Love and revenge in the Modern Western.

Full disclosure: I once bid on an eBay auction for what was purported to be one of three prop “heads” from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It came with no provenance or guarantee, but I secured a large glass pedestal with custom lighting that I planned on displaying the head in. The day of the auction ending, while I still had the high bid, it was mysteriously pulled from the site, and the prop vanished. So basically, I lived the movie, you guys.

Sam Peckinpah was a master of the modern Western. In The Wild Bunch, he dragged the genre into contemporary cinematic grammar, living up to his nickname, Bloody Sam. With The Getaway and Straw Dogs, he transposed the Western into present day, almost beat-for-beat. He examined so many of the Western complications; revenge, responsibility, loneliness, through a lens of a changing world, the ‘60s and ‘70s, with a similar tone to how jarring the world was a hundred years earlier. Peckinpah was a Western filmmaker from the get-go, having begun his career in the very traditional world of ‘50s television Westerns, creating and running The Westener. While it didn’t last long and garnered both praise and alienation for its grittiness and realism, two cornerstones in Peckilnpah’s style, it led to an early career in the genre for him. The first decade of his career was exclusively dedicated to the Western in its traditional sense, skewing more controversial as the time passed, almost as if his career and art was echoing the changing world around him.

By the end of the ‘60s, he had reinvented the genre with The Wild Bunch and soon began to tackle its impact on the raucous and dangerous decade of the 1970s. Much of his work within the contemporary Western devoted attention to gender dynamics, relationships between men and women, and were so incredibly controversial that derision and censorship was often meted out. Whether it is the famous rape scene in Straw Dogs or the real slaps doled out to Ali McGraw in The Getaway, it would be naive of us to dismiss them as simply misogynist without the arguments we’ve been having over them for decades. Sam Peckinpah was a complicated filmmaker who made ugly points, and his diatribes on women and romance were no less dirty than his violence and machismo. Within his work in the genre, and often overlooked as his most romantic of films, is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a modern Western about the lengths a man will go for love, revenge and the life he thinks he deserves.

The film, named for the Lothario who knocks up a jefe’s daughter and gets a bounty on (spoiler alert) his head, remains Peckinpah’s most personal. The brainchild of famed agent-turned-produced-turned-agent Martin Baum and the most artist-friendly of studios, United Artists, the film was both a critical and commercial failure and Peckinpah’s only film to be released as he intended, he would say. Alfredo’s indiscretions are only the catalyst for the true hero of the movie, the rabbit which our protagonist, Benny, chases. Benny’s almost a Man With No Name, a gringo with gumption and attitude, but for some reason, suck in a shitty piano bar outside of Mexico City. He doesn’t have a history, nor much of a badass capability, beyond a little obtuse “army training” like most men of his vintage. He’s barely getting by, living in a rundown room and puppy-dog chasing a prostitute he’s fallen for. Like Monte Hellman, Peckinpah found a totem, a comrade, a self-portrait in actor Warren Oates.

As with the filmmakers who he collaborated with frequently, Oates was a toiler, often forced to treat his art like a vocation, and the result was a subversiveness to his work. In Alfredo Garcia, Oates embodies Peckinpah physically, mirroring his big sunglasses, jaunty dress and rakish, roguish grin. Oates was a seminal character and genre actor, often playing second and third fiddles in Westerns, war and action flicks. Oates does what he always did best, step into a role with a commitment, a sense of responsibility to a genre that does not sacrifice honesty or emotional resonance. It was rare to see him in a leading role, but his performance in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, alongside Cockfighter and Dillinger, solidifies the actor as a master of his craft and, sadly, a product of his opportunities. In the mid-‘70s, Peckinpah himself was also struggling to maintain his vision, make the films he wanted to, and it is no coincidence that his relationship with Oates mirrors that.

Straddling the traditional Western and the modern Western, with tinges of the road movie and noir, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is as much a romance as any of the aforementioned genres. If the eponymous character is the galvanizing force behind Benny getting off his piano stool to begin with, it’s his relationship with Isela Vega’s “Elita”, that fuels his subsequent movements. Their relationship is complicated from the start. She’s a prolific prostitute, sharing a bed with Benny, but also with other men, including Alfredo himself. Benny’s jealous, sure, but he also recognizes that she’s got her gig, and in this case, it’ll help them both find Alfredo, get the reward for bringing him in, and start a life together. There’s never any doubt, even after she gives him crabs and relents to rape by a young biker (played by Kris Kristofferson), that Benny and Elita intend to stay together, get married, and spend their lives outside of the brothels and bars they’ve had to call home. Elita’s a down-ass girl, and as they traverse Mexico’s backroads, there’s a game-recognize-game mentality between them that allows them to support each other, depend on their partner.

Of course, tragedy strikes, and Benny’s reaction transcends revenge to become the kind of existential, nihilist response that the modern Western often illustrates. His lost love is Benny’s breaking point, but it is also his motivation from almost the beginning. The impression we get of him is that without Elita’s influence, or their potential to live happily ever after, he wouldn’t have much motivation to do a thing. He leans on the money, the bounty for the head, but it’s only as a way out for the two of them. One could argue that Benny needs Elita to find Alfredo, and that’s where his investment comes from, a sugar-coated manipulation, but it’s her death that causes Benny to truly lose it, money or nothing. In basic terms, the bounty, like Al’s head itself, is just a conduit for the life he wants with Elita. While the historical Western obstacles of survival might not be paramount in contemporary times, the cash is even more important than it would be a hundred years before. In that equation, Peckinpah has simplified the Western concept of redemption, couched in love.

Bloody Sam might not agree with his pipe dream of an autobiography being labeled a romance. He was never one for sentimentality, but it was written all over the films he made. As a Western filmmaker, it is par for the course, acknowledging history, honorariums and humanity within an often hostile environment. Much is often made of the film’s black humor, Peckinpah’s penchant for unrelenting, violent hyperbole and slogs through manly trenches. Those tools are well-worn in the film, on brand. What sets it apart from many of his other films is the reasoning behind it all, a relationship that is as honest and complicated as the Western ideals it pulls into modern time. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is as alternative a Western as it is heartfelt, a surprise from its time and filmmaker, and as sweet as it is bitter.