Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia sticks in my mind the way few movies do, if only because it is so sad and single-minded. I saw it years ago, in a rather butchered version on late-night TV, but even in a truncated form it was still powerful enough to stay with me across nearly two decades. On coming back to it now, I find it even better than I remembered, and meaning far more to me at the age of thirty-three than it did to me when I was nineteen.
Peckinpah is of course the same director who gave us The Wild Bunch, and while the two movies aren’t remotely alike on the surface, it’s hard to see anyone else making a movie this grit-smeared and getting away with it. So far it’s remained a footnote to Peckinpah’s career, but it deserves better: it was one of the best he ever made, and certainly one of the most honest and uncompromising. After having the studios butcher several of his other movies, he made this one his way, and it shows.
The plot isn’t complicated. El Jefè’s daughter is pregnant and she refuses to say who the father might be, but El Jefè is a powerful man, and not so squeamish that he will not have his own daughter flogged to know the answer. “Alfredo Garcia,” she gasps out after a beating, and it is indeed Alfredo Garcia’s picture in the locket that hangs from around her neck. Men are dispatched far and wide to find Garcia, to bring him back—or more specifically, to bring back his severed head, as proof of family honor regained.
News of the hunt for Garcia travels quickly, and it isn’t long before it finds its way into the ears of Benny (Warren Oates), a gin-soaked piano player and bartender in a Mexican dive. He gets instantly suspicious when two slick-looking hombres walk in to his place and start pumping him for information about Garcia (and doing a terrible job of it, too). That’s reason enough for him to clam up and go to his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega), a lounge singer and sometime prostitute. She knew Garcia, in the literal and Biblical senses of the word—and what’s more, the stupid drunken son of a bitch got himself killed in a car wreck only a few days ago. So much for revenge.
Benny’s plan is simple: Find where Garcia is buried, dig up his head, and make all haste to claim the $10,000 bounty for it. That money is their ticket out of a life of dingy rented rooms and alcoholic boredom, and Benny sinks his teeth into the mission with a gusto that frightens Elita. What sort of man desecrates a grave for money? “There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground with a body in it, or you, or me,” Benny retorts. Booze and hard luck and self-loathing have chewed Benny up, but not so much that he still can’t be tender to Elita. She has problems of her own—namely, that she cannot turn away from most men, even when they use their fists on her.
One of the movie's pivotal scenes involves this. Two biker-hippie types (Kris Kristofferson plays one of them) attempt to rape her. To our surprise, Elita is willing to have sex with them, if only to keep things from getting worse. Not because she has such low self-esteem (which is only what Benny can see), but because, as she says, “I’ve been here before, Benny, and you don’t know the way.” It breaks her heart that she can and will do this, and it is even worse that Benny will kill to “protect” her from it. The whole movie is informed by feelings like that, of having to choose between bad and worse in a world that essentially makes it fruitless to be good.
Garcia was critically blasted on its release and died at the box office, possibly because people who saw Peckinpah’s name on the product expect something completely different. He was no stranger to controversy or ostracism by then, though. The Wild Bunch was widely lambasted for its violence and carnage on its release, even if Peckinpah was using the violence to make a point about the people he was regarding—and not with anger or contempt, but sadness and sympathy. He followed Bunch up with Straw Dogs, which had Dustin Hoffman as a reclusive mathematician being forced to use violence to protect his family. That movie did not work for me; the mechanics of the situation were so contrived and farcical that it undermined any possible point he could have made. Garcia, on the other hand, is plain and direct, and never stumbles once.
Peckinpah himself was no stranger to booze and sadness, and spent the last years of his life committing suicide with alcohol. He made a slew of Westerns and movies inspired by the morality and aura of the Western, but was constantly at odds with the studios that employed him and resented their interference. He hated having to compromise, to tone down his material, to fit square pegs into round holes. He felt society regarded him as an ugly anachronism, and Garcia seems borne straight from that sentiment. And like Benny himself, Peckinpah had no answer to any of this except to keep soldiering on. He probably won’t make it, but at least he can make the bastards choke on it.