Passion and Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah


My personal favourite documentary feature of the decade has hit DVD and the problem for any critic lies in finding something to write which doesn't simply repeat the exhaustive contents of the film. This is the definitive documentary about Sam Peckinpah to date and it's unlikely that anything with the same range of sources and material will be put together again. Consequently, my review of the film will be short and to the point.

Simply put, this is a masterpiece but it's worth explaining clearly why it is so good. Although it is an 'authored' documentary which has the stamp of Mike Siegel - one of the great Peckinpah cheerleaders - all over it, it's respectful and focused about its subject. Mr Siegel does not feel the need to keep appearing to remind us of what we're watching, nor does he take us on some kind of personal voyage of discovery. He keeps the focus on Peckinpah, taking us from Sam's childhood in Fresno through his TV work, onto his movies and into his personal valley of hell. The interviewees - including Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, L. Q. Jones, Kris Kristofferson, R. G. Armstrong and David Warner - are well chosen and they are allowed to talk clearly and in depth. There are no distracting camera tricks or curveball questions to negotiate. The overall effect is simple and highly effective. At a time when many documentaries have become subjective labyrinths in which authorial comment becomes intertwined with fact and begins to obfuscate the issues being raised, it's refreshing to see one which is content to simply inform and entertain. What comes across quite overwhelmingly is how Sam affected everyone he touched and how many people, despite some pretty bad experiences with the man, clearly miss him like mad.

The documentary took many years to make - some rare footage of Sam on the set on his Julian Lennon music videos goes back to 1984 - and although it was finished in 2005, it's taken a long time to appear on DVD, mostly because Mike Siegel does a large proportion of the work himself. The love and care that has gone into it is evident in every moment and it's will prove impossible for any Peckinpah fan - or lover of American cinema in general - to just watch it once.

I feel that I should add some words of my own about Sam Peckinpah, a filmmaker who is so genuinely pivotal to my own sense of cinema. My detailed thoughts on his films can be found in the reviews which are linked to on the left hand side of the page. It's traditional to see his career as a relatively short rise to the top followed by a slow but inexorable decline into the world of music videos. Clearly, this is a very simplistic view but in general terms it's hard to argue with. Although Sam was thirty before he found success in television, his move into motion pictures was rapid and within fifteen years he was as much of a household name as any film director can be. However, it's important to point out that the warning signs were there right from the start of his career in movies with the disastrous production of The Deadly Companions and the fights with producers on Major Dundee and during his brief tenure on The Cincinatti Kid. Sam was certainly treated badly by these producers but he also very consciously played the bad boy, as if wanting to be slapped down in order to confirm his own feelings of self-pitying rejection. In other words, his reputation for being impossible to handle started early and during the seventies when the booze and drugs kicked in - and made him genuinely impossible for much of the day - the results should have surprised nobody.

In other words, it seems to me that Sam was a walking, talking self-fulfilling prophecy whose behaviour adjusted according to how little was expected of him. If the studio expected him to be a drunken bastard, he was happy to oblige. On the other hand, when left alone and allowed to get on with the job - as he was on Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia for example - his behaviour seems to have been relatively calm. Self-hatred was also an obvious part of it, resulting in him trying to confirm his worst perceptions about himself, and the attempts to find oblivion in drink or coke may have helped dull his negative self-awareness. It was typical of his contradictory attitude in the late 1970s that having actively sought a project and been given the helm of Convoy by EMI, he got so coked up that he couldn't physically or mentally function for more than a couple of hours a day. Yet even when he was at his worst, on that project, he still managed some wonderful moments; the fight in the diner where the trademark Peckinpah blood is nothing more than ketchup and the intoxicatingly beautiful scenes of the trucks moving through desert landscape. He was a born moviemaker and his talent transcended the drink, the drugs and the confused macho bullshit which led him to hate and love women at the same time. To borrow a phrase from Clive James, who was writing about Elvis Presley, Peckinpah's sixth sense - filmmaking - was still there even when all the other five senses were defective.

The Disc

The DVD of this documentary is available from El Dorado productions - details are here. Picture quality is generally very good although this varies depending on the quality of the source material. The recent video looks excellent, the older video is highly variable and some of the film trailer footage has seen better days. The soundtrack in Dolby 2.0 is absolutely fine throughout.

The first disc in this package contains the film accompanied by an honest and amusing audio commentary from Mike Siegel, during which he discusses the long process of making the film, and the second disc features copious extra materials. There are three collections of "Stories On A Storyteller" which total about ninety minutes and contain extra interview footage with the documentary's participants. It's like an extra movie in itself and if you like the main feature, you'll like this too. It's just wonderful to hear more from these people and spend more time in their company. As with the main documentary, the interviews are accompanied by an exceptional collection of stills.

There are also a selection of shorter featurettes about Peckinpah's movies. "Mapache Territory" is a visit with Mike Siegel to the locations of The Wild Bunch. "Ernie On The Wild Bunch" is a delightful bit of anecdotage from Ernest Borgnine. Finally, "Mike's Home Movies" contains all manner of Peckinpah related bits from the years between 2000 and 2006 when Siegel was trying to get a coherent film out of 30 hours of footage.

The discs are attractively presented in a case decorated with original artwork by Christiane Kohne and are accompanied by a booklet which has some lovely photos but is in German and thus inaccessible to people such as myself who didn't pay attention during their language lessons at school.

This is a wonderful, touching and funny documentary presented on an equally impressive DVD which is certainly one of the essential purchases of the year.

  • Film
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
Audio Commentary, Stories On A Storyteller, Featurettes
English Dolby Digital 2.0

A great documentary and a great region-free DVD. A dead-cert for every movie-lover's Christmas list, although be aware that at the moment it's only available as an import from Germany.


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