ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) Limited Edition Blu Ray (Arrow)
Theresa, the pregnant daughter of rural patriarch El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), is brought in front of him so that his men can interrogate her to find out the identity of the guilty man. After they strip and physically abuse her for some time she finally gives up his identity: Alfredo Garcia. El Jefe orders a large group of men to go out and bring his head back.
Two of these men, named Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young), conduct investigations around Mexico City to find Alfredo’s whereabouts. They end up in a down market tourist-orientated bar where piano player Bennie (Warren Oates) tinkles out the likes of “Guantanamera” for day-to-day cash and takes up occasional bounty hunting for real money. It turns out that he knows Alfredo all too well; a stud who gets around a lot, and the man who’s been sleeping with his lounge singer girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) behind his back. The duo offers him the job. However, the opportunity is especially golden for Bennie as Elita confesses to him that he died in a road accident, seemingly rendering the bounty a mere formality of locating and digging up his grave.
He meets with Max (Helmut Dantine), the immediate boss of the duo, and is offered $10,000 for the delivery of Alfredo’s head within 4 days. Afterwards, he buys a machete from the local market and heads out with Elita in tow so she can help him identify his corpse. It also gives the pair an opportunity to take a scenic, somewhat romantic ride across the country. Little known to them however they are being followed by a pair of rival bounty hunters.
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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was panned by most critics at the time of its release but has since been reevaluated as a cult classic. Funded independently on a lowish budget of $1.5 million, it is widely regarded as Peckinpah’s most personal film - indeed, it was the only one where he had the final say on the cut. Unfortunately, “most personal” doesn’t necessarily mean “best”. Like his classics The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron it’s a dark and almost insanely violent action drama. Unlike those, however, it’s a slow, depressing drag, defined more by what it is than by being an enjoyable watch or having anything particularly interesting to say. On the other hand, it does have a few dashes of brilliance that make it hard to completely discount.
In its own raw, gritty way it’s certainly a well-made film. The cinematography by Alex Phillips Jr. has a moody, painterly vibe. Jerry Fielding’s orchestral/Mexican folk music fusion score is suitably melancholic. Warren Oates’s performance, hunched from a clear chip on his shoulder and gruffly deranged, makes for an awkward yet strangely affecting protagonist. Isela Vega’s motherly, sensual Elita is the kind of woman who most men can easily imagine themselves falling for due to the sheer visibility of love that radiates through her shiny skin and palpably sad eyes. Despite these plus points, however, the whole film is very messy and seems to actively try to discomfort the viewer purely for the sake of doing so.
Most of the requisite slo-mo, violent action arrives in the final third. In the main Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s nod at the Easy Rider road movie, but this time featuring a protagonist who is pretty much the opposite of Wyatt and Billy from that film. While those two consciously opposed the traditional vision of the brutal Wild West in favour of redefining America as a land of freedom and tolerance, Bennie here is basically a loser in this new world - an old Western protagonist who is out of his time zone and trying to blot out his failure through copious bottles of tequila. Oates’s character’s resemblance to Peckinpah is canny even down to the actor actually wearing the director’s sunglasses throughout. It’s an apt choice as Peckinpah himself made his name directing Western serials and films, but by this time was adrift, floating from one genre to another in a drunken haze in an attempt to redefine himself. For Benny, bringing back the head of Alfredo Garcia is his chance to prove he has some worth in the world. In an inversion of the former film, Bennie and Elita encounter two bikers who ask if they can join their roadside camp. Unfortunately, peace is the last thing on the minds of this pair of guys.
It’s also Peckinpah’s arty nod to the love story. We spend a lot of time viewing intimate scenes between Bennie and Elita in bed, out on a roadside picnic and so on. Oates and Vega display a remarkable chemistry and rapport together, making us believe they have had a relationship for years. While their characters clearly have their differences (he doesn’t like her cheating, she doesn’t like his violent lifestyle) the innate sense that they “click” makes the viewer root for their relationship. Unfortunately, their scenes of driving from place to place, spending one night after another in various squalid Mexican hotels or sleeping out under the stars begin to outstay their welcome. We get it - they have their ups and downs but can be great together given the chance. We don’t need most of an hour of screen time for this to register.
After this first hour the film takes the truly dark turn foreshadowed by the encounter with the bikers early on, as Elita is killed and Bennie, with only the masculinely violent part of his character left, drives back with Alfredo Garcia’s bed rotting in a bag on the passenger seat. We get plenty of slo-mo gunfire, the image of Quill’s evident sadistic glee as he sprays away with a machine gun (echoing a similar image in The Wild Bunch involving Lyle Gorch - also played by Oates - making serious use of a gatling gun), and some blackly comic lines. When he stops at a village for some ice to curtail the head’s fly-attracting decay, a child asks what it is in the bag. He replies: “Cat. Dead cat. It belonged to a friend of mine.”. It’s a lot more entertaining than the earlier section but ultimately comes to a rather depressing conclusion. It basically takes almost two hours to tell us that the love of a good (or even not-so-good) woman is a lot better than living and dying by the sword (or, in this case, the machete and the gun). It’s hardly anything radical in terms of a message.
As I touched on a few paragraphs ago Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is more about Sam Peckinpah holding up a mirror image to himself than anything else. If Bennie is how the director sees himself, Elita might be a screen version of his three-time wife, Mexican actress Begoña Palacios, with whom he had a volatile relationship but remained close to until his death in 1984. This pretty much sums up the whole film; it’s unpleasant and alienating for those who don’t dig deeper and find these sorts of facts out. As such, it’s more of an interesting failure than it is the masterpiece some have proclaimed it to be.
Runtime: 112 mins
Dir: Sam Peckinpah
Script: Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah, Gordon T. Dawson
Starring: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernandez, Kris Kristofferson, Donnie Fritts
Despite being a 4K restoration from the original negative it’s somewhat grainy particularly in darker shots, though this may well be due to the low-budget source. Scenes with the Mexican local colour however are, it has to be said, nicely (funnily enough) colourful and offer a great opportunity to pick out the authentic background touches. Some details such as water are incredibly pin-sharp and shiny. It’s a mixed bag but still pleasing to watch.
Mono audio. The quieter moments of dialogue are annoyingly muted but the orchestral score booms away impressively.
We get a 44 page booklet with 4 essays. The first three (“Bring Me the Heart of Alfredo Garcia” by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” by Mike Sutton and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” by Kathleen Murphy and Richard T. Jamison) are critiques of the film, which spend some time examining its critical reevaluation and the controversies surrounding director Sam Peckinpah (not least the accusations of misogyny). The last is the longest and takes a detailed and disarmingly lyrical look at the nuances of the film’s key scenes.
“Warren Oates: A Film Comment Interview” by F. Albert Bomar and Alan J. Warren is a reprint of an article published in Film Comment magazine in 1981, just over a year before the actor’s death. This rather un-PC, profanity-strewn interview focuses heavily on his working relationship with Sam Peckinpah. Amongst the more interesting anecdotes is that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia had (at the time the interview was conducted) been playing in one cinema in France every Saturday night for eight years.
There are 2 discs with this limited edition.
On the first disc are the following:
Audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of “Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies”
Stephen Prince dissects each scene in an authoritative if somewhat over-academic manner. He discusses the director’s unusual editing and changes of screen direction in many scenes, how Isela Vega as a figure of womanhood brings the “life force and instinct” to the film and how some scenes paradoxically reflect Peckinpah’s paranoid distrust of women. Interestingly Prince doesn’t blindly praise everything here; he opines that the biker scene seems to have wandered in from a Roger Corman B movie with lots of clunky writing and unexplained behaviour. Some of the most interesting moments discuss Gig Young, who, like Peckinpah, was suffering from severe alcoholism and would end up shooting his wife and then turning the gun on himself in 1978. We also hear about the director’s none-too-positive viewpoints on Nixon and Vietnam, and how they are reflected in this film.
Audio commentary by Sam Peckinpah scholars Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman
A somewhat different commentary to the first (which was more of a dryly academic shot-for-shot dissection), it’s a lively roundtable discussion between the four. The debate is especially interesting around the controversial biker scene. There is a treasure trove of trivia here, for instance the significance of the town fiesta seen shortly before the pivotal graveyard sequence, and how Peckinpah was forced to make it look like El Jefe wasn’t residing in Mexico (via scenes of aircraft journeys to/from his compound) by the nation’s censors as they didn’t want an image that this kind of person exists in their country. If you only listen to one of the two commentaries I would recommend this one for casual viewers, and arguably the other for dedicated film students.
Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron
This indispensable feature-length documentary by Paul Joyce (incorporating interview footage with the likes of James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards, James R. Silke and Monty Hellman) looks at the history of the hell-raising director, beginning from his ancestors who worked in the lumber business in California. He started off living the cowboy life before joining the military and being stationed as an observer in China. There he reportedly witnessed many horrific things, and it is these that informed the level of violence in his films as well as his bouts with depression, drink and drugs. We learn that much of his craziness (his bouts of violent rage and poor treatment of women) also came from an inability to handle the new level of fame after The Wild Bunch as well as his perpetual fights with producers. At other times however there was an evident gentle side to him and even “a strong feminine side” according to one interviewee.
The anecdotes are incredible, including that he deliberately antagonised actors to get the right performances out of them, that he was so paranoid he bugged regular production assistant Katherine Haber’s room, and that he had a habit of throwing knives into doors. These are interspersed with a few songs Kris Kristofferson wrote about him plus some of his correspondence read out by Jason Robards. A wonderful tribute to an endlessly debated and somewhat enigmatic man.
The John Player Lecture: Sam Peckinpah
An audio recording of an interview plus Q & A with the director on stage at the National Film Theatre, made between The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. There are a few audio technical issues, and most of the audience members’ questions are too faintly recorded to be decipherable. Nonetheless, Peckinpah comes across as a surprisingly witty and charming interviewee as he talks about the themes in his films, his predilection with slow motion and his views on violence. He notes that he wanted to get away from the “fun and games” approach of violence in prior westerns in favour of a depiction that’s both horrific and paradoxically poetic (as it’s part of human instinct). He displays a keen sense of humour here; when talking about religion he remarks that “churches, saloons and brothels should be run together; maybe I’m a pagan”. It seems Warren Oates was in the crowd at this interview, but unfortunately he didn’t get to contribute anything to the interview itself.
Kris Kristofferson songs
The musician/actor strums away four songs connected to his friend Sam Peckinpah, complete with introductions. They are basically extensions of Kristofferson footage from Man of Iron, but are an enjoyable inclusion especially for fans of his music.
On the second (limited edition) bonus disc we get Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron - The Director’s Cut. It features the complete versions of the interviews which were cut down to fit into the 90 minute format of the documentary, plus a brand new one with David Warner. In total the footage amounts to more than 10 hours worth of viewing, making it an absolute treasure trove for any Peckinpah fan.
I didn’t view all of the interview footage, deciding instead to go straight for David Warner’s contribution. He talks with great affection about the man. When he had a panic attack before getting on the plane to film The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the director proposed a 2 1/2 week land and sea trip from England to Los Angeles. He reveals that Peckinpah really warmed to him and didn’t give him the rough treatment described by other sources. He mentions a gentler side to the man and opines that, had The Ballad of Cable Hogue been a greater success at the box office, he may well have turned away from making such violent films for the rest of his life. We also hear the limp his character had in Straw Dogs was real as he had an on-set accident prior to filming, and that he asked for his name to be taken off the film’s credits due to disagreements between his agency and the studio over where his name should be positioned within the list. As a final touching moment in his tribute he shows us a golden cross he received from the director as a gesture of thanks.
I’m not a big fan of the film itself, but it’s hard to deny that the wealth of extras here makes the complete package a must for anyone with an interest in the director.