For me now, perhaps the strongest contender for the greatest Western of them all, during the early 90s I thought it was “The Searchers”, then changed my mind to “Once Upon A Time In The West”, but in the last ten years I have watched this one more than any other.
A film that was sold with the tag line “The land had changed, they hadn’t. The earth had cooled, they couldn’t” is the story of a bunch of bandits that are being sort by one of their own (Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton), with a hired bunch of bounty hunters to track them down.
The film opens with Jerry Goldsmith’s amazing score and pans down to a group of children as they torture a scorpion in an ant’s nest. We follow a group of rangers led by William Holden (Pike) and featuring Ernest Borgnine (Dutch), Warren Oates (Lyle Gorch), Ben Johnson (Tector Gorch) and Jaime Sanchez (Angel) as they are about to rob a bank. Pike says to his men “If they move, kill ‘em!” and the words “Directed by Sam Peckinpah” are emblazoned across the screen. They escape and lose a couple of men before they meet at the rendez-vous with old timer Freddie Sykes (played by an almost unrecognisable Edmond O’Brien) and find they have no money, all the bags are filled with washers. We follow them down to Mexixo as they plan to do one last job, some gun running for a Mexican general. Along the way we get to know them and their past, it is often exciting and very violent.
Peckinpah had made his name on a TV series “The Westerner” before moving to feature films with “The Deadly Companions” at the beginning of the 60’s. His “Ride The High Country” was acclaimed as one of the best westerns of the early 60’s, but then he made “Major Dundee” with Charlton Heston and the studio butchered it. He moved to Warner – Seven Arts to make “The Wild Bunch” and didn’t have any problems with the studio that had made “Bonnie & Clyde” two years earlier. After the success of “The Wild Bunch”, he made an often ignored little western with Jason Robards “The Ballad Of Cable Hague” which is well worth checking out, it was with his next film that he caused the most controversy, “Straw Dogs”.
Growing up in the 1980s, there was a big change in the way we watched films, the video recorder. You could rent films down the local newsagents and sweet shops with your pick and mix. Due to the major film studios not embracing the new video market, it was left to often obscure distributors to get hold of repulsive Italian horror films and porn. Vipco became one of the big kings of this and put adverts in magazines, the one for Abel Ferrara’s “The Driller Killer” where it showed a man screaming with the line “the drill just keeps on drilling through skin and bone” worked too well and Mary Whitehouse set on a campaign against these “video nasties”, so much so that in 1984 the video recording act came into force meaning all films had to be classified by a certain time. Titles disappeared overnight and one of these was “Straw Dogs”. James Ferman had a problem with this as the rape scene in which Susan George is raped twice could be viewed out of context from the rest of the film and refused to give it a certificate for video. For a brief time before the Video Recordings Act became legal you could buy “Straw Dogs” down at Woolies for £7.99, but then it was gone. I got hold of a US Copy which was cut and so seemed to make the situation even worse, when I did see the full version, I could understand where he was coming from, but I would like the BBFC to classify work not censor, which is what it does more of now.
Around the time James Ferman retired from the BBFC, Stanley Kubrick died and DVDs were emerging as the new format, so it was possible to see “A Clockwork Orange”(never on the video nasty list), “The Exorcist”, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Straw Dogs” all remastered and uncut plus lesser titles that sometimes were still in the cut versions just to get them out there, if you watch Wes Craven’s “Last House On The Left” in the uncut version you may wonder what the fuss was all about. “Straw Dogs” still has power in it, but it is far from Peckinpah’s best.
After this Peckinpah did make “The Getaway” and “Pat Garratt & Billy The Kid” both of which are excellent, but he never hit the heights of “The Wild Bunch” again , nobody would in the Western genre. If I would have been allowed to choose this film would have been in my 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten.