4 out of 4 stars
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Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage is a study of the legendary movie director, Sam Peckinpah. Written by Garner Simmons, the book has made several appearances over the years. It was first published in 1982, with a second edition following in 1998. The current volume, branded as The Definitive Edition, has been put out this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of one of Peckinpah’s most celebrated films, ‘The Wild Bunch’. This edition boasts a lot of new material, including photographs, from the Peckinpah private collection.
The first three chapters of the book cover Peckinpah’s early life in California and his first forays into making television dramas. The bulk of the book, however, covers the fourteen movies which Peckinpah directed. Aside from ‘The Wild Bunch’, these included classic westerns such as ‘Ride the High Country’ and ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, as well as ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘The Getaway’, and ‘Cross of Iron’. The author interviewed hundreds of subjects over many years for this project and these interviews are transcribed almost verbatim. Since not everyone interviewed speaks well of Peckinpah, this adds to the authenticity of the book. This is certainly no hagiography: the reader gets to see the real Peckinpah, warts and all. The movie business is also portrayed in all its imperfections. Most of Peckinpah’s work was done in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time when the majority of those behind the camera were male, a time when there existed a macho culture fuelled by drink and drugs, and when the director felt able to invite prostitutes out to the location as a ‘diversion’ for the crew.
This is a book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. The author is successful in explaining why we should be still interested in a film director who died some thirty-five years ago and whose movies are now largely unfamiliar to the average cinema-goer. Through the detailed analysis of Peckinpah’s work, he shows how much of what we take for granted in movies today has its origins with filmmakers like Peckinpah. His insistence on realism meant showing scenes of bloody violence, often in slow-motion, or depicting anti-heroes who blurred the traditional lines between the ‘white hat’ good guys and the villains. This was all new at the time and caused great controversy.
It was the human stories from the film sets that I enjoyed most. Peckinpah was certainly not an easy man to get along with. He drank alcohol in great quantities for most of his working life and became addicted to cocaine: both these factors no doubt contributed to his volatility and unpredictability. Those who did not measure up to his standards on set were bawled out or sacked. He fought with studio executives who tried to impose restrictions on his work, be these artistic, logistical, or financial restraints. Such was his reputation for conflict that for a period he found himself unemployable in the industry. Despite this, top actors still wanted to work with him and many were happy to go on record for this book.
There isn’t too much that I disliked about this impressive work. I am not particularly interested in the technical side of film-making, so some of the more arcane discussions about the nuts and bolts of putting together a movie went over my head. Hardcore movie nerds may find that kind of detail more enjoyable.
I am giving this book 4 out of 4 stars. It is exceptionally well-edited and I genuinely struggled to find a single grammatical or typographical error. I would recommend this book to movie fans and film students. Readers who like biographies may also enjoy this. There is some strong language used in the book, so if that is something that you prefer to avoid, this is not the book for you.
Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage - The Definitive Edition
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