10/40/70 #18: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

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This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, dir. Sam Peckinpah)

Made after a string of critical and commercial successes that defined an era — including The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971) — Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was viewed by most as an unmitigated disaster. Up to this point, the scalding madness of Peckinpah’s films was balanced by in icy realism, a cold logic. But Bring Me the Head drives the car off the cliff. Consider that 1974 also saw the release of Chinatown, The Godfather: Part II, and The Conversation. Rejecting the cool restraint punctuated by intense violence that characterized these films, Bring Me the Head had more in common with another film released that year, Blazing Saddles, with its unsrestrained savaging of the very conventions that made Hollywood possible. Whereas Blazing Saddles was anarchist humor, Bring Me the Head was anarchist storytelling, with each scene spinning deeper and deeper into the void.


10 minutes:

Having tortured his daughter to learn the identity of the man who got her pregnant (Alfredo Garcia), the powerful El Jefe has sent his two weirdly brutal and dandy-ish killers Sappersly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) to bring back Garcia’s head for a one-million dollar reward. In Tlaquepaque, Sappersly and Quill happen into a bar owned by an American ex-patriot, Bennie (Warren Oates). In this frame, Bennie desperately hams it up: “Goodbye my brothers from Ohio! Goodbye my brothers from Illinois! Take your [wooden hearts out] and find the soul of Mexico. And bring back money! Spend money all over!” Bennie stands pounding at the piano keys like a shadowed version of Jerry Lee Lewis. In the bar are a mix of men who look like they’re still dressed for the Watergate hearings. A cowboy smokes in frame left, but even he’s wearing a starched shirt.

This is the mad genius of Peckinpah, and of Bring Me the Head especially. There’s a strangeness to his shots. He makes the familiar unfamiliar. At the ten-minute frame, Bennie wears sunglasses inside. He chews his lines like tobacco. The place is a bar, but more than that it’s Peckinpah’s idea of a bar. It’s contrived, but the signposts of reality are there. You can imagine Peckinpah screaming “Action!” and suddenly everybody laughing and drinking and smoking and then after the shot’s complete continuing to laugh and drink and smoke. Reality doesn’t spill into this frame, but out of it. And sadness, too. Sadness spills out of the frame, though it’s hard to say why. It’s more of a feeling. A feeling of sadness, maybe, that comes from the rusted foam aftermath of the war in Vietnam. All these men in Mexico, all these American men. They have fled the meat grinder of the war machine, a machine which has poisoned the land to the north. Everything about them is over-exaggerated. Some are OverMacho. Some are OverFormal. Watching this film now, you see what a tragedy the Seventies were for men. The war made them villains, not heroes. It made them cripples and drug addicts and venereal-diseased psychotics. “After its years of storm,” the poet Robert Bly has said, “the war ended in 1975. The war had eroded the confidence of men in each other, especially the confidence of younger men in older men, and it emphasized how estranged from nature the entire nation was.”


40 minutes:

Bennie is on the hunt for Garcia, who, he discovers, was killed in an accident. He learns this from Elita (Isela Vega) a prostitute and Bennie’s lover (she also was a lover to Garcia). Bennie does not tell Elita that he wants to find Garcia’s grave so he can dig up his body and decapitate him for a reward, just that he wants to find the grave to prove to himself that Garcia is dead, and no longer a threat to their relationship.

The car, in its glorious red. The dusty road. The field and then the stand of pine trees on the horizon. The car has a flat, and Bennie comes around the side in a hurry. There’s always something stopping him from getting to that head. “Let’s not sleep in the city tonight,” Elita says at this moment. In another dimension, just behind this one, we are watching The Passenger (1975), and Bennie is really David Locke (Jack Nicholson) and Elita is really the Girl (Maria Schneider). Both are existentialist road movies. Bennie always in his blazer despite the heat, a mild formality that grounds him despite the enormous awfulness of his deeds. The car itself is a mystery, a red glint from Hell, prowling through the countryside and villages of Mexico.


70 minutes:

A moment so grievous. At the grave of Alfredo Garcia. Bennie and Elita have been attacked by someone unknown, and buried. Bennie’s hand emerges from the black earth, then his arm. Born again. He crawls out of the earth, grave dirt in his mouth and stuck to his teeth. He desperately unburies Elita, pawing through the loose earth for her. He loves her, but she is a corpse. The scene is heartbreaking and lurid. Bennie showers Elita with more physical affection when she’s dead than when she was alive. For five minutes or so, the films veers into Edgar Allan Poe territory, with its buried-alive bodies and dug-up corpses. Bennie is a dead man already.

The Doomed Survive. Bennie has survived, but to what end? To love a dead woman? To be sprayed dead by bullets during the movie’s final seconds? There’s a lot that could be said at this moment about how women are portrayed in this film. The whore with the heart of gold, etc. But Peckinpah’s view of disabled humanity knows no gender. See how long Peckinpah holds a shot, a scene? The scene of Bennie comforting the corpse of Elita is excruciatingly long. He weeps and simpers into her hair, stroking her face. Peckinpah holds the scene, makes us watch. Here is where Bennie begins talking to dead people. Here is where the movie jumps its tracks into a head-on collision that lasts a good half-hour. “Maybe you want to stay here,” Bennie says to Elita’s corpse, “IN THE GRAVE WITH HIM! GodDAMMIT! STAY with him! Go ahead STAY with him!” He shoves her half-buried body around roughly, and then embraces it again, whimpering into her hair. From here out the movie will mostly be a monologue: Bennie talking, often in incoherent half-sentences, to Alfredo Garcia’s rancid head in a sack next to him on the passenger seat of his car.

It’s not just Bennie who goes AWOL around the 70-minute mark, it’s conventional storytelling itself. For all we know, Bennie really lies dying back there with Elita, and the rest of the movie is some death-throes fantasy. Because after the graveyard scene, once Bennie acquires the head, he hardly acts like a human being at all. His lines are jumbled, indecipherable, as jagged and electrocutionary as the editing itself. He wields his gun like a prosthetic, shooting holes in all the poor bastards he hates, and in all the expectations we might have for him as a character. There’s no poetry to the death that permeates the last half-hour of the movie, no somber grace over it like there would be a few years later in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle achieved the status of mythic anti-hero. Peckinpah is not interested in creating myth but destroying it. The world, the film seems to suggest, needs less to believe in, not more.

Bennie is already a dead man, his soul killed long before the graveyard scene. He died somewhere in America.

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Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →