Bad boy Peckinpah and his innovative, bloody movies

February 21, 1925

On this day, the poster boy for revisionist Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, was actually born in the west – Fresno, California, descended from pioneer ranchers and loggers. 

Of the 15 movies Peckinpah directed, wrote or produced, the majority dealt with Western culture. The gritty violence often overshadowed their cinematic innovation and his history of conflicts with cast and crew limited his professional opportunities. 

The mill on Peckinpah Mountain

The paternal side of the film maker’s family originated in northern Europe’s Frisian Islands.  Great-grandfather Rice Peckinpah arrived in central California by wagon train in the mid-1800s and established a sawmill, on what is now Peckinpah Mountain. 

On his mother’s side, the Churches were young Sam’s cowboy influence.  His grandfather, Superior Court Judge Denver S. Church, (right) served three terms in the U.S. House of Rep-resentatives.

The movie guy known in the industry as “Bloody Sam,” however, acquired a combative streak that fueled his films and permeated his personal life.  Often skipping school to work on his grandfather’s ranch, some observers speculated that rapid changes to the area’s rural lifestyle contributed to Peckilnpah’s violent vision of Western history.

Early photo of  Church’s ranch

At the tail end of WWII, barely old enough to enlist, Peckinpah joined the Marines  in 1943.  Never serving in battle, he spent his time in the military disarming and repatriating combatants but claimed he witnessed torture and murder and was not allowed to intervene.

Deeply affected by his time with the Marines in China, he nonetheless, applied to be discharged there in order to marry a local woman. His request was denied.

On returning after the service, he enrolled at Fresno’s California State University and married his first wife, drama major Marie Selland.  It was his introduction to theatre.  Graduating in 1948, he spent two years as director-in-residence at Huntington Park, Civic Theatre before earning his masters degree.

Believing that television would lead to film, Peckinpah worked as a stage hand at a local TV station before getting expelled from the set of “The Liberace Show” for refusing to wear a tie.

Apparently TV did lead to film, sort of.  He was hired as a dialog coach for the film noir “Riot in Cell Block 11,” directed by Don Siegel. (Right) The skeptical warden at Folsom Prison liked Sam’s law-and-order grandfather, Judge Church.   It won the warden’s instant cooperation. 

The Siegel connection established Peckinpah as a script writer for some of the day’s top-rated television Westerns including “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Rifleman” and “Zane Grey Theatre.”  His small screen directorial debut with “The Westerner,” starred Brian Keith (above) as the nomadic Dave Blassingame.  It won critical acclaim but was cancelled after 13 episodes due to its lack of family hour content.

 A trio of movie missteps followed its cancellation.  “The Deadly Companions, “Ride the High Country,” and “Major Dundee” in 1961, 1962 and 1965 respectively, advanced his cause artistically in some cases but failed at the box office. 

“The Deadly Companions,  the 1961 low-budget film, included  Brian Keith from “The Westerner.”  Unfortunately, it was best remembered for Peckinpah’s squabbles with the film’s producer, Charles Fitzsimmons.  He also happened to be the brother of Maureen O’Hara, (above) the picture’s female lead.  The pair clashed endlessly over the screenplay as well as staging.    

Carlton Heston in “Major Dundee”

A legendary Peckinpah feud erupted during the filming of “Major Dundee.”  Star, Carlton Heston, threatened to run the director through with his character’s cavalry sword for mistreatment of cast members. Peckinpah and producer Jerry Bresler were never on speaking terms again. 

Filming “The Wild Bunch on the Texas, Mexico border.

Western cult classic, “The Wild Bunch” won Peckinpah international recognition.   The film’s locations along the Texas, Mexico border may have resulted from his brief marriage in 1965 to second wife, Mexican actress Begoña Palacios. (Left)   Four of Peckinpah’s movies from the late 60s and early 70s were shot in Mexico.

“The Wild Bunch,” now ranked number 80 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 best American films, earned Peckinpah an Academy Award  nomination for Best Original Screenplay  in 1969.  It was his single brush with the Academy.  And the Oscar went to – William Goldman (right) for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

But the filmmaker’s hard living, alcoholism and drug addiction caught up with him sooner rather than later.  Seriously ill for the last few years of his life, he died of heart failure December 28, 1984 at just 59.

Answering the critics who called his films too violent, Peckinpah insisted that examining violence exposed its futility. ”Killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple. It’s bloody and awful,” he told an interviewer. “And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere.”

Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and Nature Center, 10700 W. Escondido Canyon Road, Santa Clarita, California was the location for “The Westerner,”  and dozens movies and of other television shows including the TV series, Gunsmoke, Wild Wild West, Maverick, The Big Valley and High Chaparral. 

Vasquez Rocks Interpretive Center

Named for the notorious Romeo bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, who frequently used the area as a hideout, it is now a popular spot for hiking, picnicking and trail riding.  The park is open from sunrise to sunset.  Call for hours at the Interpretive Center   For more information go to wps/portal/dpr/Parks/Vasquez_Rocks_Natural_Area or call (661) 268-0840.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.