Peckinpah, rape, and female characterization.
The American film director Samuel Peckinpah rarely developed his female characters beyond the superficial, a shortcoming that has been acknowledged by his fans as well as his detractors. This deficiency was attributable in part to the action-based genres in which he toiled. Peckinpah made his name as director of genre vehicles like Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), and The Wild Bunch (1969), which were as notable for their codes of machismo as for their increasingly influential stylization of violence. But the thinness of characterization that marks the women in his films was also attributable to Peckinpah the individual. He seldom made an effort to place female characters in the middle of his energetic plots. As a consequence, women seldom figured into the action central to his narratives--and even a mid-career film like The Getaivay (1972), which does embroil a woman (Ali MacGraw) in that kind of violent action, fails to develop her character into a forceful, self-empowered person. It is as if Peckinpah, a pre-feminist artist at work at a decidedly feminist moment in history, could not imagine a female character that truly embodied his masculine code.
That said, Peckinpah's female characters do figure prominently in one of the most crucial narrative actions across his work: heterosexual rape. Though Peckinpah's women are the target of this violence, not its author, their reactions to it round out their characters and push their narratives forward, such that female characters who are threatened with rape offer some of Peckinpah's most convincing illusions of personhood. Here I would point to Elsa (Mariette Hartley) of Ride the High Country (1962), Amy (Susan George) of Straw Dogs (1971), and Elita (Isela Vega) of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974; hereafter Alfredo Garcia). That Peckinpah used sex-based violence to bring out illusions of depth in these characters is not likely to win him feminist admirers--especially if we consider that one component of this violence was its implication that women can change their minds about an assailant during or after their sexual coercion, lending credence to the feminist complaint that he saw women as "sex objects who enjoy nothing better than a good rape" (Weddle 400). But this was a distortion. Peckinpah may have earned his place in the "feminist hall of infamy" due to his outrageous statements and his lapses into violence (Weddle 400), but he did not believe that women enjoyed rape. (1) Rather, Peckinpah saw heterosexual rape--or, at least, the threat of it--as a fact of male-female relations, just as he saw aggression, conflict, violence, and combat as facts of human relations generally. Hence, Peckinpah came to depict the female response to the threat of rape as a source of narrative and psychological richness. The irony is that, in teaching himself how to develop female character through this type of representation, he slowly moved toward a heroine who embodied his masculine code.
Here I should point out the obvious: rape is hardly the same sort of violence as the shoot-'em-up variety through which Peckinpah's male characters strove to prove their masculinity or enter their "house justified," to quote Steve Judd, the quietly religious and vocally righteous "code hero" of Ride the High Country. (2) At the intellectual level, Peckinpah was certain that violence was organic to human life. But as a storyteller, he was interested in violence in two other ways. First, he was intrigued by the redemptive power of violence, that is, its capacity to freeze an individual in a moment of noble sacrifice. He was also interested in its dirtying power, its capacity to immerse all that touch it in blood, trauma, and existential mire. Unlike the moments of violent self-sacrifice that close so many of his films, rape violence in Peckinpah is often dirty, because it is unfair and because it must be lived with after the fact. As a rule, the threat of rape puts two physically unequal combatants at odds, a kind of unfairness that was as apparent in Peckinpah's first film, The Deadly Companions (1961), as it was in a mid-career film such as The Getaway--and the aftermath of rape is a crushing trauma and a hurtful ambiguity that rips otherwise happy couples apart, destroying their relationships. By exposing these intricacies, Peckinpah developed a flexible psychological device that he could use to deepen female character even as he pushed his narratives forward. The director's use of this violence reached the point that characters threatened with rape achieved some of the redemption available to his male heroes, like Judd in Ride the High Country and Pike Bishop (William Holden) in The Wild Bunch.
PECKINPAH AS THINKER, TRICKSTER, AND SELF-DESTROYER
Very few examinations of Peckinpah's cinema have been neutral, holistic, and precise. Feminist film critics, for example, have often taken umbrage to Peckinpah's extrafilmic statements. This has given them room to discredit his cinema, which they have presented as the manifestation of a misogynistic perspective (e.g., Mellen 302305). (3) It has also led them to exaggerate in some absurd ways, as when Joan Mellen claimed that a society in which "the rape of a woman by a man [was] unthinkable" was a society that Peckinpah would have found "repellent" (9). Other critics have treated Peckinpah's achievement with greater nuance, but in doing so they have often glossed his idiosyncrasies and his character issues. But as biographers David Weddle and Marshall Fine have verified, Peckinpah was an unrepentant alcoholic and drug abuser whose addictions led him to fight with his friends, lovers, and children, just as he fought more famously with a series of studio executives. (Indeed, Fine has reported that when actor-friend Jason Robards left a tribute after Peckinpah's death, he and another mourner noticed a hawk in the sky. "If he shits on us," Robards' companion said, "we'll know it's Sam" [qtd. in Fine 385].) What is also apparent is that his trickster tendency--a tendency that was most striking in his interviews, where he often misled interviewers through his carefully constructed, highly marketable bad-boy persona--could be inflamed in self-destructive ways by his drinking. Missing from the literature, then, is the objective, encompassing analysis that sees the man and his films as interrelated phenomena.
To get a sense of what can be lost if we ignore or sugarcoat one side or the other of this equation, we should look at the many directorial statements that surrounded Straw Dogs. This movie was released at the height of Peckinpah's fame. The director made two principal types of statement about Straw Dogs that tended to distort or undercut the film's reputation and legacy. The first type of statement was mainly intellectual and was related to Peckinpah's fascination with the writings of Robert Ardrey, a popular anthropologist whose biological speculations resonate today with those of evolutionary psychology. The second, more inflammatory type of statement involved Peckinpah's macho posturing in all matters related to sex and gender. These two types of statement are front-and-center in Peckinpah's 1972 Playboy interview with William Murray.
The author of books like African Genesis (1961) and The Territorial Imperative (1966), Ardrey explained human behavior, its forays into violence in particular, in terms of its evolutionary past. Drawing on anthropology, biology, and personal observation, Ardrey claimed in The Territorial Imperative that the principal factor in animal evolution was territory. Territoriality "evolved in many organisms as a kind of defense mechanism, as nature's most effective answer to a variety of problems of survival" (Ardrey 7). Though Ardrey's thinking, especially his "killer ape" theory, was controversial--and in fact represented a diluted version of ideas present in the evolutionary science of the day--Ardrey was no crank. He was instead a public intellectual whose views popularized the group-selectionist philosophy then epitomized in the scientific community by V.C. Wynne-Edwards. These views fell into disfavor after George Williams published Adaptation and Natural Selection in 1966, but they were still serious ideas that had many adherents in biology at the time (Sober and Wilson 35-38).
Wynne-Edwards argued that many social behaviors such as territorial defense and aggression had evolved so that animals could assess population size and adjust their reproduction to regulate that population size around a sustainable level. Such traits are adaptations at the level of the group and must therefore have evolved due to group selection--selection among groups based on a trait that confers differential group-level fitness (e.g., resistance to extinction). Wynne-Edwards thought that if group selection and individual selection were operating simultaneously and in opposition, then group selection would win out because otherwise the whole species would go extinct. He thus assumed that most adaptations evolve for the good of the group or species. In Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams contended that biologists should not invoke adaptation at any level without evidence that selection is acting at that level. Williams argued that, in most cases, individual selection is a simpler explanation for the evolution of a trait, and we should thus understand most adaptations as adaptations at the level of the individual. Also, evolutionary fitness is related to the rate of "turnover" (birth and death) of the units under selection, and since turnover of individuals occurs at a higher rate than turnover of groups or populations, he posited that individual selection would be a more powerful driver of adaptive evolution than group selection. In time, these ideas prevailed over the ideas of Wynne-Edwards, whose thinking has since passed into the mists of scientific history. But this is not to suggest that he was a crank, or that those influenced by him, like Ardrey--and, down the line, Peckinpah--were cranks.
This broader scientific context does not come across clearly in the film-studies literature, where Peckinpah's interest in Ardrey, as inherited from Wynne-Edwards, has never been viewed with understanding (e.g., Cooper 52-53, Seydor 346). Even the film critic Stephen Prince, who has carefully disentangled Peckinpah's films from his ideas about Ardrey, considers Peckinpah's fascination with Ardrey crude (Prince 104-106). For Prince, Ardrey was a reactionary influence who mainly helped Peckinpah justify his own worst impulses. It did not help, of course, that Ardrey's theories, with their emphasis on property, territory, and aggression, were circulating in the context of the Vietnam-era and the New Left, when pacifism and Marxist ideals were the stock-in-trade of liberal academics. In particular, Peckinpah's endorsement of Ardrey suggested that the figure of David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) in Straw Dogs released his animal side to protect his property and "become" a man, an idea that was in line with the feminist notion of Peckinpah as a brute and a sexist. But this interpretation not only simplified the film, it simplified Peckinpah--for the director, though prone to violence himself, was a man of liberal politics who despised Richard Nixon and supported civil rights. (And to be fair, this reading distorted Ardrey--and to an extent, it reflected the anti-scientific bias still typical of the humanities today.) In this complex fashion, Ardrey, one of Peckinpah's principal intellectual influences, had an indirectly "disastrous impact" on the reading and the reputation of Peckinpah's finest drama (Prince 104).
But this kind of self-invited confusion should not be mixed up with the kind that emerged from Peckinpah's trickster tendencies, which were inflamed by his drinking. No statements would affect Peckinpah more adversely than the generalizations about women for which the Playboy interview has been justly reviled. For Prince, Peckinpah acted "the bad boy" through such statements "by taunting his gallery of self-perceived feminist and liberal critics" (126). This tendency was predicted when Murray, the Playboy interviewer, introduced Peckinpah as a hard-drinking man who fed interviewers "what he thinks they want to hear" (Murray 98). Peckinpah proved this point by glibly calling himself a "whore" who went where he was "kicked" (Murray 101). But even amid this sexist, self-glorifying self-deprecation, Peckinpah was able to correct Murray's idea of the film, which reflected its negative image in the press:
I don't know what movie you saw. There's a point in the middle of the siege when David almost throws up, he's so sick, and he says, "Go ahead, pull the trigger." He's sick of it, sick of himself, sick of the violence he recognizes in himself. I can't believe anyone can miss this in the movie.
For Peckinpah, violence was natural to the human condition, but it was not something to be valorized or celebrated; it simply was. Moreover, his protagonist's way of dealing with the killer inside him was so twisted that it made matters worse than was necessary. At first glance, this line of inquiry in the interview looks designed to put Amy, David's wife, in a good light--for as Peckinpah noted, the violence of Straw Dogs was mainly David's fault, for David had needlessly tested Amy. But at that point in the interview, Peckinpah reverted to what Murray considered the trickster interviewee, someone who was practiced at eluding even the friendliest interlocutor:
Well, there are two kinds of women. There are women and then there's pussy. A woman is a partner. If you can go a certain distance by yourself, a good woman will triple it ... .Amy is pussy under the veneer of being a woman. Maybe because of what happens to her, she will eventually become a woman. (Murray 104; Peckinpah's emphasis)
In the conversation that followed, Peckinpah made other outrageous statements; e.g., he suggested that Amy asked to be raped and professed his ignorance of "women's lib," notions that were manifestly untrue. Peckinpah's antics with Murray, then, amounted to calculated provocations meant to belie the character of Amy as played by George in line with feminist preconceptions of his work. Indeed, Peckinpah's famous back-and-forth with Pauline Kael, who--to the director's manifest consternation--had called Straw Dogs a "fascist work of art" in her New Yorker review, demonstrated Peckinpah's awareness of the criticism of his work, and perhaps indicated some of the regret that he felt at having led reviewers astray (see Fine 210-211). But as Prince has shown, Amy is both the most sympathetic and the most traumatized figure in the film (73-87). The way in which the director used flashcuts and subjective montage to build sympathy for Amy's trauma is, as Prince points out, one of the most indelible and technically complex aspects of the film. Indeed, in his sober, reflective moments, Peckinpah admitted as much, as when he noted in a memo to producer Daniel Melnick that Amy's trauma and "emotional havoc" was "the basis of our story" (qtd. in Fine 201).
Peckinpah was a man with consistent ideas about violence, as his interest in Ardrey indicates. These ideas--and their link to his films--should be distinguished from his trickster tendencies, which were only inflamed by his alcoholic self-destructiveness. As Peckinpah saw it, violence was rooted in humanity's ancestral past and reverberated in male-female relations. For him, even the act of sexual penetration was complicated by the fact that it could only begin with an act of "physical aggression, no matter how much love it eventually expresse[d]" (Murray 106). Though Peckinpah was a man of left-wing convictions, he never let liberalism color his treatment of violence, which he refused to handle in a progressive way that might imply that physical conflict was something other than ingrained and inescapable. If Peckinpah had one moral failing, then, it was fatalism: i.e., the sense that humanity could not correct or even moderate its own worst impulses as handed down from its ancestral past. It is for this reason that his movement toward an idiosyncratic code heroine was neither direct nor efficient. Peckinpah did not want a character that exuded false optimism toward sex or violence. Rather, he took an indirect, incremental route that ran through rape. This development--and the kind of narrative events he used to flesh out crucial female characters--has been misunderstood for all the reasons noted above. On one hand, he was liable to say unreliable things, a tendency that was inflamed by his bad-boy persona and especially obfuscating in matters of sex. On the other, Peckinpah's anthropological beliefs suited neither his historical time period nor the field of film studies, where his views have always been misread.
It is with these assumptions that I turn to Peckinpah's use of heterosexual rape as a mode of characterization. My intention is neither to celebrate nor to demonize this use of rape. I want to position it instead as an organic aspect of the director's cinema. Clearly, it is an idiosyncratic and potentially offensive mode of characterization. It is an upsetting way of depicting women that depends on squalid milieus, themes of debasement, and a lack of certainty over how to portray femininity in action-oriented stories. At the same time, this type of characterization helped Peckinpah develop his female characters and move his plots forward. And it evolved with use. Hence, in his later films, he managed to combine rape violence with other kinds of violence, such that his female characters at times forge a kind of heroism from rape experience--a development that would have been unthinkable to the director of Ride the High Country. By the end of his career, the director had learned to use this type of characterization to enhance the illusions of even marginal figures, like the female Russian soldiers who cleverly, and with their director's sympathy, resist their German captors in Cross of Iron (1977). He had also learned to combine rape with narrative ambiguity in several intriguing ways.
BAD CHOICES IN THE OLD WEST: RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY
The trio of Peckinpah films analyzed in the next three sections share a common narrative thread in which a woman threatened with rape changes her mind, or appears to change her mind, about one of her assailants during or after an attack. Though each film uses this change to expose and develop aspects of female character, the variations in each use of these events make it helpful to examine the films individually. Peckinpah's first use of such events came in the celebrated western Ride the High Country, starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea as old-timers bent on "one last ride."
In Ride the High Country, Steve Judd (McCrea) convinces his one-time friend Gil Westrum (Scott) to partner with him as he guards a shipment of gold from a high-country mining camp to a bank below. As part of their deal, Westrum persuades Judd to let him bring along his young partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to ensure that the aging gun-slingers have youth on their side. Unbeknownst to Judd, Westrum and Longtree hope that Judd will agree to let them take the gold for themselves, for its value is reputed to be much higher than it actually is. But whereas Westrum is dreaming of a big score to set up his retirement, Judd just wants to fade into obscurity as a morally decent, hardworking person. This is the conflict on which the movie is founded.
That said, a second conflict that mirrors the first arises almost as soon as the trio sets out. In this subplot, Longtree begins wooing Elsa Knudsen, the naive daughter of a fervently religious farmer (R.G. Armstrong), Joshua Knudsen, during a stop on the way to the mining camp. Elsa is determined to escape her "over-protective" father, who beats her in one scene and who, it is implied, abused her dead mother as well. Elsa pursues the trio on horseback after they leave, hoping they will guide her to the camp, where she is engaged to a miner, Billy Hammond (James Drury). Although Judd is unhappy about it, the trio agrees to deliver Elsa to the camp, in a sense making her character a metaphor for the precious cargo they are meant to protect on the way back.
Elsa is threatened with rape in two separate sequences. The first comes during a stop on the way to the camp, Coarse Gold, and happens at the hands of Longtree, who is hoping Elsa will change her mind about her fiance in the camp. An unscrupulous youth, Longtree gives Elsa--who has been warned that "the likes of him don't stop at talking"--a rough kiss. When she pulls away, he forces her to the ground and does not release her until he is dragged away by Judd. Longtree's treatment of Elsa mirrors the way that he and Westrum intend to treat the gold they are supposed to protect. Though it is not clear whether Longtree would have carried through on his implicit threat and actually raped Elsa, his abusive treatment of her indicates that he is immature, unethical, and sexually coercive--a combination that, in the lawless areas they traverse, demonstrates to Elsa that she is not as safe in his company as she first thought.
But everything is relative, the script seems to say. When Longtree delivers Elsa to the camp, he and Elsa discover that her fiance, Billy, has four rough-looking brothers, all of whom assume that Billy will "share" her with them. Longtree, who is resentful of his treatment by Elsa but jealous of Billy, reluctantly lets Elsa go when he sees that he is outnumbered by the motley brethren. Billy soon begins to subject Elsa to the same kind of treatment that Longtree had used on her--with the added threat of the hard-drinking brothers worrying her. At first, Elsa pushes Billy away on the pretext of waiting for the wedding, but it is clear that at that point she will be in danger of gang-rape. Thus, her anxiety is luminous in the wedding sequences. Once the comically drunken ceremony in Kate's Place, a bordello, is complete, the Hammond brothers try to rape her, beginning with Billy. The intensity of her situation is rendered beautifully through Lucien Ballard's cinematography, which stresses her fear, her helplessness--and the death of her naivete. At the last moment, Longtree, Judd, and Westrum intervene, rescuing her with their guns and a legal deception. They ride off with Elsa the next day.
Intent on recapturing Billy's new bride, the brothers pursue the four companions, who by that point have possession of the gold as well. Realizing Judd will never go along with their robbery plan, Westrum and Longtree impatiently try to take the gold--but like Longtree's earlier attempt to steal Elsa's affection, the maneuver is foiled. Judd, stung by their betrayal, handcuffs both Westrum and Longtree, promising to prosecute them once they get back. The final segment is a series of shootouts in which Longtree and then Westrum redeem themselves by helping Judd eliminate the brothers. While Longtree is protecting Elsa from Billy and his brothers, Elsa indicates that she is worried about him. Like Westrum's moral rise in the eyes of the dying Judd at the conclusion of the movie--Westrum's final promise to Judd is that he will deliver the gold "like you would have"--Longtree's maturity by the end of the film changes Elsa's mind about him. And she has been changed by her experiences, too. Longtree may not be the man Elsa once dreamt of, but she is now experienced enough to understand her alternatives.
RAPE TRAUMA: STRAW DOGS
An angular, tension-filled psychodrama, Straw Dogs is a different kind of film--one that is animated by a visual cruelty and an emotional rawness that were made possible by the industrial changes that allowed increasingly adult themes and images into the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Set in modern Cornwall, Straw Dogs is about David Sumner, an American mathematician played by Dustin Hoffman who travels to his wife's English hometown to pursue his research away from the civil strife that dominated American campuses in the late 1960s. The couple is at odds from the start. Amy wants David's attention and his help around the house. David wants Amy to leave him to his work, work that she resents and childishly sabotages. There is also trouble with the locals, some of whom remember Amy from childhood. A group of the men, led by Charlie Venner (Del Henney), an old boyfriend of Amy's, are working on a roof at the home where they are staying. The workmen are drawn into conflict with David, who strikes them as an aloof, intellectual outsider who throws his money around rather than pleasing or protecting his beautiful young wife. No one in this film is fully sympathetic.
After finding their cat strangled, Amy urges David to confront the workmen, who she thinks are trying to intimidate him. He resists, partly because he shies from conflict--and partly because taking her advice would entail behaving in a possessive, proprietary way, which he considers uncivilized. David is instead polite to the men, who are thus able to trick him into going on a phony snipe hunt long enough for two of them to rape Amy. The rape sequence that is intercut with David's frustration during the hunt is complex and took a week to shoot, according to Weddle (419-424). It begins an hour into the two-hour film when Charlie arrives at the Sumner residence. Amy lets him in so that she can ask about the cat, but he forces himself on her instead. With the era's stress on explicitness, Peckinpah was able to blend nudity with the realistic violence--slaps, punches, and even head-dragging--that is always hard to watch. Through it all, the director's camera set-ups stress Amy's emotions as shown in her face, a tactic that was, according to the actress, crucial to the story (Weddle; see also Fine 191-214). George was initially afraid to shoot the scene, because Peckinpah purposely terrorized her so as to elicit a better performance. This tactic almost backfired when George threatened to back out of the scene--until the director promised to focus on her face and on her emotions. As a result, in this segment, Amy is given the film's most potent point-of-view shots.
The story was politically incorrect even for the times. In raping Amy, Charlie is intermittently rough and tender. After he penetrates her, Amy gradually responds to his tenderness and seems to change her mind about the act itself, thus qualifying this portion of the sequence as semi-consensual. (4) But once he finishes, the circumstances change. At that point, Charlie sees another man, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), enter the room with a shotgun leveled at his face. Scutt signals to Charlie to hold Amy down on her stomach. Charlie does not want to betray Amy (at least no more than he already has), but he caves to the pressure and turns on her, holding her as Scutt penetrates her from the rear. Once again, the camera focuses on Amy's face, registering her shock and pain--as well as her new betrayal by Charlie. Even before the two rapes, Amy was Peckinpah's most complex female character. Though not always likable, she was credibly imagined, and George's technical performance is notable for its nuanced emotion as conveyed through facial tics, silent gazes, and intense bodily expressiveness. But post-rape, Amy's psychology and George's performance gain a new depth rooted in trauma.
Amy's war with her husband climaxes on his return. Amy does not report what happened to her, which is a patently realistic detail. Resentful and in shock, she instead labels David a "coward," an opinion shared by Peckinpah. Amy is experiencing post-traumatic stress, with flashbacks that merge images of her husband with those of her rapists. When the couple later attend a church social also attended by her rapists, her trauma deepens further, until her anxiety amid the noisy children and drunken villagers is hard to watch. Amy is confused and exhausted, and her love for her husband, whom she considers culpable, is all but gone. And her feelings for one of her attackers, Charlie, are unclear. These ambiguities become the more confusing to her and the audience amid the siege of the Sumner residence that takes up the final segment.
During this siege, a group of intoxicated villagers that includes Amy's two rapists is bent on taking custody of a child molester, Henry Niles (David Warner), whom David has offered refuge. David finally decides to take a stand and protect his "territory" against the men, with an unspoken battle for Amy's loyalties providing the subtext. For viewers who understand Peckinpah's anthropological beliefs, it is not difficult to read this scene as the moment in which David releases his animal side in order to protect his property, which includes his house and "his" woman. It is no wonder, then, that throughout the violence, Amy resists David. She is already traumatized and is further alarmed by the prospect of sharing a room with a child molester, who does indeed attack her. Thus, she repeatedly defies David, mocking his newfound willingness to protect her and refusing to comply with his orders. Having seen Amy trading looks with Charlie, David, apparently sexually jealous, treats his wife roughly; in the end, he treats her as part of his territory and confines her upstairs. Once the killing begins, Charlie gets the drop on David in the scene in which David has momentarily stopped to reflect on his descent into violence. But before Charlie can kill David, they hear Amy's screams and scramble upstairs, where Scutt is renewing his sexual assault. Scutt wants Charlie to help him again--but this time it is Charlie with the gun. After telling looks are traded among Charlie, Amy, and David, Charlie shoots Scutt, at which point David presses his attack on Charlie. They tumble to the foot of the stairs where David catches Charlie's head in a mantrap, despite Amy's pleas. The violence ends when Amy, tremulous with shock, shoots one final attacker before that man can kill David. David has forced Amy to choose sides at last. But instead of comforting her, he leaves with Niles in their car. Roll credits.
AMBIGUITY: ALFREDO GARCIA
The ambiguity and psychological richness of Straw Dog's long siege is rooted in Amy's earlier victimization--and specifically in her ambivalent feelings for one of her attackers. A similarly important change in the heroine's feelings is hinted at in the rape sequence of Alfredo Garcia, but here the complexity offers the viewer even more difficulties. This movie is about Bennie (Warren Oates), a down-on-his-luck piano player who is offered money by the well-armed associates of a Mexican crime lord, El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), to prove that Alfredo Garcia, a local lothario, is dead. El Jefe's slick thugs mean to pay Bennie a relatively small amount for Alfredo's head so that they can secure a much larger bounty from El Jefe, who has offered one-million dollars. (Alfredo impregnated El Jefe's daughter Theresa out of wedlock.) Bennie, sensing a chance for easy money, visits his girlfriend Elita, a local prostitute, for information. Elita tells him that Alfredo died the previous week in an accident--but that it happened only after she had cheated on Bennie with the smooth-talking Alfredo, who had told Elita that he loved her. Bennie is a sexually jealous man who has obvious issues with Elita's profession. That she was unfaithful to him unnerves him further. Elita swears it was a pecadillo that would never be repeated, but her evident sadness at Alfredo's death casts doubt on her sincerity. Despite the ambiguity of the situation, one thing is clear: Elita would like Bennie to tell her that he loves her. Unfortunately, he is an angry, possessive man who wants money in part to assert his dominion over Elita more effectively. Once again, echoes of Ardrey may be heard in Peckinpah's construction of male character.
After Bennie tells El Jefe's henchmen that he can supply their proof, they tell him that they will pay him ten-thousand dollars in exchange for the dead man's head. Bennie agrees and returns to Elita to ask her to travel with him to Alfredo's grave in the country in part to prove that his romantic rival is dead. On the way, the two deepen their bonds. Bennie begins to let Elita in on the true, mercenary nature of their journey, but he still hides his intention to decapitate the dead Alfredo. Even so, Elita is shaken. She realizes how desperate Bennie is for money. However, despite her increasing anxiety, Elita uses the opportunity to secure a marriage proposal from Bennie.
The pair is then threatened by sexual violence: while Bennie and Elita are having dinner off the side of the road, two bikers come upon them. The bikers hint that they have known Elita as a prostitute, but the reality behind the hints is not divulged. For example, Paco (Kris Kristofferson) is oddly familiar with her musical talents--and before he takes her to rape her, he touches her with a tenderness that seems knowing. But the most telling clue is the bikers' indications that they have a cold that they caught from a prostitute. At the start of the film, Bennie notes that Elita recently had a cold--or at least that she had used a cold as an excuse for infidelity. Neither Prince nor the critics who discuss this scene make much of these clues (e.g., Simons and Merrill 169-172 and Cooper 66-67). These clues add to Bennie's paranoia, such that when the first biker, Paco, pulls a gun on him and takes Elita away to rape her, Bennie is shaking with rage. Elita, by contrast, is resigned to her fate, as if she means to save Bennie by remaining cool under pressure. As the pair walk off, Bennie shouts that he is going to kill Paco. Elita quickly contradicts Bennie, for she has "been here before, and you don't know the way." Like a Peckinpah code hero, Elita's "way" is to risk death coolly on her own terms.
After Paco strong-arms Elita along the path, they turn to face each other. He rips her shirt open, exposing her breasts. Unembarrassed, Elita holds his stare then slaps his face. This connects Elita to Theresa, El Jefe's daughter, who early in the film is treated the same way by her father--and who reacts with a similar defiance. Having failed to dominate Elita, Paco slinks off and sits down. Elita walks behind him with a quizzical look and sinks down beside him. Since Paco is no longer pushing her along by force, it is not clear what is going on in her mind. Has Elita changed her mind about the biker, who has a sensitive appearance? Or has Paco been one of her johns, a client who like Bennie or Alfredo once claimed to have feelings for her? Or is she going through with an implicit bargain in order to ensure Bennie's safety? The film offers no final answer. In any event, Bennie gets away from the second biker and takes his gun. He comes upon Elita and Paco in an ambiguous embrace: they seem to be kissing tenderly. Bennie, in a rage, shoots both of the would-be rapists--and Elita, crying as if traumatized by the violent assault, runs to Bennie's side. But as they leave, she looks sadly on the bodies.
The events surrounding Elita's attempted rape show how multifunctional sexual assault has become for Peckinpah. On one hand, he uses this tool to indicate new aspects of Elita's character--her bravery, her nerve, even her wisdom. That is to say, Peckinpah uses rape violence as a moment of terror in which a woman can prove herself, much as men like Judd or Bishop prove themselves through gun-play and hand-to-hand combat. On the other hand, since Strazv Dogs, Peckinpah had been aware of rape's narrative potentials, which are activated by its ambiguities--and by the fact that rape must be lived with after the fact. In Alfredo Garcia, this psychological messiness is evident in Bennie's fear that Elita knew her assailants as well as in his suspicion that she was kissing Paco with real affection. (That Bennie is immediately suspicious of Elita is indicated by his repeated declaration that he doesn't "know what to say" as they drive away from the site of the attack.) These ambiguities drive the narrative forward through their impact on the hero, whose suspicion and almost insane jealousy render him increasingly unstable and his romance with Elita increasingly untenable. Though the couple does share moments of tenderness after the attempted rape--e.g., Bennie defends her honor before an innkeeper, and he tells Elita that he loves her as she sits unhappily in a shower--it is nevertheless clear that their relationship has no real future. As a consequence, when Elita is murdered and dumped in Alfredo's grave, the effect feels almost gratuitous.
The aforementioned link between Theresa and Elita shows that female defiance and bravery in the face of patriarchal control and jealousy is a major theme of the film, albeit one that has not been dealt with well by Peckinpah's critics (e.g., Cooper 85,88-89). It is Theresa who at the end tells Bennie to kill El Jefe; it is thus Theresa who is in a sense most responsible for Bennie's death, since killing El Jefe is what directly leads to his death. Bennie obeys Theresa out of guilt at having contributed to Elita's death by way of his greedy obedience to El Jefe's twisted bounty hunt throughout the story (again, this point has been missed by Peckinpah's interpreters; e.g., Cooper 51-52). Ergo, Bennie obeys Theresa, causing his own death, out of respect for a woman whom he had hoped to dominate and "own" but never could. He didn't know the "way."
FURTHER IMPLICATIONS: CROSS OF IRON
As we can see from this trend-line, Peckinpah used this mode of female characterization to flesh out female psychology and move his plots forward. It is also clear that he learned to manipulate rape events in increasingly resonant ways. In Ride the High Country, the depiction of rape is fairly inexplicit and straightforward, with the chaste treatment of the attempted rapes matching the heroine's innocence. By contrast, in Straw Dogs, Peckinpah uses rape as a psychological event, something that affects both Amy, who is traumatized in many different ways by the sexual attacks, and David, who senses from various cues the violation of "his" territory, which makes him implicitly jealous and quite explicitly defensive. The major change from Ride the High Country to Straw Dogs is the director's recognition that rape, even attempted rape, affects everyone peripherally involved--a fact that was never clear in Peckinpah's early westerns. By the time that he made Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah had learned to use this type of event in a far more sophisticated way, for in that film he extends the inherent ambiguities of rape to the audience, such that the viewer can share in Bennie's doubts about Elita's intentions and fidelity. In other words, the director used this device to project Bennie's psychosexual paranoia onto the audience itself. It is a sign of Peckinpah's growing confidence as a director that he never lets his viewers know for sure whether Bennie's doubts were justified.
But if there is something cold and inhuman in this progression, there is also something sympathetic and humanizing here. For through Peckinpah's use of rape, we see female characters blossoming into personhood. Though there is the sense in Ride the High Country that Elsa's experience with male violence helps her grow as a person, the fact that it does so is largely a product of the fact that she was sheltered from the outside world by an overly "protective" (or patently abusive) father. However, what the depiction of rape does in Straw Dogs and in Alfredo Garcia is allow the viewer to see more of a character, more of her full complexity--a technique that was in the latter film so effective that any stable perception of Elita was rendered impossible. Still, in viewing that film, the viewer comes to realize that, whatever the truth of Elita, she approached a dangerous situation with strength, grace, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. So the quality that this mode of female characterization comes to reveal is female heroism.
Consider, for example, that had Alfredo Garcia ended with Elita being killed in her encounter with Paco, the effect would have been similar to the effect of Judd's death in Ride the High Country or Bishop's death in The Wild Bunch: the impurities of the quotidian character would have been washed away, in a sense, by an act of transcendent courage. But this is not the effect of Alfredo Garcia--partly because Elita is not killed, and partly because her "way" does not include mortal violence. Though Elita may have defied and finally subdued Paco, as several critics have noted, she does not fight him to the death, as might be expected of a Peckinpah code hero.
That said, Peckinpah may have been moving in the direction of such a heroine in his final films. For example, in Cross of Iron, a war film that the director helmed late in his career, a group of male German soldiers captures a group of female Russian soldiers during the long German retreat along the eastern front. Though the Russians are all minor characters--they are not even named, and nothing is known about them in the narrative--it seems for a moment that they might acquiesce willingly to the sexual coercion that some of the Germans impose on them. This possibility is reinforced by Peckinpah's shot selection, which is ambivalent, as if the film might be interested in the Russian women only as sex objects. But in the scenes that follow, Peckinpah uses rape events to turn this assumption on its head, with both the Germans and the viewers getting duped. Two of the Russians deceive their captors and attack them, castrating a German rapist during fellatio and stabbing another more humane German just prior to intercourse. The Russians prove their fitness through violence, and like soldiers, face the consequences of that violence. And they do it without losing any of their humanity. Hence, after stabbing her youthful rapist, the Russian who was to be his victim pities the gentle man-child, shedding a tear over him--and he reciprocates, begging as he dies that his fellow soldiers not hurt the women. The poignance of the scene is surprising. It is a sign of where Peckinpah's career could have gone had it not been cut short by his addictions.
Peckinpah was a filmmaker who thought violence was inescapable in life, something that he attributed in part to humanity's evolutionary past. This view was evident in his zest for Ardrey's work, which was not just a way of justifying his own descents into violence but was instead a reflection of his deepest beliefs about humanity. Had he lived long enough, it seems likely that Peckinpah would have been interested in the theories of evolutionary psychology, which hold that human behavior--including its violence--has evolved over millennia and was generated not mainly by territory, as Ardrey thought, but by survival and reproduction. According to evolutionary theorists like David Buss and Steven Pinker, aggressive behaviors like sexual jealousy, revenge, territoriality, and tribal warfare have persisted and proliferated because they have reliably helped individuals thrive, survive, and reproduce. One kind of violence that evolutionary theorists have recently dwelt on at length is heterosexual rape, which some biologists consider an alternative mating strategy that acts either as an adaptation of male sexual psychology or as a byproduct of the same (Vandermassen 732-747). What is intriguing is that these notions support the Peckinpah view that violence is not something that people can forever eradicate through civil reform, education, and various forms of cultural progress. Violence, including rape violence, is so deeply anchored in humanity's ancestral past that it must always be monitored in the present. Peckinpah did not, then, consider a society without heterosexual rape as "repellent," as Mellen claimed; instead, he saw this and other progressive visions as just impossible, given his view of human nature and its evolutionary past. It was this progressive idealism that his heroes so often scorned. (See, e.g., the hospital sequence in Cross of Iron, in which the protagonist, Sergeant Steiner [James Coburn], can only laugh at his nurse for suggesting that all "violence must stop." It is not that Steiner disagrees with the nurse's wish but that he thinks it a naive fantasy, something to outgrow.) If Peckinpah's worldview deserves censure, then, it is because its straight-talking cynicism put far more emphasis on humanity's violence, including its lapses into rape violence, than on its ability to monitor its own worst impulses.
Indeed, a different view of Peckinpah might have emerged in the literature had the director gone one step further in his films--emphasizing the necessity of monitoring human violence rather than simply accepting its inevitability. Such a progression would have allowed Peckinpah to fuse his beliefs about human nature with his political inclinations. It would also have squared with contemporary thinking in evolutionary psychology, which, starting with Robert Trivers's revolutionary concept of "reciprocal altruism" (1971), offers explanations for humanity's ability to cooperate and to control its own propensity for violence (see, e.g., Brooks and Pinker). Such a development would have put Peckinpah in an odd position, for it would have flown in the face of his fatalism as well as in that of his carefully constructed bad-boy persona. However, the progression from Ride the High Country to Straw Dogs to Alfredo Garcia, in combination with Peckinpah's characterization of the Russian soldiers in Cross of Iron, suggests that the filmmaker was heading in that sort of direction. (5) Had he gotten there, he might, ironically, have corrected one of the major deficiencies of his work--the lack of fully, equitably, realistically developed female characters--through one of the most unlikely and even repellent types of cinematic representation imaginable.
Thanks to Christine Andrews, senior lecturer at the University of Chicago in evolutionary biology, for consultations in scientific matters.
Caption: "The likes of him don't stop at talking": Longtree pulling Elsa to the ground against her will in Ride the High Country. [c] 1962, Turner Entertainment; [c] 2006 Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros.
Caption: Elsa's anxiety at the prospect of gang-rape during Ride the High Country's wedding sequence. [c] 1962, Turner Entertainment; [c] 2006 Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros.
Caption: Amy realizing that Charlie will not leave her alone at the start of Straw Dog's long, double-rape sequence. [c] 1971, ABC Pictures; [c] 2004 MGM Home Entertainment.
Caption: Flashcut in which Amy is held down by Charlie and raped from behind by Scutt in Straw Dogs. [c] 1971, ABC Pictures; [c] 2004 MGM Home Entertainment.
Caption: Close-up of Amy experiencing rape flashbacks at a noisy church social in Straw Dogs. [c] 1971, ABC Pictures; [c] 2004 MGM Home Entertainment.
Caption: "You don't know the way": Elita's moment of apparent self-sacrifice. [c] 1974, MGM Studios; [c] 2005 MGM Home Entertainment.
Caption: The ambiguous embrace between Paco and Elita. [c] 1974, MGM Studios; [c] 2005 MGM Home Entertainment.
Caption: The castrated German soldier with his victim in the background. [c] 1977, EMI and AVCO Embassy; [c] 2006, Hen's Tooth Video.
Caption: The Russian soldier pitying the German she just killed before he could rape her. [c] 1977, EMI and AVCO Embassy; [c] 2006, Hen's Tooth Video.
Ardrey, Robert. The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. New York: Atheneum, 1966.
Brooks, David. "When the Good Do Bad." New York Times. March 20, 2012. Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/ brooks-when-the-good-do-bad.html?_ r=1&hp>. Accessed March 20, 2012.
Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. 1975. New York: Ballantine, 1993.
Cooper, Ian. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. London: Wallflower, 2011.
Fine, Marshall. Bloody Sam: The Life and Films of Sam Peckinpah. New York: Miramax/ Hyperion, 2005.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women In the Movies. 1974. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Mellen, Joan. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film. New York: Pantheon, 1977.
Murray, William. "Playboy Interview: Sam Peckinpah." Sam Peckinpah: Interviews, ed. Kevin J. Hayes. Jackson, Mississippi: UP of Mississippi, 2008. 96-120.
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking, 2011.
Prince, Stephen. Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Austin: U of Texas P, 1998.
Seydor, Paul. Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration. For. David Weddle. 1980. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1997.
Simons, John L. and Robert Merrill. Peckinpah's Tragic Westerns. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2011.
Sober, Elliot, and David Sloan Wilson. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behaviors. 1999. Harvard UP: 2003.
Vandermassen, Griet. "Evolution and Rape: A Feminist Darwinian Perspective." Sex Roles 64 (2011): 732-747.
Weddle, David. "If They Move ... Kill 'Em": The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. New York: Grove, 1994.
(1) Feminists who consigned Peckinpah to this "infamy" include Pauline Kael, Molly Haskell, and Joan Mellen. Haskell's descriptions of Peckinpah as a misogynist in From Reverence to Rape (1974) had wide currency in the mid-1970s.
(2) I am adapting this term loosely from the literature on Ernest Hemingway's code heroes, whose "grace under pressure" is also a defining trait of the Peckinpah code hero. Two of the director's most outstanding heroes are Judd of Ride the High Country and Pike Bishop of The Wild Bunch, whose messy lives are cleansed by courageous deaths.
(3) The feminist response to Peckinpah's cinema built on Kael's idea of Straw Dogs as a "fascist work of art" in her New Yorker review as well as on Molly Haskell's references to Peckinpah's misogynistic perspective.
(4) The semi-consensual rape scene, which was common in American cinema in the years between the elimination of the Hollywood Production Code (1968) and the publication of Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will (1975), is a rape scene in which the female begins by resisting male sexual coercion but ends by giving her coerced consent. In Straw Dogs, the first part of the rape sequence is semi-consensual; the second part is fully non-consensual.
(5) Indeed, had the director been more prolific in later years, he might have used this type of rape depiction in the way that Michael Cimino used it in Heaven's Gate (1980). In that movie, the heroine (Isabelle Huppert) is a frontier madame who is brutally raped and traumatized. Despite her credibly depicted pain, this character later manages to lead a rabble band into battle during the legendary Johnson County War. Cimino's heroine is not an unrealistic "empowered babe" in the postfeminist style of Lara Croft; she is instead a realistic woman who battles through the hurt and the trauma to fight for the survival of her community.
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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