Maverick Of The Movies

Sam Peckinpah tribute bolstered by a fellow independent, Kris Kristofferson

Film

July 25, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Singer-songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, with a voice as expressively craggy as his face, is a bull's-eye choice to narrate Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (premiering tonight at 8 on cable's Westerns channel).

Of course, he starred in two mad Peckinpah epics -- as Billy the Kid in the funereal Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and as independent trucker Rubber Duck in the exuberant Convoy (1978). But Kristofferson also penned songs that became anthems for every American artistic maverick fighting herd mentality and commercialism and questioning the native mania for wholesome, mainstream success. When John Huston went looking for music to express the gritty melancholy of small-time boxers in Fat City, he hit on Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

In a recent phone interview, Kristofferson said that what propelled Peckinpah to meet him was his song "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," the one that goes, "On the Sunday morning sidewalks / Wishing Lord that I was stoned / 'Cause there is something in a Sunday / That makes a body feel alone."

Peckinpah was the most extravagantly gifted filmmaker of his time, and perhaps all time. His movies burst with a wounded lyricism akin to the Kristofferson who wrote "And there's nothin' short of dyin' / Half as lonesome as the sound / On the sleepin' city side walks / Sunday mornin' comin' down."

Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (directed by Tom Thurman; written by Tom Marksbury) overflows with hard-knocks poetry thanks largely to the clips, but also to an eclectic interview roster of Peckinpah friends, colleagues and devotees. Artists who toiled joyfully and painfully for Peckinpah, such as film editor Garth Craven and actors Harry Dean Stanton, Stella Stevens and L.Q. Jones (and in archive footage, James Coburn), testify to his creativity and self-destruction. Peckinpah's keenest critic, Paul Seydor (author of Peckinpah: The Western Films), and sturdiest biographer, David Weddle (author of If They Move ... Kill 'Em), provide clear-eyed assessments of masterpieces like The Wild Bunch (1969) and unique, gritty pastorales like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), with Jason Robards, and Junior Bonner (1972), with Steve McQueen.

The happiest surprise is that actors who never met the man offer fresh appreciation of his bone-deep lyricism. There's something hammy but also pungent and real about Michael Madsen's struggle to understand the signature line from Ride the High Country (1962), "All I want is to enter my house justified" -- a ringing ethical statement about toting up failings and virtues in the face of death. Billy Bob Thornton speaks the plain truth when he says that Peckinpah, who was born and bred in California, could have hailed from Texas or Arkansas because his voice comes straight from the heart of (non-media) America. And Benicio Del Toro furrows his brow eloquently as he savors the coup of Kristofferson breaking into song during his break from the Lincoln jail in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

"That was one of the toughest things I ever had to do," Kristofferson reminisces over the phone, "singing while I'm pulling together my gear and leaving the jail and walking to the old Mexican fella who is holding my horse. But that was Peckinpah; he wanted that in."

Immediate affinity

Before Kristofferson met his director, he had seen Peckinpah's thriller Straw Dogs (1971) -- "it was powerful" -- and "the two that are maybe his best," The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country.

"When I first walked into his office at MGM, he had a big wooden door propped up against the wall and he was throwing knives at it. But I think we had a bond from the time we met. I had worked as a laborer on the construction of a logging road up near Peckinpah Mountain" -- a peak Sam's grandfather had claimed in the High Sierras, in the 1870s.

A veteran Peckinpah stunt man used to say, "Sam likes turmoil," and by the time Kristofferson got to perform for him, "He was always in some sort of battle, usually with studios and producers."

Kristofferson felt such an immediate affinity for Peckinpah that when producer Gordon Carroll approached Bob Dylan, Kristofferson encouraged his friend to join the Pat Garrett company. "I loved Bob Dylan as much as I did Sam. And Bob had just screened The Wild Bunch and was excited but also kind of scared. Bob had been in documentaries, never in a dramatic movie. " Dylan quickly composed a theme for the Kid (with the line, "Billy, they don't like you to be so free") -- it sold Peckinpah on his participation -- and threw himself into shooting in Durango, Mexico. "I don't think he'd done a lot of horseback riding, but he rode so much his legs were bleeding."

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