go even further than Picasso, because he’s breaking down the sense of time and not just the sense of visual perspective. The suspense that grows to an almost excruciating pitch in the first shoot-out in Starbuck, before the first trigger is pulled, forces a response out of you and then forces you to interrogate your own response. (You are so relieved when the tension breaks and the bullets start firing, and then you’re horrified by your relief.)

That refusal to settle for a singular effect, the refusal to settle, even, for an identifiable moral vision (you can find one in Ride The High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue), comes from Peckinpah’s refusal to be cold to anything on the screen. And he won’t let us go cold, either. Like Angel’s feelings for Teresa, like Pike’s for Aurora, the woman he left behind, Peckinpah’s feeling for the images he realizes is not alienation but furious sympathy. The movie can’t objectify the women because it’s constantly shattering our ability to retreat into the kind of comfortable objectification that makes brutality bearable.

Susan George as Amy Sumner in Straw Dogs

Of course, Straw Dogs, the nihilistic male fantasy Peckinpah made in 1971, is not only not feminist, it’s misogynistic. I can’t in good conscience write about Peckinpah’s feminist sensibility without pointing out that two years after The Wild Bunch and right in the middle of the sweep of masterpieces that includes The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner on either end, he made a movie about human apathy so misanthropic it perpetuates the very sickness it describes. A psychological thriller about a couple, David and Amy Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George), who rent out a small fortress of a country home in the Cornish village where Amy grew up, Straw Dogs is notorious for a scene in which a leering pack of guys, brutish philistines with menacing stares, invite a pliant David out shooting with them, while a couple of them take turns sneaking back to the Sumner cottage to rape Amy. (Her ex-boyfriend Charlie, played by Del Henney, is one of them.) The rape scene is just one example of the misogynistic attitudes of the movie: Peckinpah lets you see Amy suffer, but it’s the suffering of a brutalized sex kitten. Unlike Teresa in The Wild Bunch, Amy really is being punished for her polymorphous sexuality: while her second rapist, who sodomizes her, leaves her traumatized, the first one pacifies her. She didn’t just get what was coming to her, but it also turns out to be good for her.

David is an American, and his retreat from the U.S. to England to work on his book (he’s a mathematician) is supposed to tell us that morally he’s puny and impotent. He leaves because he won’t “take a stand,” as Amy puts it, on the political turmoil in his home country. (To prove his manhood, he defends the fort and kills the philistines who try to cuckold him by ogling and raping his wife; it’s a vengeance story in which triumph means hanging onto possessions, of which Amy is one.)  But that’s not David’s retreat, it’s the director’s. Straw Dogs is Peckinpah’s retreat from the roiling complexities of The Wild Bunch, the perverse romanticism of its violence, and into a crudely singular vision of human motive, of men and women, of good and evil. It might have been a necessary movie for Peckinpah, but it was also a cowardly one. 

Straw Dogs is so completely a retreat, an escape into the anti-humanist fantasy, that Peckinpah turns not only to a new country and a new genre, but to a totally new visual vocabulary. The spacious possibilities for human complexity in the westerns implode in Straw Dogs. Instead of broad, luminous landscapes, the psychological metaphor is the fortress David locks himself up in. The movie’s built like that house, cold and precise, all the antique decorations death traps waiting tensely to spring. Yes, the house is rigged up with death traps – the rat catcher Amy brings home in the opening sequence and hangs over the mantle becomes the toothy jaw that slices her rapist ex-boyfriend in the final massacre – and the movie is rigged, too; Peckinpah lays the trap of how we should read each character right at the beginning. It's pretty complex for a movie the essential metaphor of which is of rats and rat-catchers, but that’s still what it is; the movie is a laboratory in which humanity plays out as a self-detonating science experiment.

It seems unimaginable that within a year of Straw Dogs Peckinpah went on to make the incandescent Junior Bonner, an unconventional contemporary western about rodeo cowboys infused with a melancholy sweetness of such delicacy it makes Straw Dogs seem like it comes from another planet. But it’s no less baffling than the fact that Peckinpah’s most loving paean to romantic sympathy, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, was made the year before Straw Dogs. Cable Hogue is about the love affair between an enterprising drifter played by Jason Robards and an exiled prostitute, Hildy, played by Stella Stevens who create a shared home in the desert on the margins of civilization. It’s a romance in which nothing is expected and so everything given. Possession is utterly beside the point for these characters, who associate possession with a world that tramples on people like them. Even ownership of the desert spring that transforms him from a dusty vagabond into an entrepreneur, even ownership of life, seems a passing, transitory state to Cable. There’s a moment that echoes the image of Aurora undressing for Pike in The Wild Bunch when Hildy emerges from Cable’s bedroom in her nightgown – she’s told him through the closed door that she can’t possibly stay out in the desert with him, but they at least have one night – she glows in the last light of the desert evening, and Cable drinks in her image like he’s receiving some divine revelation. (In those moments of gratitude for the love that’s given freely, Robards registers emotional shifts in his broad face as dramatically as shifts in the light in the open desert sky – he gets all the colors.) Cable Hogue distills the romantic spirit at the core of Peckinpah’s sensibility: love without possession. If that’s not a feminist stance, I don’t know what is. 

 Amanda Shubert is a founding editor of Full Stop, an online journal of literature and culture. She works at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.


  1. This is a brilliant essay, and one of the best written about Peckinpah in a long, long time. I particularly love the section on Angel and Teresa. I have never read such an astute analyzation of this scene, which is one of the most profound and powerful scenes in all of Peckinpah's body of work. Bravo! -- David Weddle

  2. This is an exemplary essay raising issues and questions that should have been raised long ago. Sonia's performance is exemplary. She is trying to survive in the only way she can and is heartbroken briefly over destroying Angel's former image of her. Thus she performs a role Angel can not see through due to his one-dimensional perspective.

  3. This article deals with some Peckinpah-female issues:

  4. Beautifully written and analyzed with great intellectual nuancing that matches Peckinpah's complexity. This essay should be printed in some anthology of contemporary literature about Peckinpah.

    Now with Franz I am adding also Amanda, but with the missing ''C''.

    Greetings and all the best from Belgrade.