Believing real-life turmoil bred peerless creativity, Sam Peckinpah left an indelible mark on post-1960s cinema with a relatively small body of work that was not for the faint of heart, either in the audience or his collaborators. Peckinpah's unruly, incendiary vision turned such films as Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and the non-Western Straw Dogs (1971) into forceful, complex ruminations on violence, morality, and manhood.
Born in Fresno, CA, and raised on a ranch on nearby Peckinpah Mountain by his sober mother and judge father, descendants of pioneer settlers, Peckinpah learned to ride and shoot as a child and idolized his hardy Superior Court jurist grandfather. A boozing, violence-prone troublemaker by his teens, Peckinpah spent his senior year at military school, joining the Marines in 1943 after graduation. Enrolling at Fresno State College in 1947, Peckinpah discovered his calling when his schoolmate and first wife-to-be turned him on to drama. Relocating to Los Angeles to get his master's degree at U.S.C., Peckinpah began directing theater and took a job at KLAC-TV as a stagehand. He was subsequently fired from his menial job on Liberace's TV show for not wearing a suit. Peckinpah's luck changed when he was hired as Don Siegel's assistant at Allied Artists. Well matched in cinematic temperament, Siegel became Peckinpah's mentor as he learned the craft on five Siegel films. Peckinpah also began writing scripts for TV Westerns in 1955, contributing episodes to several shows, including Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel. Getting a shot at directing with an episode of Broken Arrow in 1958, Peckinpah further honed his skills with episodes of The Rifleman and The Westerner.
Peckinpah got his first feature to direct when The Westerner star Brian Keith suggested him for The Deadly Companions (1961). Though more a vehicle for star Maureen O'Hara than the director, The Deadly Companions nevertheless helped Peckinpah land his second film, Ride the High Country (1962). A spectacular meditation on the passing of the West starring wizened screen cowboys Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as two gunfighters confronting their mortality, Ride the High Country proved that Peckinpah could already enter his house justified as a filmmaker. The studio thought otherwise, dumping it on its first release; critical accolades and foreign film prizes, however, gave Ride the High Country another shot stateside. With a considerable budget and an unfinished script, Peckinpah embarked on his third Western, Major Dundee (1965), starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris as two former comrades who clash during an Apache roundup. Shot in Mexico, the production of Major Dundee fell into chaos as Peckinpah fired crew members, fought with producers, and was threatened with grievous bodily harm by a (literally) saber-rattling Heston. When the studio decided to fire Peckinpah, however, Heston gave back his salary to let Peckinpah finish. After Peckinpah's cut came in at over two hours, though, he was ousted and the studio eviscerated the movie, removing scenes that reportedly gave Major Dundee even more thematic heft than Ride the High Country. The resulting mess left critics and audiences cold; Peckinpah's deteriorating reputation (and his obstreperousness) got him fired from The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
Blackballed for several years, Peckinpah survived by writing scripts. By the time he got to direct again in the late '60s, the parameters of movie violence had changed. Reuniting with High Country cinematographer Lucien Ballard, stock company regulars Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones, and adding stars William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Robert Ryan to the mix, Peckinpah explosively probed the nature of mythic Western violence and moral relativity in The Wild Bunch (1969). Greeted by reactions ranging from "brilliant" to "sick," The Wild Bunch was only a modest hit, even after Warner Bros. cut ten mi