Sam Peckinpah spent his career fighting against the Hollywood studio system to make his own distinctive brand of films. Out of all the ones he made only on Bring Me theHead of Alfredo Garcia (1974) was he given final cut privileges. The film is the epitome of a grungy nihilism that was in vogue with many American filmmakers during the 1970s with Peckinpah leading the charge in 1969 with the explosive deconstruction of the western that was The Wild Bunch. Coupled with his love affair with the country of Mexico, the veteran director created a deeply personal film that alienated critics and mainstream audiences alike back in the day, but has gone on to become one of his most highly regarded films.
The film begins with an image of idyllic beauty: a young, pregnant Mexican girl suns herself on the bank of a river. This is quickly shattered by a brutal scene where said girl is tortured by her land baron father, known as El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez), until she reveals the name of the man responsible: Alfredo Garcia. This is achieved by the breaking of her arm and Peckinpah makes sure he rubs our noses in the ugliness of the act, complete with the sickening snap, which sounds like a branch breaking.
Feeling that he was betrayed by Garcia (“He was like a son to me.”), El Jefe issues a bounty: a million dollars to whoever can deliver the head of Garcia to him. And so, he sets in motion a series of events that will have bloody, tragic consequences. Two rich businessmen (Gig Young and Robert Webber) search every town and small village for any signs of the man. One day, they happen by a small-town bar where they catch the eye of Bennie (Warren Oates), the bartender who likes the color of their money. We meet him playing piano and at first glance Warren Oates resembles a scuzzier version of Tom Waits during the Nighthawks at the Diner phase of his career. The actor exudes a sleazy charm that is a lot of fun to watch, especially when he talks sports with the two rich businessmen.
Bennie asks around and finds out that his girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) once had Garcia as a customer when she was a prostitute. Bennie strikes a deal with the businessmen. He has four days to bring back Garcia’s head for $10,000 or they will come after him. So, Bennie and his girl go on the road with two thugs in a beat-up station wagon tailing them. They travel through some of the most dirt-poor parts of Mexico that you will not find in a tourist brochure any time soon. Bennie becomes obsessed, not with the money, but with Garcia and why his head is so valuable. He sees it as a ticket that will lead him to this answer.
Once they find Garcia’s body, Bennie and Elita’s lives get a lot more bloody and violent as the film shifts gears into a balls-to-the-wall revenge picture. Bennie’s descent into murder-fueled madness is something to see. He starts talking to Garcia’s severed head. He looks in the mirror and sees a completely different man looking back at him than who he was when this all began.
Peckinpah takes the time to show the relationship between Bennie and Elita — the intimate familiarity. It is almost like they are out for a picnic and not looking for a dead man. They have their dream of one day getting married. Oates delivers a fierce and fearless performance devoid of vanity. He’s not afraid to look unattractive and behave badly, like the way Bennie treats Elita. They live in a grungy flea pit that makes you want to have a shower – or at least check for ticks – it’s that tangible thanks to the set design. Bennie and Elita are in love – they’re a hard-drinking couple that cares for each other. She stays with him because she loves him and he’s devoted to her. He’s willing to kill for her. It’s a fully realized relationship with its own unique complexities. There is a scene where Bennie asks Elita to marry him that is touching and heartbreaking – easily one of the most intimate and emotional scenes in any Peckinpah film. It makes us care about what happens to them and it lays the groundwork for Bennie’s transformation into a hardened killer.
A troubling aspect of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is Peckinpah’s harsh treatment of women. From the pregnant girl that has her arm broken to Elita almost being raped by a dirty biker, women are abused and generally treated like crap. That being said, Elita is an interesting character in that she rises above the misogyny of Bennie and the biker. She doesn’t cower in fear but bravely faces her would-be abuser. Isela Vega does a wonderful job conveying Elita’s conflicted feelings that she has for her past relationship with Alfredo and the hopeful future she could have as a result of the bounty for his head.
What can you say about Warren Oates that hasn’t already been said? He was one of the most underrated actors in the ‘70s. He left behind an impressive body of work; some of the best was with Peckinpah. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, he looks the part of Bennie, with his cheap, white suit, gaudy shirt and loud tie, complete with large sunglasses — based on Peckinpah’s actual attire at the time. Oates always looks disheveled and world-weary — a life of hard-living. He has a natural, tough guy presence that you just don’t see any more. He has a cool, don’t-mess-with-me attitude. And no one can quite curse angrily as convincingly as Oates does. At one point, he tells two bikers (one played by Kris Kristofferson) who are about to rape his girlfriend, “You two guys are definitely on my shit list.” You don’t really like Bennie but you grow to respect him and his obsessive desire for the truth.
Filmmaker Sam Peckinpah was working on The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) when long-time friend Frank Kowalski told him about an idea for a film that he had. “’I got a great title: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo…,’ and he has some other name – ‘and the hook is that the guy is already dead.’” Peckinpah loved the idea and began working on it with Kowalski while making Cable Hogue and later in England while filming Straw Dogs (1971). Together, they produced a 20-page treatment with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda in mind.
Peckinpah hired screenwriter Walter Kelly to write the script. He wrote the first half before the director fired him. Producer Martin Baum had formed his own independent production company, Optimus Productions, and had a deal with United Artists. Peckinpah came to him with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and 25 pages of the script. Baum read and liked it. United Artists agreed to pay the director to write the rest of the script but he told Baum not to pay him because he owed him a favor. Peckinpah told the producer that if UA liked the script then he could pay him.
The director finished the script with Gordon Dawson who approached the project thusly: “I wrote Sam. How can I drag this guy through every toilet in Mexico? I knew Mexico and I knew Sam, and I knew how much Sam loved Mexico. And I knew what Sam liked about Mexico, so I just put it all in there.” Peckinpah showed the finished screenplay to James Coburn and Peter Falk, both of whom passed because they found the material too dark for their tastes. Then, the director thought of Warren Oates who accepted the role without reading the script as working with Peckinpah was the only reason he needed.
Peckinpah started pre-production in mid-August 1973 in Mexico City. With the exception of a few key people, the entire crew was Mexican. To that end, the director hired Alex Phillips Jr., one of the country’s premiere cinematographers, to work on his film. They bonded over a dislike for wide-angle lenses and an admiration for zooms and multiple camera set-ups. Peckinpah told him, “I make very few takes, but I shoot a lot of film because I like to change angles. I shoot with editing in the back of my mind.”
While scouting locations, the director relied extensively on his gut instinct and a desire to portray a gritty, realistic vision he had of Mexico. Peckinpah spent a lot of time searching for the right bar that would Bennie would frequent. He finally discovered a place in the Plaza Garibaldi known as “Tlaque-Paque.” The director looked around and said, “This is dressed. This is for real.” Mexican crew members told him that the bar’s owner had an infamous reputation and it was rumored that he once killed a woman there, serving very little jail time because he bribed the right people in positions of power.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia went into production in late September. A month later, Peckinpah was quoted in Variety magazine as saying, “For me, Hollywood no longer exists. It’s past history. I’ve decided to stay in Mexico because I believe I can make my pictures with greater freedom from here.” This upset the Motion Picture and Television unions and they openly censured Peckinpah for his statement at their National Conference in Detroit. They also threatened Alfredo Garcia with union boycotts upon its release, labeling it a “runaway” production. The director claimed he had been misquoted and before his film was to be released, the unions relented on their threat.
Early on, Oates had difficulty getting into the role – playing an outsider living on the margins of society. He realized that due to the personal nature of the script he should base his performance on Peckinpah: “I really tried to do Sam Peckinpah, as much as I knew about him, his mannerisms, and everything he did.” Once he made that choice, the actor committed completely to the role as one close friend found out when he visited the actor in Mexico during filming: “All traces of Oates had disappeared—he was that mean.”
As principal photography continued into the month of December, the demand, both physically and emotionally, were taking their toll on the cast and crew. Deep in the depths of a cocaine binge, Peckinpah put his cast through hell, playing mind games with Oates so that he would think the director was mad at him, which would put the actor on edge for a given scene. Oates was battling his own demons, indulging in vodka and tequila on a regular basis. He and Peckinpah would get into heated arguments, which was par for the course for these strong-willed men. This approach, according to friends, came out of Peckinpah’s own insecurity as he felt that the only way to exert control on his set was to make everyone more insecure than him. To help everyone let off some steam, Peckinpah and the producers bought out a local bar and threw a surprise party. Principal photography ended three days before Christmas and Peckinpah took a week off before supervising the editing process.
In mid-August of 1974, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia opened first in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. New York magazine’s Michael Sragow called it “a catastrophe so huge that those who once ranked Peckinpah with Hemingway may now invoke Mickey Spillane.” Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and called it, “some kind of bizarre masterpiece.” The New York Times’ Nora Sayre felt that the film began “brilliantly, especially because of the pacing. Knowing when to speed the action up or slow it down, Mr. Peckinpah grabs our total attention. Then the movie disintegrates rapidly.” Newsweek criticized the plot as a “necrophiliac and nonsensical struggle for the love of a woman.”
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a ferocious crime film that has been imitated (see Man on Fire) but never equaled. No amount of visual and stylistic flourishes can compare with Peckinpah’s sparse, no-nonsense approach. It is a slow burn of a film for the first two-thirds only to erupt into an orgy of violence for the last third that acts as a cathartic release, both for us and for Bennie. At times, it is not an easy film to watch. One gets the feeling that Peckinpah doesn’t care if you like his film or not. He didn’t make it for people to love or hate, he made because he had to it – it was a story he had to tell. His film is unafraid to tell a story with such unflinching honesty and takes you to places that challenge you and make you think about things differently. That’s what Alfredo Garcia does so well. Finally free of studio constraints, Peckinpah was able to tell a story his way and that’s why this film is his most satisfying one.