Another installment in the Film Directors series.
Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman cut their directing teeth in television after serving in World War II. Besides being directors, they were writers, who understood injecting subtext into their film projects. Both flirted with film directing before making the jump full-time to features, the industry was not quite ready for them. Once they made the jump and achieved success, the industry still wasn’t ready for them. Each battled with the studios and producers throughout their careers.
Sam Peckinpah will forever be known for The Wild Bunch, his greatest and most controversial film achievement. Is that film tame by today’s standards? Maybe. The amount of violence is not so much greater than films of today, but what is different is the presentation of the violence. It was shocking then. Today, it catches your attention because of the slow-motion photography and editing. The violence is also brutal in the narrative of the film. Peckinpah is unapologetic for its graphic nature and the callousness of his characters. He was making a point. And he did.
“Well, killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple. It’s bloody and awful. And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere,” Peckinpah said, in reference to his presentation of violence.
Peckinpah my his own account could be self-indulgent in his subject matter, and didn’t seem to care that he could be a pain in the ass to deal with. After toiling for years in television and difficult experiences with his early film jobs, he was going to work on his own terms. After The Wild Bunch his career was peaks and valleys. The casual film viewer might be able to name one or two other films he directed. His output is not nearly as grand as Robert Altman, who lived nearly two decades longer and continued directing right up until his death. The two are contemporaries and ushered in a new style of film and film experience.
After serving in World War II, Peckinpah gravitated to the theater and then worked as a dialog coach for director Don Siegel. He began writing and sold a story that became Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks. His writing got him into television industry where he wrote and directed many action series. He created and produced the television series The Westerner starring Brian Keith, who later suggested Peckinpah for directing The Deadly Companions. This led to Ride the High Country starring Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott. The film is considered a classic today but disappeared after it was released. This film is identified as one of the first revisionist Westerns.
Peckinpah kept busy with television until his next film assignment came along, Major Dundee. This was his first big studio film and it was filled with problems. The studio took over the film and the final edited version was a disappointment to Peckinpah. Hired to direct Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid, he was fired after several days of filming.
He was offered a television movie job, Noon Wire, which was a critical success and led to his being hired to rewrite and direct a project that became The Wild Bunch. The success of this film led to the next phase of his career.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Get Away, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Killer Elite, Cross of Iron, Convoy, The Osterman Weekend.
Those films were hits and misses and even though Convoy was a commercial hit, he was unable to find another film directing job. He was hired as second unit director and then found work directing The Osterman Weekend, his last feature film. His last directing jobs were music videos for Julian Lennon.
Sam Peckinpah was a rebel to the end. Why change now?
Robert Altman, also entered the film business after serving in World War II. He started writing and directing industrial films in Kansas City before have the chance to direct several low budget films that got him noticed. He moved to Los Angeles where he entered television production, working on many Westerns and action series. Sound familiar?
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he wrote and directed episodes for many television series like Combat!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gunsmoke, Route 66, Maverick and many others. One of his series episodes was released as a feature film in Europe, which led to two feature films, neither of which were commercial hits. Altman had begun incorporating unusual narrative themes and film techniques into his work, which had not gone unnoticed. This style and approach would always clash with producers wanting a more traditional style and commercial sensibility.
“I am not going to do their work for them. I like audiences to crane their necks,”Altman once said in an interview about his unusual cinematic style.
Altman was hired to direct the film adaption of the popular novel, M*A*S*H. The success of the film overshadowed the conflict of production and complaints that Altman used very little of the script, which ironically won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. The film’s narrative structure is anything but a normal linear production. Altman’s style appears chaotic in nature, overlapping dialogue, sound that is difficult to hear, unusual photographic angles, abrupt changes in story, and scenes that look dropped in from other films. The result was one of the top earners of the year, made the film actors major stars, and Altman a major player in Hollywood.
In the 1970s, Altman would try very hard to get himself thrown out of Hollywood. He would alternate between commercial projects (done very non-commercially) and vanity projects that disappeared on release.
His most successful 1970s films were McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville. His biggest flops were Brewster McCloud, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and Quintet. In between were old ball films and minor hits.
In the 1980s, he started the decade with two big projects that both bombed: Health and Popeye. Big money, big stars, a lot of creative freedom, and huge expectations. Ater these two misfires he would spend the rest of the decade rebuilding his career. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Fool for Love, was the high-water mark for the decade. Whatever capital he built with MASH, McCabe and Nashville – was gone.
In 1990, he directed Vincent & Theo, a small film that got very positive reviews. This led to The Player, a commercial and critical success, and restored Altman as a hot commodity. Major actors wanted to work with him, and that counted. The third act of his career was filled with A List projects, proving there is a second chance, at least there was for Robert Altman. His last films were:
Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, Kansas City, The Gingerbread Man, Cookie’s Fortune, Dr. T & the Women, Gosford Park, The Company and The Prairie Home Companion.
These were generally good films, done Altman’s way, as always.
Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman were uniquely of their time. They came up against the buzz saw of the Hollywood way of making movies and firmly resisted becoming dominated by the machine. Peckinpah would lose the opportunity to direct, but he had made his mark before he died. Altman would spend a decade in near exile, working his way back and enjoying a later career resurgence. While both men are gone, their influence on the style of making movies endures.