‘If they move… kill ’em!’: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah (review)

307636.jpg“If They Move… Kill ’Em!’: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah by David Weddle.
Grove Press, New York, 1994.

With the numerous special editions, extended versions and director’s cuts that bear his name, we hear a lot about the hindrances various studios placed on the maverick vision of Sam Peckinpah. David Weddle’s If They Move… Kill ’Em! also captures the hindrances Peckinpah himself placed on an otherwise unique and energetic talent: his drinking, his uncompromising nature, and the vindictiveness that regularly caused him to lose focus on the bigger picture of what he was trying to achieve.

This impressive biography demonstrates that while Peckinpah’s often violent and conflicted films reflected their director’s insecurities and obsessions, they were also brought in the world in spite of them. The gung-ho title chosen by Weddle contrasts lingeringly with the portrait of Peckinpah eventually developed. Sure, we hear all about Peckinpah the iconoclast, the intensely creative tough guy who lived a life as unpredictable as one of his trigger-happy hardmen. However, Weddle’s blunt insight and astonishing range of sources (including discussions with James Coburn, Martin Scorsese, Roger Ebert, Charlton Heston, Ernest Borgnine, and a bunch of surviving Peckinpahs) means we’re also privy to a different side of “Bloody Sam.” We see Peckinpah the bitter child, the hopeless romantic whose serial seduction of women is really eclipsed by his insecurity around them, the deluded father and (perhaps hardest for Weddle to concede) the squandered talent. Weddle carefully explains these personae while keeping pop-psychoanalytic speculation to a pleasingly minimum. Anecdotes of the director’s turbulent family life and professional relationships alone communicate a vision of an intense, troubled man capable of both a childlike love and generosity, and thoughtless cruelty.

bunch_holdenThis is a long and almost compulsively detailed book, and in several sections Weddle’s prose slips out of gear, stalling between the momentous, novelistic cadences of its opening chapter and those of the perfunctory fact-checker, as the author quibbles over details he is at pains to render interesting. The sense of being bogged down in detail rather than being treated to it, however, is alleviated by the halfway point as Weddle recounts the astonishing studio wars fought over many of Peckinpah’s later productions—wars the director fought in tandem with those he waged against himself and those who cared for him. Additionally, Weddle gleefully captures the excitement of 60s and 70s filmmaking culture in a number of wonderful anecdotes, including one in which Marie Peckinpah, first of the Peckinpah wives, slams the phone down on Marlon Brando, having taken his voice for one of Sam’s goofy impressions.

As Weddle’s description of this troubled visionary of the Western becomes more distinct, it’s clear he has a task on his hands keeping Sam likable enough to propel us from page to page while also committing to an accurate historical and psychological portrait. Somewhat questionable is his willingness to downplay Peckinpah’s extra-marital escapades and general callousness toward women.

cable_hoguePerhaps Weddle is merely trying to convey some of the director’s own high spirits at various moments, yet this critical blind-spot contrasts with his acidic and apparently objective cataloging of the failings of the women in Peckinpah’s life, particularly his mother and his sister. A dubious brood at best, the Peckinpah women appear as narcissists, headcases and possessive furies, always settling some otherwise long-forgotten score. Peckinpah’s indiscretions—even his ferocious drinking problem—never receive this kind of venom. The cataloging of the director’s affairs, outbursts, and the first wife he trod thoroughly underfoot, comes smoothed over by cultural relativism. One gets the impression that when Sam’s women are vile it’s individual malice, but when the man himself acts up he’s merely caught in the cultural tide.

high_countryWeddle’s excitement for Peckinpah’s too infrequently realized creative visions also leads him to speak, perhaps unfairly, in disparaging terms of the so-called “movie brat” generation of Spielberg and Lucas that assumed center stage throughout the 1980s. The blockbuster years may have changed tastes, but a boozy, coke-addled Peckinpah didn’t have much to entice viewers’ appetites anyway (as he sent his lead James Coburn out to shoot scenes for him so he could lay sprawled in his trailer with a sinus full of snow).

Overall, however, these are minor blemishes on a remarkable and honest piece of work: Weddle is largely willing to admit Sam’s failings as both a director and a human being, and it’s a more profound admission for his success in communicating Peckinpah’s brilliance for much of the book.

By If They Move’s conclusion, there’s a tendency to feel quite sorry for the many people in the orbit of this man who, according to one of his enraged producers, “did things that you can never take back” (489). Accompanying this is a tendency to feel David Weddle has produced something special: not only a fascinating read for Peckinpah fans and film buffs alike, but a valuable contribution to the written history of film production and personality.  4 / 5


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