[content warning: this essay contains frank discussions of misogyny and sexual assault]
PACK A LUNCH…’CAUSE WE’RE GOIN’ ON A PICNIC
A man steps into a Mexican hotel room, his wiry frame clothed in a white linen suit, holding a picnic basket in his hands. His seamed and sun-boiled face, half-hidden by oversized sunglasses that transmute his eyes into empty black sockets, resembles a mustached and toothy Dia de los Muertos skull kicked down the cobblestones of a Tijuana backalley.
The room is a gaudy, piss-yellow tableau of junk-drawer ‘70s chic. Men in expensive suits lounge in chairs and smile with ball-cutting condescension at the arrival of the man in the white suit. One sits without pants, reading an article about Richard Nixon’s impeachment, as well-paid escorts give him a lazy pedicure. The room is a waystation for cheap money and power, and these men and the crude obviousness of their corruption make a kind of sense here, they belong.
The man in the white suit does not. There’s a ragged discord about him, as if unable to even displace the air surrounding his body in the normal way as he moves; as if his path rips an ever-widening wound behind him that seeps a froth of blood, sweat, and mezcal in a phantasmic trail. At first, the basket seems the source of this dissonance; both it and the horror it contains radiate the same putrefying wrongness that’s etched into the crisscrossing lines that cat’s-cradle the man’s ugly-beautiful face.
But it’s not the basket. It’s him. And as he places the basket upon the table, he speaks with a bitter sadness, his voice a low corpse-croak soaked in grief and Jose Cuervo, as if anything above a whisper will tear out the stitches just barely containing what’s left of his composure.
“I’d like to keep the basket, OK?…See, this belonged to a very special lady. Once upon a time…she filled it up with food…and we went on a picnic. We turned off a dirt road…we ate the food she prepared with her hands…her very special hands.”
Within 30 seconds, everyone in this room besides the man in the white suit will be dead.
This is the feversleazed world of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It wasn’t the final film by its director, but it was his final great film, his last—and most devastatingly personal—masterpiece. In it, he self-consciously laid himself bare like never before, amidst a hallucinatory cascade of paranoid imagery that reflected his nightmarish insecurities about women, manhood, and himself. It’s a skin-flayed, nerve-burst confession, a self-loathing crucifixion of the kind of toxically hyper-masculine pathology that poisoned his personal life but inspired his deliriously compelling art.
The man in the white suit’s name is Bennie. His charming, worn-tire face belongs to actor Warren Oates. But his tormented spirit, stretched across heat-warped celluloid for all to see, belongs solely to David Samuel Peckinpah.
~ ~ ~
Binding the mid-career masterpieces of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography is a razor-wired tension between his laments for old-fashioned codes of masculinity and his increasingly fraught inquiries into them, climaxing with the noxiously truthful nihilism of Alfredo Garcia in 1974. The films all share themes and character archetypes that reflect his psychology, in which one can sense the director/screenwriter compulsively turning his thoughts and fears about himself over and over in his hands, each film wrestling with the demons that he fought in life. From westerns by turns mythic (1969’s The Wild Bunch), warmly laconic (1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue), and wearily fatalistic (1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), to portraits of modernity both horrifying (Straw Dogs’ siege on marriage in 1971) and crowd-pleasing (1972’s Steve McQueen double of Junior Bonner’s rodeo melancholy and The Getaway’s popcorn-pulp road thriller), Peckinpah’s anxieties about the roles of men and women informed his best work, a seven-film study that would reach its dark terminus (and Peckinpah’s final, bitter conclusions on the subject, and himself) with the modern western of Alfredo Garcia.
It’s a film that reconvenes the standard tropes that defined his earlier masterworks, but attaches to them a lacerating self-portrait of profound emotional desolation that culminates with an indictment of his own misogynist insecurities. Beneath its miasma of rot and decay is an undeniably, unyieldingly aware self-inquisition in which Peckinpah not only cross-examines the code of manhood that defined himself and his work, but goes so far as to proclaim it a spiritual dead-end of toxicity resulting in personal destruction—one that he himself, even with this awareness, was never able to escape. Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah the Artist at his least compromised and most honest about Peckinpah the Man.
Theplot is both wicked and wickedly simple: a crime lord offers a million dollar bounty for the head of the man who impregnated his daughter. Bennie not only knows the man’s location, but that he was recently killed in a car crash. His plan: dig up the body, cut off the head, and cash it in for enough dinero to buy a better life for himself and his girlfriend. Pitched to Peckinpah by screenwriter Frank Kowalski in 1969 after Sam finished The Wild Bunch, and adapted by Peckinpah and writer Gordon Dawson, the story evolved from a grindhouse potboiler into a strange and cirrhosed amniotic sac that held Peckinpah’s obsessions and terrors, growing like some kind of shadow-film as he moved from bottle to bottle, project to project, crafting five more classics over the course of four years.
By the time cameras rolled on Alfredo Garcia in 1973, Kowalski’s Corman-esque B-movie was gone. In its place was a charred accumulation of the deeply-troubled and alcoholic Peckinpah’s self-repugnance fashioned into a shocking rebuke of his own notorious brand of machismo. A poetically profane act of self-immolation as screenplay, it is the story of one man’s soul reflected in the contents of a simple but treasured picnic basket, one that would come to house the molding rot of all his terrible choices.
A NICE GRINGO
Co-writer Dawson has said that “I wrote Sam Peckinpah in my head” when he crafted Bennie, shaping the character as such an outright parody of the director that he expected Peckinpah to scale back in his rewrite. Peckinpah not only kept it all, he added even more. Warren Oates (who gave his most blisteringly alive performance in a career full of them) stated “I really tried to do Sam Peckinpah, as much as I knew about him, his mannerisms, and everything he did…I tried to say it all.” Peckinpah recognized himself in Bennie, in the character’s hopes and anxieties, and he fashioned Bennie as a reflection of his own inner conflicts, even loaning Oates his own clothes and trademark sunglasses for the performance. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was not just directed by Sam Peckinpah, it is Sam Peckinpah, his subconscious unfurling at 24 frames per second.
The script for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia introduces Bennie as a man who’s “gonesoft…Gone through 40 years of life with $1.35 in one hand and an erection in the other and now when it’s time to find out which is which, he doesn’t want to look.” From the start, Bennie’s a dead-ender, a romantic loser who equates cash flow with virility and finds his own shamefully flaccid. He’s “the only gringo bartender on the Mexican side of the border who can’t speak decent Spanish,” but fluent Spanish isn’t the only thing he doesn’t know. As he pounds the keys to the piano in his gutter-bar, he doesn’t know Quill and Sappensly, the two hardcases who’ve just strolled in. Doesn’t know they’ve been sent by El Jefe (The Wild Bunch’s Emilio Fernández) to find the man who knocked up his teen daughter. Doesn’t know that El Jefe had the young Theresa stripped nude to the waist and tortured until her bones broke before she admitted the father is local cad Alfredo Garcia. Doesn’t know El Jefe has offered $1 million for Al Garcia’s head, or that Al’s been right here in Mexico City, spending three days and three nights with Bennie’s own girlfriend, Elita.
What Bennie does know is that these men have upset the balance of power in this shithole, reducing him from the bar’s star to simply a source of Tex-Mex muzak as they flash money and inquire about Garcia. They make him feel small; he responds by trying to shift the power back, intimating he’s a player, too: “Don’t worry; if he’s alive, I’ll find him.” Before he can finish flashing his high-wattage smile, the men suck the air out of the room just as it’s puffing up Bennie’s chest: “Alive’s not our problem…Dead, just dead.” Without understanding how, this piano player’s slighted manhood has bluffed him into a plot far more serious than he realized.
It’s the first in a series of blind blunders, fueled by Bennie’s aggrieved machismo and his need to assuage it, that will drive him—and Peckinpah—through a hell of self-discovery into self-destruction. Learning that Elita (Isela Vega, in a performance that gives the film, if a not a moral center, than at least a moral-adjacency) has been seen with Garcia, Bennie confronts her, thinking he’s once again entered a confrontation holding all the cards. Instead, the unhappy Elita decimates him two-fold: yes, she cheated on the noncommittal Bennie with her former lover, but only to say goodbye to Garcia for good—drunk from their final night together, he was killed in a car crash. Elita turns to Bennie for comfort but he’s out the door, his injured manhood again stymied, now reconfiguring his self-appeasement in light of this new devastation.
~ ~ ~
The first of the two times Bennie presents himself to the dead-eyed hardcases and money-men in their garish hotel room, dressed in a cheap white suit and gargantuan sunglasses, he comes armed with his pitch: he’ll kill Garcia and bring back the head as evidence. When they offer him a paltry $5,000 for the deed, Bennie smugly demands $10,000, just as clueless to the fact that the real reward is $1 million as these men are to the fact that Garcia is already dead. They accept with the caveat that he’ll be murdered if he fails. All for $10,000. The same amount of money that in The Wild Bunch “cuts an awful lot of family ties” is what it will cost for Bennie to decapitate a dead man; it’s what he thinks he needs to buy a better life for himself, in which he owns a better bar, is insulated from men who make him feel small, and Elita no longer strays. A life in which he can live like his dream of a man. He loses his cool with the money-men only once: when one mentions that he looks like a loser, Bennie snaps out the one thin filament of hope that threads through the film: “Nobody loses all the time.” But the man is right. Bennie does look like a loser. He also looks a hell of a lot like Sam Peckinpah.
It’s with little surprise that Peckinpah inserts Bennie into such an emasculating sequence as the first hotel meeting—this is Bennie-as-Sam forcing himself into a room full of killers-as-producers. By time he lost his brutal battle for artistic control with MGM over his previous effort, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Peckinpah was staggering out of the collapse of that film and another failed marriage into an escalation of addiction and self-destruction. But like Bennie with the money men, he found hope in a deal with United Artists, who agreed to give him creative control and a shoot in his beloved Mexico. After years of endless studio battles, he finally had clearance to say with cinema exactly what he wanted, unvarnished, with no restrictions. “I did Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to,” Sam later said. “Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film.”
~ ~ ~
Bennie tells Elita to pack a basket full of food, because they’re “goin’ on a picnic.” In her bruised devotion to him, she fills her picnic basket with food made out of her love—she accepts Bennie as the man he is, rather than the man he dreadfully wishes himself to be. While most of Alfredo Garcia’s runtime is dedicated to excavating all manner of horrors from Bennie-as-Sam’s psyche, it’s at the beginning of their journey that Peckinpah delivers not only the most emotionally incisive portrait of adult love in the film, but of his entire career. The couple briefly stops on their “picnic ride” in Bennie’s beat-to-hell Chevy Impala to sit beneath a tree and share a bottle, dreaming of the places they could travel with the money Bennie’s hinted he’ll be earning. When Bennie has no suggestions (“I’ve never been anyplace I want to go back to, that’s for damned sure”), Elita suggests a beautiful old Spanish town, Guanajuato. When she mentions that she’s been there before but refuses to say with who, Bennie recoils with a cold flare of jealousy, his wounds and insecurities opening wide again, a burst pustule oozing emasculation and quiet rage.
Here Sam radically shifted the scene off-script into something mesmerizing. At Peckinpah’s secret insistence, Vega began ad-libbing to a shocked Oates, extending the scene well past Bennie’s scripted jealousy: Elita sobs, begging to know why Bennie has yet to marry her or even propose, why she has to debase herself with men like Garcia. Oates, truly overwhelmed by Vega’s performance, began to cry himself, for real, muttering “I don’t know…” as the actor buried his head in Vega’s hair, shamed at his tears in front of the crew (“there was no place to hide in that scene,” Oates said later. “She had me”). The two cling to one another, crying, as Bennie finally proposes and Elita only weeps in response.
It’s a hypnotic, galvanizing moment, as Bennie is forced to stare down inadequacies that make him feel both unworthy of Elita’s love and terrified of it. The fact that Oates was discovering these inadequacies in real time, with Bennie, as Bennie, as Sam, at Peckinpah’s off-camera insistence, serves to highlight the connection between Peckinpah and this broken character, with the director literally watching his writhing inner turmoil enacted spontaneously before him. It’s in this scene about Bennie having “never been anyplace I want to go back to” that Peckinpah began pushing himself, and his art, to a place they had never been before.
JELLY JELLY JITTER
If Bennie’s proposal to Elita is Peckinpah at his most emotionally incisive, the scene that follows is the director at his most bizarre and brutal, but no less dignified or adult. This moment—Bennie and Elita’s picnic—is the black heart of the film. In it, Peckinpah finally addressed the recurrent theme of sexual assault that threaded throughout his films, but with an empathy that had heretofore escaped him…and, via Bennie’s poisonous response to such an assault, offers the skeleton key by which to unlock Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’s meaning.
“Peckinpah’s films are filled with jagged edges, abrupt shifts in tone, and embarrassing moments of self-revelation in which the director lays naked some of his most neurotic and misguided obsessions for all to see,” writes biographer David Weddle in If They Move…Kill ‘Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, noting nearly all of Peckinpah’s films feature a scene in which “a wife or girlfriend betrays her man, almost always sexually:”
“[The scenes] run through Peckinpah’s films like a recurring nightmare…These sequences sprang out of profound personal pain. [He] knew they were politically incorrect, and that by putting them on film he would make an open target of himself, but he couldn’t apply the brakes. He had to do it; he didn’t have any choice. It was this ruthless honesty that gave the scenes their disturbing and mesmerizing power, and what made them art.”
Peckinpah vivisected the paranoid misogyny that lurked beneath his tortured take on manhood—that the very power women had to give love and solace to his life (and his characters) could also be used to emasculate or destroy through their assumed infidelity. Women could not be trusted lest one risk the obliteration of his own power and agency. It’s a fear that hums on an atomic level through his films, most notoriously in Straw Dogs, in which a housewife, Amy, is raped by a former lover. Amy refuses consent at the beginning of the sequence, yet for a moment appears not only to relent but even—albeit briefly and very ambiguously—consent to the encounter. Whatever ambiguity exists, however, is shattered when another man arrives and participates in the rape as well.
It’s a deeplydisturbing scene, one of extraordinary complexity that nonetheless traffics in one of the most revolting of all rape myths—Peckinpah went so far as to say, in a 1972 Playboy interview, that Amy “asked for the rape…The double rape is a little bit more than she bargained for.” This deleteriously hostile paranoia of sexual betrayal and emasculation ran so marrow-deep within Peckinpah that even Straw Dogs’ scene of sexual assault was so flooded with his anxieties as to frame the woman within it as a potentially willing participant rather than victim. And yet, Peckinpah the Artist often seemed horrified by these neuroses of Peckinpah the Man, despite being one and the same, and a viewer can trace the growing arc of that horror in the films. It’s part of that tension that binds and defines his difficult filmography, and it’s that tension that finally explodes within Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’s picnic sequence, a psychosexual nightmare in which Peckinpah offers a pitiless reckoning for himself and his views on women.
~ ~ ~
Much as he did with the preceding proposal sequence, Peckinpah broadly diverged from the script when filming the picnic, reaching with his fictionalized doppelgänger into an emotional holocaust for a truth that had previously eluded his work. And while he did capture that truth, the slippery oddness of the picnic that contains it has created, in the words of critic Julie Kirgo, “one of the more perplexing sequences in a uniquely perplexing oeuvre” and a scene that “has left a generation of cinephiles going, ‘huh?’” Paul Seydor, author of Peckinpah: The Western Films—A Reconsideration, confesses the scene is Peckinpah at his “most confusing.” Oates said the scene “was the most difficult thing for me to adjust to. It hurt the story and I never understood it.” Detractors have pointed to the picnic—and the sexual assault within it—as an indicator that the now relentlessly alcoholic Peckinpah’s artistic transmission, like that of Bennie’s Chevy, was beginning to slip out of gear, and while that gives Alfredo Garcia a thrilling sense of out-of-control danger, here the film runs off the road. But it doesn’t run off the road. This is Sam Peckinpah, however blindly, however recklessly, driving straight between the ditches, hurtling himself and his art towards something profound, and profoundly honest.
In both the original script and the finished film, Bennie’s car has a blow-out, and he drifts the Chevy down a dirt road. Elita romantically suggests they stop for the night, and they settle onto picnic blankets. In the last moments of peace and happiness that either of them will ever know, the two lovers alternately eat from Elita’s large basket of food and strum a guitar, singing songs. The picnic is shattered by two bikers, Donnie Fritts and Pat Garrett co-star Kris Kristofferson, who approach with pistols. Fritts holds Bennie at gunpoint while Kristofferson leads Elita away. Bennie impotently threatens to kill both men; Elita wearily stops him with the film’s most truthful line: “No you won’t, Bennie. I’ve been here before, and you don’t know the way.”
It when Kristofferson’s biker pulls Elita far into the distance that the film deviates far from the script’s original path and into a clearing that, while perhaps far afield from reality, is grounded in a devastating emotional accuracy. In the script, Bennie is forced to listen to Elita scream as she’s raped off-camera before he’s able to grab a gun and kill the bikers, saving her. The scripted rape functions merely as a device to catalyze Bennie into a man of action who could slaughter Elita’s attackers; the script even notes that “if she was in love with him before, now she worships him.” Her assault is grotesquely used only to assist the plot and goad Bennie into heroism.
Compare that to what Peckinpah actually shot:
As Kristofferson leads Elita to the distant bushes, Fritts takes Elita’s guitar, sadistically taunting Bennie with the song “Bad Blood Baby” (written by Peckinpah himself in what could have been the voice of his own insecurities):
“Hey that jelly jelly jitter/Ain’t it drivin’ you insane? Well he’s eatin’ up all your candy/Ain’t it tearin’ up your brain?”
In a hidden clearing that Bennie cannot see, Kristofferson tears off Elita’s shirt, exposing her breasts to humiliate her. She slaps him, twice, and he slaps her back. But she stands tall, her jaw high, the tautness of her face belying only grim strength rather than fear. Suddenly, Kristofferson just ambles away and collapses in the grass a few feet away, petulant. Even more jarring, Elita actually followsand then sits with the still-armed Kristofferson, whispering “Please don’t. Please.” She then kisses him. Meanwhile, Bennie kills Fritts, and discovers the half-nude Elita kissing her attacker. Bennie coldly kills the would-be rapist, and leaves without a word.
What’s to be made of this? Viewed through the prism of Peckinpah’s filmography and comments, it would be easy to see this scene as a vestige of its counterpart in Straw Dogs (as many have), yet another sequence in which Peckinpah buckshots his terrors of female sexuality across the screen and insinuates Elita is a sex-starved seductress hungry to be taken by a more virile, sexually aggressive man than Bennie. But that’s not what happens: Bennie is not the hero of this picnic massacre, nor is Elita the slithering villain at its center; rather, Peckinpah presents Elita as a victim capable of extraordinary bravery, and Bennie as a man catastrophically blind to that fact by his own battered and bitter insecurities.
When Kristofferson wanders away dazedly, it’s not to give Peckinpah an excuse for Elita to chase after a sexually dominant man; the biker glumly stomps away because Elita’s refusal to submit to humiliation also appears to refuse him his sexual power and ability function—she literally, through strength of will, renders him impotent. But while the threat of immediate rape is now defused, he still has a gun, as does Fritts, and they could not only still kill Bennie and Elita, they are now more likely to do so out of insulted frustration. And so, not out of arousal, not out of some synapse-nested snakebrain neuroses of Peckinpah’s, but out of a desperate need to defuse and mediate the potential violence of these men, Elita acts to gain a measure of control over the situation while still mollifying Kristofferson’s need for gratification. She does not consent out of arousal, but only under the threat of terminal violence. Nowhere in the sequence is Elita shown to be aroused or excited or even tinged with the ambiguities of Straw Dogs; her face is simply a mask of bitter resolve, of someone who’s sadly been here before. She is a hero.
When Bennie discovers Elita half-naked and gently embracing Kristofferson, Peckinpah clearly frames him as a man violently eviscerated with a sense of betrayal, but we—and Sam—know better, having seen the complete picture. We know the truth of Elita’s situation. Peckinpah presents Bennie as a man who is wrong, who misreads the scene as wildly as its critics have: Bennie mistakenly sees a woman ineluctably drawn to and aroused by her assailant. And with the understanding that Bennie is a stand in for Sam Peckinpah, this moment becomes a scathing self-criticism of Peckinpah’s previous misreadings as well. While Bennie is never so corrupted as to say it out loud, his is the same fractious mindset that drove Peckinpah to once claim “she asked for the rape.” What Bennie sees is a moment fraught with devastatingly complex sexual dynamics and, grappling with his own insecurities and wounded masculinity, he is wholly unequipped to deal with it. As Elita warned him, “you don’t know the way.”
Nor did, for most of his life, Sam Peckinpah. His reconstruction of the scene to highlight Elita’s dignity and bravery, as well as transforming Bennie’s heroic rescue into a complete failure to see past his own macho anxieties and recognize that dignity, is a self-indictment, an acknowledgement of Peckinpah’s own failure to see past a mindset that would declare something as vile as “she asked for the rape.” It casts judgement not on Elita, but on Bennie, and on Peckinpah, and in doing so it unlocks the motivations of the entire film, shedding light on all that comes before and after the scene, as it is Bennie’s damaged misunderstanding of sexual assault that dooms he and Elita both. The picnic scene is a self-conscious and purposeful excoriation of Peckinpah’s own sexual politics, in which the director was moved to push past one of his ugliest aesthetic tics in order to grasp a greater truth and deeper humanity with his art. Though in order for Peckinpah to drive his final, most brutal point home, it was a truth that Bennie, much like Sam, would only understand after it was far too late.
~ ~ ~
Whipping his shuddering car down the arterial backroads of Mexico, Bennie is a frenzy of hurt, emasculation, and rage; Elita’s assault and his misaligned perception of it have pushed him to a place of no return. He confesses to her their mission, pleading with her to understand that “there’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or a man that’s in it, or you, or me.” Their love is not enough to provide the life he wishes for them, nor is he enough of a man to provide it for her any other way than this. When Elita sobs in horror that “just being together is enough,” Bennie refuses to listen, telling her there “ain’t no more chances” for them. Her assault, and his fragile manhood’s inability to prevent it or understand her response to it, is too much. To him, money is the only thing that can save them from the problems his anxieties cannot handle. “The church cuts off the feet, fingers—any other goddamn thing from the saints, don’t they?” he asks. “Well, what the hell? Alfredo’s our saint. He’s the saint of our money, and I’m gonna borrow a piece of him.”
But once again, Bennie is usurped by more powerful, capable men. Upon finding Garcia’s cemetery, he and Elita are assaulted by two of El Jefe’s thugs who have been trailing them the whole time. Once again Bennie was blind to the reality of his situation, and this time it costs him everything; he awakens half-buried in the dirt of Garcia’s unearthed plot. Elita is dead, her body piled on top of Garcia’s now-headless corpse. Oates, out of his mind on mushrooms that day, went to the very blackest parts of himself, and Sam, for the scene, twisting his mind and body from terror to regret to sadness to a truly harrowing rage at himself and even Elita’s corpse. The worst parts of his mind inflamed, Bennie forces himself to see the jealous nightmare that’s lived in his head, shoving Elita’s body hard against her former lover, screaming “Maybe you wanna stay here? STAY WITH HIM, GODDAMNIT…TURN OVER AND BE IN THERE RIGHT!”
In a career dedicated to exploring the ugliness of man, this is perhaps the ugliest moment, in which Peckinpah ripped the deepest scab within himself open and let the pus flow onto the screen. Yet as ugly as this scene is, it also contains the most heartbreaking moment of Peckinpah’s entire body of work, in which Bennie-as-Sam asks the most fundamental question Sam ever posed. He knows his life is over without Elita, and only now is he able to see what his insecurities have cost them both. It was his quest for cash-as-virility that drove their picnic to this place. And now, almost imperceptibly quiet, his head pressed so deeply into the grave that holds Elita and Garcia that he looks as headless as the man he alternately loathed and hoped would save him, Bennie whispers a question between dirt-choked sobs. The only question that matters.
It could be a question for Alfredo Garcia. It should be a question for Elita. But it’s not.
It’s Bennie whispering to himself, dug into a grave his soul will never escape. And if it’s Bennie whispering to himself, then it’s Sam Peckinpah whispering to himself, too, looking back at a life of the same mistakes and misperceptions, asking the one question he died unable to answer.
“Why can’t you get out of here?”
LOOK AT ME WITH YOUR GODDAMN FUCKIN’ EYES
“See, this belonged to a very special lady,” Bennie later tells the money-men of Elita’s basket. “Once upon a time…she filled it up with food…and we went on a picnic.” The muscles of his face tremble, struggling to hold back his tears and self-loathing. “We turned off a dirt road…we ate the food she prepared with her hands…her very special hands.”
Once the basket held the food of Elita’s love for them, the promise of a life shared between two people. Now the food is gone, rotting in the Mexican sun off a nameless dirt road next to the corpses of two men. For a time the basket was then empty, robbed of its bounty by Bennie’s need to be a man. Finally, he filled it with something else, something as fetid and corrupted as his own twisted heart.
But the men in the hotel room don’t recognize that. They don’t really see Bennie, or that he has finally become the man he always wanted to be—decisive, brazen, capable, dangerous—but only because he lost everything, only because he no longer even wants to be that man. Having lost Elita, Bennie cares only about finding out why this happened, and who wanted Alfredo dead; no longer caring about his masculine aspiration has ironically freed him from the anxieties that always held him back. It’s with that newfound capability that Bennie is able to whip a pistol out of the basket and kill everyone in the room in seconds, and to discover the truth about El Jefe.
“Come on, Al,” he whispers to the thing in the basket. “Let’s go.”
~ ~ ~
Throughout Alfredo Garcia, Bennie is framed within mirrors and the perception of others; this is a film about Sam Peckinpah’s projected self-image, and his final confrontation with it. When Bennie first enters the garish hotel, Peckinpah insisted on a long, bizarre angle from a mirror hanging near the ceiling of the lobby; the unique angle of the mirror creates an illusion in which Bennie appears tiny and indistinct, as small a man as he feels. Later, Elita sees him with love, as a man-child capable of finally growing up, if given the chance. Following her assault, as Elita cries in a motel shower, Bennie is reflected in a small mirror, slowly reloading his gun, the thick wooden frame of the mirror cutting Bennie off from the rest of the room, and Elita. And finally, the thugs who killed Elita see him as a loser bartender in a cheap suit, an underestimation that costs them their lives when the half-mad and grieving Bennie tracks them down in the Mexican desert and executes them both, stealing Alfredo Garcia’s rotting head in the process.
So begins the most famous stretch of the film, a shockingly strange road flick in which Bennie and the bloody head of his dead girlfriend’s lover careen across the desert roadscapes surrounding Mexico City. Bennie curses the head, slapping it around an AC-less car that is filling with buzzing flies as his overheated brain melts down. Somehow even the head of a bodiless man is able to outperform him—in life, the virile Garcia was able to woo a lonely Elita; in death he is worth more money than Bennie’s ever made. As much as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia functions as a dark reflection for Sam Peckinpah, the head of Alfredo Garcia is a warped mirror by which Bennie is able to see the critical defects of his thinking that led him here. Through this funhouse reflection Bennie is able to grasp that his course has always led to a dead-end; his only goal now is to obliterate those responsible for Elita’s death, including himself. In his mind this is the only righteousness his newfound manhood is capable of achieving.
~ ~ ~
Later, in his apartment, as Bennie prepares for his final days, the insanity continues. He tosses Garcia’s head in a running shower, chatting with it and a picture of Elita next to his bed like some kind of nightmare sitcom. Finally, his madness is briefly quieted: he stands in front of his mirror in one of the few moments of the film in which Sam Peckinpah’s sunglasses are removed. In a beat of wordless pain, he is only able to meet his own eyes for a few seconds. But in those seconds, the crumpled ruin of Oates’ face, which the actor once likened to “two miles of country road,” reflects the strangling, self-loathing pain of both Bennie and Sam with a kind of haggard, repugnant poetry. But it’s too much for perhaps either man to stand, and Bennie quietly puts Sam’s sunglasses back on, lays in his bed, and cries.
~ ~ ~
“In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah went places he had never gone before, as if to get closure on the subject and theme of human brutality,” critic Stephen Prince wrote in Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Of the Garcia, Peckinpah tersely stated “the lasting theme of the film is that such acts only end in disaster for those involved.”
Perhaps the final truth of the film is what Bennie sees reflected in that final mirror, and what Peckinpah seems to have discovered, and stated, with the film: there is nowhere for this kind of regressive, venomous masculinity to go. It ends only in doom. Such is the case for Bennie—when he discovers El Jefe’s compound, in which the crime boss is celebrating the birth of his grandson, the child of Alfredo Garcia and Theresa, it can end in only one way. With his beloved picnic basket holding Garcia’s head by his side, he kills a handful of El Jefe’s men before shooting El Jefe himself—a relatively unsurprising ending for a Peckinpah film. However, the director once again went off-script for the film’s final scene. As with the proposal and the picnic, he transmogrified a typical Peckinpah trope into something far more unique for this, his most unique and personal film. In the script, Bennie escapes from El Jefe’s compound in his car with Al and the bounty in an ending that recalled so many of his others, with heroes hitting the road to glory or legend. But, as Dawson put it, Sam was struck with a revelation: “He’s got to die.”
So he did—Bennie’s car is run down by a small army of El Jefe’s men, and the car, Bennie, and Elita’s picnic basket holding Al are perforated with a seemingly never-ending volley of machine-gun fire. As if to underline his point, the final shot of the film, the final shot of Sam’s last masterpiece, is an extraordinarily tight close-up of the gun barrel that killed Bennie, overlaid with the text “Directed by Sam Peckinpah.” This was Sam’s last coherent artistic statement to the world, a visual essay both by and about himself.
Bennie dies with the song of the dead wom an who loved him echoing in his ears, the woman with whom he once turned off a dirt road with for a picnic, and ate the food she prepared with her hands, her very special hands. He dies holding her basket, and the ruined bounty inside is a reflection of everything he alternately feared and wished he could be, while the man he was—the man that was enough for Elita—dies alone, having lost everything.
~ ~ ~
Few people saw Bring Me the Head ofAlfredo Garcia upon release, and most who did were left cold and bewildered by it’s misanthropy. In time, its tarnished reputation began to glow, then to shine, as fans slowly recognized its aching humanity, bitter humor, and wicked admonishments, but not before Peckinpah died of heart failure in December 1984 at the age of 59, 10 years after Garcia’s release, 10 years of increasingly mediocre filmmaking as cocaine destroyed what remained of his talent, his body simply unable to withstand the excesses of the heart within it.
One of El Jefe’s money-men called Bennie a loser once and it’s hard to disagree: consumed by the fragility of his ego, he lost it all pursuing an empty goal while a true victory was right there all along, at his side, holding a picnic basket and a life and a love. But in comparing Bennie to Sam, it’s hard to call the director a loser, too, because that implies perpetual, uninterrupted loss. While what Sam lost cost him dearly—women, friends, sobriety, his career, and finally, his life—in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia he located in himself the ability to confess, for millions to see, his deepest fears and weakness, offering a withering self-criticism far crueler than his own critics could generate. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, but there is bravery in using his art for that kind of admission and warning, a kind of doomed and tarnished nobility that one suspects would appeal to him. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, for all its darkness, is the final reminder that Sam Peckinpah didn’t lose all the time.