If you are a fan of this site, it will go without saying that you are also a fan of sleazy, gritty 70s crime films. Well, folks, this is the one. Once you’ve seen Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, you have been to the top of the mountain. No other film of its age smears its classic grainy film stock with as much sweat and dirt and grime. Part Western, part Neo-Noir, you can almost see the whiskey stains and cigarette burns across the pages of its screenplay in every line of dialogue. Peckinpah directs, Warren Oates acts, and Benny, a depressed and tired old bartender married to a hooker, is hired by the Mexican mafia to dig up a corpse and hack off its head with a machete. If you haven’t seen this film, what more needs to be said to convince you to?
Watch it once on that level, for the sweat and the dirt and the blood. You won’t be disappointed. Done yet? Now watch it again, and this time, keep one thing in mind. That isn’t just some grungy barkeep you’re watching descend into the darkness, but one of the decade’s most visionary directors. It’s Peckinpah himself, and this sordid tale is in fact one of the most sincere attempts at autobiography ever filmed. He’s not going to Mexico to dig up a corpse and hack off its head for the cartel. He’s going to Mexico to make a movie for the Warner Brothers. And that, my friend, is no less dirty a job. Poor Peckinpah is going to lose his heart, his mind, and his soul getting it done, but he’s going to get it done, god damn it.
The two gay hitmen who hire Benny to bring them this head are like the film studio hatchet men who plagued Peckinpah throughout his career. One of them introduces himself as Fred C. Dobbs. Humphrey Bogart played a man with the same name once, another desperate soul who went to the last place that would have him, Mexico, looking for a sack full of gold. He lost his mind and then his head to the same rusty instrument. Peckinpah did the same (though it was cocaine, not a machete, that ultimately separated him from his brain), and now Benny will too. Benny’s promised a paltry sum, a few thousand, to do this filthy, soul-suiciding job while men in ties sit back and wait to collect their millions once it’s done. Every step, every shovel full Benny takes towards completing the job strips away another layer of his humanity and his mind, and ultimately costs him everything he’s ever valued—every love, every friendship—but only strengthens his resolve to get it done. People beg him to stop, to reconsider the morality of what he’s doing. Even as he trudges forward with all this determination, the same corporate heavies still show up, just as he nears completion, and try to strip the job away from him, to deny him his credit and his closure. He outmaneuvers them, and then, head or finished film in hand, he tries to bring it back and again gets only as far as the associate producers’ desks. They smile and pat him on the back and try to send him on his way—and when he insists on delivering it all the way to the top, the man who paid for it doesn’t even want to take a look at what he’s created. He wants it thrown to the dogs.
This happened to Peckinpah many times throughout his career before it finally broke him. It has to Benny as well, though we can only surmise this from the tiredness in Warren Oates’ performance, and the depth of the creases he folds into of one of the most storytelling faces in the history of the business. So yes, it’s all a metaphor. Pages could be spent wondering what each character might symbolize, if we were to try to follow it so far. (Are the dogs the audience? We were children burning ants in The Wild Bunch.) But, clearly, it’d quickly turn pointless and just plain silly. A few conspicuously placed magazine covers and cartoon caricatures relate the whole same plot to a certain Mr. Nixon and to the whole corporate and political system of America, and Benny’s suicidal rampage at the end as he guns them all down is just a big, raised middle finger to all those people, and for that matter to everyone who is watching. The last frame of the film is a roaring machinegun trained on the audience, just before Peckinpah’s own name and the names of his whole cast and crew are also dragged onto the firing line. The impotent rage and despair of the 1970s was never more perfectly captured by a single frame of film.
But don’t really watch it for metaphors either. Watch it because it is god damned triumph of filmmaking. Watch it to see Warren Oates, America’s most underrated actor, in one of the four starring roles he was ever allowed and easily the best performance of his career. The tiredness, the desperation, the insanity toward the end as he has these raving and drunken—but almost Shakespearean in their poetry—conversations with a rotting, fly-covered head in a bag. The movie is divided into two parts, each part revolving around a relationship and a pact Benny has with the last person who wants to stick by him in the world. The first half is about his relationship with Elita, a whore he wants to marry, and the second half is about his relationship with the eight remaining pounds of the only other man she ever loved. In either half, it is a more believable and stronger felt connection than in any romance or buddy cop film I can think of. Look for a scene in which Benny and Elita picnic under a tree and discuss the future. When she suggests it’s time that he propose to her, look at his god damned face. There’s more meaning, more sadness and tragedy, in a look on an actor’s face than in all the words that could fill a screenplay. Then watch the darkness that falls over the same face, and his attitude toward this head in a bag change from seething jealousy to the only real connection he has left with anyone in the world, and the comradery they share as they set out together at the end to finish what they started.
A friend I recommended this film to once told me he couldn’t finish it—that he had to switch it off halfway through because “the acting was so bad.” This is not a world that deserves the likes of artists such as Oates and Peckinpah.
One of the many things Peckinpah’s many critics loved to label him as was a misogynist, a man who thought little of women at best and despised them at worst. Sure, based on Straw Dogs alone, perhaps, they may have been able to make that case, but no such misogynist could have written or directed a woman as magnificent as Elita in this film. She’s like a combination of Rita Hayworth and some broken down, Tijuana streetwalker, and it’s obvious in every frame that Peckinpah’s camera idolizes both halves equally and to the point of sanctification. That it finds as much beauty in her wrinkles and sagging breasts, and even in the crabs she gives Benny, as any part of her. Her crabs are out of our league. Going back to the metaphor, she’s every woman Peckinpah ever knew and loved and ultimately drove away with his insanities and jealousies and obsessions. He adored every one of them. His loathing was directed only at himself, and everything he ever did and said to drive them away.
Sure, there is that same old scene that’s in every Western, where the woman has to be rescued from rapists by the hero, but anyone who takes a misogynist message away from Peckinpah’s version is wildly misinterpreting it. Here, it’s completely turned around because up until the point of the rescue, Elita is the one rescuing Benny—by willfully doing this thing for him, this impossibly and unforgivably generous thing. She does so not realizing that the emasculation of being rescued in this way would have destroyed Benny, just as he doesn’t realize that everything he’s so determined to do for her, against her own will, will ultimately destroy her and far more literally. There are two people so in love, each so desperate to provide for the other, that each is willing to destroy the other to do it. Another point these feminist critics overlook is that in both cases, it is the male insecurity—Peckinpah’s—that spells doom. Critics watched the scene and assumed Peckinpah’s point was that women like to be raped. Are you fucking serious? A hundred essays making better points about gender politics could be written about the scene, but the truth is that it’s simply Peckinpah’s love letter to women. An incredibly twisted one, perhaps, but that’s still what it is, and it’s something very, very far from misogyny.
So that’s what this ugly little film is really about. An autobiography, a mad poet lost between two countries, and a song as beautifully sad as any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, wrapped in a layer of dirt, sweat, blood, and clouds of buzzing black flies. Peckinpah gave an interview once—seated before a particularly hostile cocksack of an interviewer—in which he more than successfully argued for all of his reasons for using violence in his films, and he had a good argument ready for every one of his films as they were brought up but this one. For this one he simply shrugged and said “all I can say is that it was a very personal film, and I’ve no excuse for it,” and that’s all he needed to say. Great art needs, and can have, no excuses. And that’s what this film is.