by Matt Levine
A descent into blistering cinematic hell, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is director Sam Peckinpah at his most unfiltered and unapologetic. One of the violent auteur’s few films that wasn’t overhauled by trepidatious studios, Peckinpah would later cite Alfredo Garcia as his only film that made it to the screen exactly as he had intended, exposing the volatile filmmaker’s best and worst aspects like a seething raw nerve. Roger Ebert—one of the film’s few admirers upon its critically-reviled original release—claimed he could “feel Peckinpah’s heart beating and head pounding in every frame”; Slant Magazine’s Nick Schager described it as “a virtual window into one man’s fractured, tortured soul.” In other words, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is furious, utterly hopeless, misogynistic, grimy, chaotic—and maybe the most potent vision of Nixon-era American nihilism that oozed into movie theaters in the 1970s.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Martin Baum
Writers: Sam Peckinpah, Gordon Dawson, Frank Kowalski (story)
Cinematographer: Álex Phillips Jr.
Editors: Dennis E. Dolan, Sergio Ortega, Robbe Roberts
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine, Emilio Fernandez, Kris Kristofferson, Chano Urueta, Donny Fritts, Jorge Russek, Chalo González, Don Levy
US Theatrical Release: August 14, 1974
US Distributor: MGM/United Artists, Twilight Time (Blu-ray)
The project had been lingering in Peckinpah’s mind for years, since his friend and frequent writer Frank Kowalski pitched the idea during the production of The Ballad of Cable Hogue in 1970; presumably the story’s morbid despondency and wicked sense of humor appealed to him, though the opportunity to shoot in Mexico with almost no studio interference sweetened the deal. Peckinpah’s notoriously cavalier extrusions into the Mexican countryside while shooting Major Dundee (which contributed to the director’s problematic reputation in Hollywood) were condoned in this case by Martin Baum, his astonishingly obliging producer. Meanwhile, Peckinpah’s ever-mounting alcoholism and spontaneous shooting style led to a grueling production in the fall of 1973, instigating a rough-hewn on-set tension that can be felt in the film’s jangly, vitriolic tone. As far as legends go regarding the tempestuous mavericks of New American Cinema, Peckinpah’s headstrong production of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia may be one of the most storied.
Such a problematic shooting history befits a bleak commentary on the awful greed, violence, and pettiness of humanity. The unflinching tone is set immediately, as we witness a rich Mexican industrialist known only as El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) torture his daughter to determine the name of her unborn baby’s father. When her lover is revealed to be El Jefe’s associate Alfredo Garcia, whom the sadistic patriarch had been grooming as his second-in-command, he furiously promises a million-dollar bounty to whomever brings him the eponymous body part. Two of El Jefe’s heartless bodyguards—conspicuously American in their business suits and clean-cut demeanors (they look like they belong in Nixon’s cabinet)—roam the Mexican countryside, searching for willing bounty hunters. They find one in Bennie (Warren Oates), a destitute American war veteran (presumably of Vietnam, or maybe Korea) drinking away his days while plinking on an old piano in a tiny saloon/whorehouse. Perpetually clad in sunglasses and with a bottle of tequila always near at hand, Bennie is a classic antihero of early-‘70s American cinema, so disgusted with political and social corruption that he wears his rage-fueled apathy as a suit of armor. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is almost too misanthropic and hopeless to bear, but Oates’ performance, with its teetering extremes of vulnerability and hostility, provides an emotional anchor. The jagged charm of his performance is even more interesting considering it’s a thinly-veiled impersonation of Peckinpah, according to Oates himself—the sunglasses he wears actually belonged to the director.
Bennie has inside knowledge of Alfredo Garcia’s whereabouts: it turns out Bennie’s lover, a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), had also been intimate with Alfredo. According to her, Alfredo had been able to provide what Bennie never could: proclamations of love and promises of marriage (empty though they may be). She informs Bennie that Alfredo is, in fact, already dead from a drunk-driving accident—a gruesome coincidence which, from Bennie’s perspective, seems to provide him with easy money, assuming he can dig up the man’s corpse and decapitate it. En route to Alfredo’s grave, we come to realize how much of a wounded softie Bennie really is: he finally confesses his love for Elita and claims that he only wants the money so they can escape to a less hellish terrain.
If this sounds like a fairly straightforward (if grisly) action film, think again: every possible motivation for Bennie’s dreary endeavor is revealed as an empty fallacy, turning Alfredo Garcia into a bleakly existential nightmare about the futility of man. When Bennie finally confesses his scheme to Elita, provoking horrified protestations about the desecration of Alfredo’s grave, Bennie hisses in response: “There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man in it—or you, or me.” This might as well be the movie’s motto: nothing is sacred, though the modern age tries to convince us that money is the new religion. Ultimately, following a tragic turn of events, revenge becomes a greater impetus for Bennie than wealth; he goes out in a blaze of glory, taking as many violent heathens out with him as he can. Bennie’s climactic fit of annihilative rage is an extended suicide, a willing leap into the abyss that conveys his complete revulsion towards humanity. As the rapper Nas would put it twenty years later, life’s a bitch and then you die—and by the end of the film, Bennie has stopped trying to convince himself otherwise. Like the damned protagonists of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), notions of honor and justice simply provide flimsy rationale for an unavoidable death wish.
The seemingly tender romance between Bennie and Elita, which initially appears to provide a beacon of hope, is revealed as hollow as well. In one of the movie’s most infuriating sequences, a tranquil picnic between the two is interrupted by a pair of grungy bikers—one of whom (played by Kris Kristofferson) attempts to rape Elita, forcing her into the mountains before ripping off her shirt and slapping her. Inexplicably, he silently walks away—only to have Elita follow behind him, cradle his head in her hands, and erotically make out with him. The controversial rape scene in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), in which Susan George’s victim appears to be enjoying her violation, is made explicit in Alfredo Garcia: women, in Peckinpah’s eyes, are only too willing to leap from one man to another, as indifferent to notions of love and loyalty as the men they manipulate. Peckinpah’s overt misogyny is often unsettling—earlier in Alfredo Garcia, we bear aghast witness as one of El Jefe’s henchmen cold-cocks a prostitute for having the gall to stroke his leg—but this ridiculous notion of the “tender rape scene” is the clearest indication of the director’s emotional delusions. (The fact that such repugnant scenes stem from Peckinpah’s disastrous marriages and fear of infidelity does nothing to assuage their insensitivity.) Bennie’s eventual declaration of love goes mockingly unanswered by Elita, whose murder later in the film depletes Bennie of the one thing that had been providing a fleeting specter of redemption. The film truly manifests hell on earth, culminating in an extreme close-up of a firing machine-gun, reminding us of the inevitability of death. The sincerest relationship in the film, absurdly, is that between Bennie and the decapitated head of Alfredo, to which the former soliloquizes bitterly—it’s surely no coincidence that the most sensitive rapport is between Bennie and a severed hunk of flesh.
Obviously this is a depressing, nasty, nihilistic film, but it’s undeniably powerful in its bitterness and, at times, poetic in its despair. Peckinpah’s skill as a visual stylist is overwhelming, and the balletic grace of the death scenes lends the violence a haunting finality. Few other movies—and basically no other movie that Hollywood has ever released—have come close to the mordant existentialism of Albert Camus’ The Stranger or the disgusted brutality of Pasolini’s Salò (1975), and Peckinpah’s shriek of despair should at least be respected for epitomizing the turbulent uncertainty of Nixon-era America. Indeed, a caricature of Nixon can be seen on the walls of the tiny barroom in which we first meet Bennie, and one of the film’s most despicable villains can be seen reading a Time magazine article on Nixon’s problematic presidency. In a timely coincidence, Nixon publicly resigned from presidential office (in the face of near-certain impeachment) five days before Alfredo Garcia was released in America. The correlation between the moral degradation of the characters in the film and the broader atrocities committed by the American government is tenuous at best, but it’s clear that Peckinpah (a well-known liberal) sees US politics both at home and abroad as the culmination of the bloodthirsty quests for power we see in Alfredo Garcia. Placed in its sociohistorical context, the hopelessness of the film takes on greater resonance and an almost admirable revulsion at the global state of affairs in 1974.
Whether you love or hate the film (or, as in my case, love and hate it), the newly released Blu-ray from Twilight Time is cause for celebration. Previously available only in a measly DVD from MGM, the new transfer is visually crisp (maybe a little too flawless actually—the film was always meant to be a little visually grubby) and the disc comes equipped with a plethora of fascinating features. A pair of audio commentaries featuring a throng of film experts (including Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and writer-producer Gordon Dawson) gravitates between historical context and film-theory contemplation, while a few behind-the-scenes features offer a handful of astounding anecdotes regarding Peckinpah’s tequila-fueled tantrums and eccentricities (like the claim that associate producer Gordon Dawson was tasked with shooting the final scene so the director could go on a date, or the time that Peckinpah spat beer in a Mexican barkeep’s face and provoked a riotous brawl). If you’re compelled by larger-than-life personalities and the monstrous flaws that accompany their brilliance, you’ll be captivated by these confessions and adulations from Peckinpah’s regular collaborators.
Admittedly, the star rating at the beginning of this review is somewhat arbitrary--Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia could just as logically merit one or five stars. Its abject misery, its self-loathing hopelessness, its candid revulsion at nearly every character in the frame would be unbearable under most circumstances, and the film’s ugly misogyny prevents it from being great. Yet how often do we have the chance to peer into the black hole that emanates from a master craftsman’s tortured psyche? The New American Cinema of the 1970s, in films such as Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, allowed a beleaguered country to psychoanalyze itself—often confronting demons that were uncomfortable to expose. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia might be the harshest and most foreboding of those demons, running headlong into the abyss and carrying us inextricably with it.