Singer-songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, with a voice as expressively craggy as his face, is a bull's-eye choice to narrate Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (premiering tonight at 8 on cable's Westerns channel).
Of course, he starred in two mad Peckinpah epics -- as Billy the Kid in the funereal Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and as independent trucker Rubber Duck in the exuberant Convoy (1978). But Kristofferson also penned songs that became anthems for every American artistic maverick fighting herd mentality and commercialism and questioning the native mania for wholesome, mainstream success. When John Huston went looking for music to express the gritty melancholy of small-time boxers in Fat City, he hit on Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night."
In a recent phone interview, Kristofferson said that what propelled Peckinpah to meet him was his song "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," the one that goes, "On the Sunday morning sidewalks / Wishing Lord that I was stoned / 'Cause there is something in a Sunday / That makes a body feel alone."
Peckinpah was the most extravagantly gifted filmmaker of his time, and perhaps all time. His movies burst with a wounded lyricism akin to the Kristofferson who wrote "And there's nothin' short of dyin' / Half as lonesome as the sound / On the sleepin' city side walks / Sunday mornin' comin' down."
Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (directed by Tom Thurman; written by Tom Marksbury) overflows with hard-knocks poetry thanks largely to the clips, but also to an eclectic interview roster of Peckinpah friends, colleagues and devotees. Artists who toiled joyfully and painfully for Peckinpah, such as film editor Garth Craven and actors Harry Dean Stanton, Stella Stevens and L.Q. Jones (and in archive footage, James Coburn), testify to his creativity and self-destruction. Peckinpah's keenest critic, Paul Seydor (author of Peckinpah: The Western Films), and sturdiest biographer, David Weddle (author of If They Move ... Kill 'Em), provide clear-eyed assessments of masterpieces like The Wild Bunch (1969) and unique, gritty pastorales like The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), with Jason Robards, and Junior Bonner (1972), with Steve McQueen.
The happiest surprise is that actors who never met the man offer fresh appreciation of his bone-deep lyricism. There's something hammy but also pungent and real about Michael Madsen's struggle to understand the signature line from Ride the High Country (1962), "All I want is to enter my house justified" -- a ringing ethical statement about toting up failings and virtues in the face of death. Billy Bob Thornton speaks the plain truth when he says that Peckinpah, who was born and bred in California, could have hailed from Texas or Arkansas because his voice comes straight from the heart of (non-media) America. And Benicio Del Toro furrows his brow eloquently as he savors the coup of Kristofferson breaking into song during his break from the Lincoln jail in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
"That was one of the toughest things I ever had to do," Kristofferson reminisces over the phone, "singing while I'm pulling together my gear and leaving the jail and walking to the old Mexican fella who is holding my horse. But that was Peckinpah; he wanted that in."
Before Kristofferson met his director, he had seen Peckinpah's thriller Straw Dogs (1971) -- "it was powerful" -- and "the two that are maybe his best," The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country.
"When I first walked into his office at MGM, he had a big wooden door propped up against the wall and he was throwing knives at it. But I think we had a bond from the time we met. I had worked as a laborer on the construction of a logging road up near Peckinpah Mountain" -- a peak Sam's grandfather had claimed in the High Sierras, in the 1870s.
A veteran Peckinpah stunt man used to say, "Sam likes turmoil," and by the time Kristofferson got to perform for him, "He was always in some sort of battle, usually with studios and producers."
Kristofferson felt such an immediate affinity for Peckinpah that when producer Gordon Carroll approached Bob Dylan, Kristofferson encouraged his friend to join the Pat Garrett company. "I loved Bob Dylan as much as I did Sam. And Bob had just screened The Wild Bunch and was excited but also kind of scared. Bob had been in documentaries, never in a dramatic movie. " Dylan quickly composed a theme for the Kid (with the line, "Billy, they don't like you to be so free") -- it sold Peckinpah on his participation -- and threw himself into shooting in Durango, Mexico. "I don't think he'd done a lot of horseback riding, but he rode so much his legs were bleeding."
Dylan didn't feel the quick connect with Peckinpah that Kristofferson did, with good reason. "The first time he went to watch the dailies, the print was too dark and out-of-focus." An outraged Peckinpah relieved himself on the screen. "I'll never forget the look on Bob's face -- he looked over at me as if to say, 'What have you got me into?' "
Peckinpah, prematurely deteriorating in his late 40s due to paranoia and substance abuse (he died in 1984, at age 59), "thought the producers had brought in Dylan to make the movie more commercial. Actually, the music Bob did for it was great, and you couldn't take your eyes off him. The character he was playing was called 'Alias' -- a great name for a Bob Dylan character -- a printer's devil shucking it all to go along with Billy the Kid. I did a lot of research, and discovered there was a real guy named Alias who did hang out with the Kid; I thought it would have been a good idea to have the movie play out as Alias' vision of the legend. It's too bad that Sam didn't understand Bob and never told him who his character was supposed to be. But when you watch the movie and hear 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' during Slim Pickens' death, it's still one of the most powerful uses of music on film you'll ever hear and see."
For Kristofferson, the movie was a giant challenge. "And not just because I had to shave! The Kid represented something big: freedom and the battle against authority. The way I saw him, there was a real innocence to him; everybody in contact with him liked him. He wasn't like some serial killer. He got where he was by sticking up for friends, and I think that's what attracted Sam to him. It's like what William Holden says in The Wild Bunch -- 'you side with a man, you stick with him.' Loyalty was important to Sam, and Sam won loyalty from his actors because we saw he was trying to make something good while waging the old battle between art and money. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid had every great character actor you ever saw -- Jack Elam, R.G. Armstrong, Slim Pickens, Chill Wills. James Coburn did such a great job as Garrett in one of the best roles he ever played. But it's funny," adds Kristofferson. "I think Sam also identified with Garrett," the pragmatist who guns down the Kid.
Dinosaurs in the desert
By the time Kristofferson signed on for Convoy, "Sam was in rougher shape than he'd ever been before. He was like an old dog you love and have to apologize for half of the time. Good lord -- he was hard to understand when he was medicating himself with tequila or whatever. At one point the producers tried to fire him, and I said I'd walk if they did. Sam came up to me and said, 'You [expletive], I was almost out!" And I said, 'You [expletive], you're the one who got me into it."
But even "fighting his own demons and the script the whole way," Peckinpah put his stamp on Convoy, especially when the trucks' diesel roar, the twanging, percussive country music and the overwhelming, almost supernatural imagery roll through the picture in waves. "He wanted to turn a trucker movie into a revolutionary thing. We always felt that all those 18-wheelers lining up behind me was like the scene in Viva Zapata! when the mounted police lead Marlon Brando behind them on a rope. As Zapata stumbles along, the peasants line up marching to support him like tributaries feeding into a stream, and the flow becomes so big that no one can stop them."
Against all odds, Convoy became a moneymaker -- audiences accepted it as a rough-and-tumble comedy about runaway American individualism, with a voluptuous vision of trucks rampaging like dinosaurs through the desert. But the melodrama on the set made him unemployable. He got to direct just one more film, The Osterman Weekend (1983), which he turned into The Big Chill with guns.
The triumphant black comedy of Sam Peckinpah was that again and again, when critics, audiences and most producers counted him out, Peckinpah could score with a cunning stratagem, an inspired stroke or a wild creative lunge.
"The tragedy of Sam Peckinpah," says Kristofferson, "is that the war he continually waged for his art is what killed him."
The Westerns channel is part of the Starz group, available on ComCast Digital.