From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
David Samuel "Sam" Peckinpah (February 21, 1925 – December 28, 1984) was an American film director. He became one of the major filmmakers of the 1970s through his innovative and explicit depiction of action and violence, as well as his revisionist approach to the Western genre. Peckinpah's films generally dealt with the conflict between values and ideals, and the corruption and violence of human society. His characters are often loners or losers who desire to be honorable and idealistic but are forced to compromise themselves in order to survive in a world of nihilism and brutality.
Peckinpah's films generally deal with the conflict between values and ideals and the corruption and violence of human society. His characters are often loners or losers who harbor the desire to be honorable and idealistic but are forced to compromise themselves in order to survive in a world of nihilism and brutality.
The conflicts of masculinity are also a major theme of his work, leading some critics to compare him to Ernest Hemingway. Peckinpah's world is a man's world, and feminists have castigated his films as misogynistic and sexist, especially concerning the shooting of a woman during the final moments of The Wild Bunch, the rape sequence in Straw Dogs and Doc McCoy's physical assault of his wife in The Getaway.
Many critics see his worldview as a misanthropic, Hobbesian view of nature as essentially evil and savage. Peckinpah himself stated the opposite. He saw violence as the product of human society, and not of nature. It is the result of men's competition with each other over power and domination, and their inability to negotiate this competition without resorting to brutality. Peckinpah also used violence as a means to achieve catharsis, believing his audience would be purged of violence by witnessing it explicitly on screen (one of the major inspirations for his violent sequences in The Wild Bunch). Peckinpah later admitted that this idea was mistaken, and that audiences had come to enjoy the violence in his films rather than be horrified by it, something that deeply troubled him later in his career.
Peckinpah, who was born to a ranching family that included judges and lawyers, was also deeply concerned by the conflict between "old-fashioned" values and the corruption and materialism of the modern world. Many of his characters are attempting to live up to their expectations of themselves even as the world they live in demands that they compromise their values.
This theme is most evident in Peckinpah's Westerns. Unlike most Western directors, Peckinpah tended to concentrate on the early 20th century rather than the 19th, and his films portray characters who still believe in the values of the Old West being swept away by the new, industrial America.
This persistent theme has led many critics to view Peckinpah's films as essentially tragic. That is, his characters are portrayed as being prisoners of their fates and their own failings who nonetheless seek redemption and meaning in an absurd and violent world. The theme of longing for redemption, justification, and honor in a dishonorable existence permeates almost all of Peckinpah's work.
Peckinpah's influence on modern cinema is enormous and pervasive, perhaps greater than any of his contemporaries. However, this influence is also often shallow and purely aesthetic in nature, ignoring some of Peckinpah's greatest strengths in favor of pure imitation of his stylish approach to cinematic violence.
Peckinpah's greatest influence is upon the modern action film and the modern approach to action sequences. His signature combination of slow-motion, fast editing, and the deliberate distension of time has become the standard depiction of violence and action in post-Peckinpavian cinema. The approach to action in movies can be divided between before Peckinpah and after Peckinpah. While films before The Wild Bunch had used similar techniques, especially Bonnie and Clyde and Seven Samurai, Peckinpah was the first to use them as a distinct style rather than as specific set pieces. Directors such as Martin Scorsese have acknowledged Peckinpah's direct influence on their approach to film violence. John Woo derived his techniques extensively from Peckinpah, adding his own touch of choreography and action concepts. Additional filmmakers who have noted Peckinpah's influence have included Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, John Milius, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Mann, Takeshi Kitano and Park Chan-wook.
Peckinpah's themes have also been influential on other filmmakers and other Western films. Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven also take up Peckinpah's themes of the dangers of revenge, the nature of human violence, and men seeking to be honorable in dishonorable surroundings. The theme of the passing of the West into history and the destruction of the Western way of life by modern industrialism has also been explored by many post-Peckinpah Westerns.
In many ways, Peckinpah's greatest legacy lies in his aggressive breaking of taboos. He allowed a new freedom to emerge in cinema, not only in the depiction of violence, but also in editing styles, narrative choices, and the willingness to portray unsympathetic or tragic characters and stories. His notorious reputation has often overshadowed the depth of his influence on modern film.