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Monday 18th Dec 2017

I have always been a sucker for westerns. Truly.

In fact, I miss the westerns of the 40's and 50's. You know, the ones with John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Films like Red River and The Naked Spur and the Ox-Bow Incident.

Even though those films are ridiculously romanticized visions of the American West, they still get to me with simple sets of right and wrong and good versus evil. Part of it must be rooted in my equally ridiculous sense of justice which dictates the downtrodden will always overcome oppression. Well, at least I want to think it will.

But, in 1969, Sam Peckinpah ultimately deconstructed not just the western genre, but redefined how violence is portrayed in western cinema with his wonderful film, The Wild Bunch.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Peckinpah paints a portrait of aging violent men fighting as the era of industrialization is beginning to push that of the cowboy, his horse, and the idealized code of honor the west offers aside for cars and the telegraph, along with a structured legal system where settling scores with guns is no longer acceptable.

Aside from the anti-heroes played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson--for they were all old to be heroes and borrow from Bonnie and Clyde in making us sympathize with people who are really not very nice--Peckinpah shows us their violence by slowing down the motion when people are shot and passing from life to death. Actually, his use of this visual was borrowed from the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and his tremendous The Seven Samurai.

Peckinpah actually worked his way up to pushing the then acceptable violence shown in The Wild Bunch during those crazy 60's, when everything we knew culturally was being uprooted.

A year later Peckinpah returned with another lovely paean again to the end of the west, but this time with Jason Robards with an equally challenging quandary in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

In 1971 Peckinpah took a break from Westerns, though when he adapted a novel, The Siege at Trencher's Farm, into the film Straw Dogs in which Dustin Hoffman portrays an egghead physicist--a man used to reasoning his way out of problems--who is egged on by local bullies to the breaking point, where he abandons reason, returning violence with violence.

Well, next week a remake of Straw Dogs, directed this time by Rod Lurie but co-scripted by David Zelag Goodman, who co-wrote the earlier screenplay with Peckinpah, and starring James Marsden (whom I guess I know only from Robot Chicken, and I don't know any of :Lurie's work) as mathematician David Sumner.

But, among other things, the remake of Straw Dogs takes place in the American South rather than rural England and that plot twist pushed the new version into the realm of I Spit on Your Grave and Deliverance.

A week after the Straw Dogs remake is released, a film called Killer Elite is to be released, although all it shares a title--for Peckinpah made a CIA-based nail biter with Robert Duvall and James Caan called The Killer Elite--although this new film is based on a 1991 book and deals with British Assassins rather than American ones, and though the story might be different, I suspect this film owes as much to Peckinpah as any other film that displays violence and the slender reed between life and death.

I have to say I really don't like remakes, and the older and fussier I get, the less I am even interested in new movies, which kind of makes me sad. There was a time I went to the cinema almost every night, soaking in classic films as well as checking out everything new I could fit in.

So, while I am not really interested in either the new Straw Dogs or Killer Elite, I cannot recommend the films of the late Sam Peckinpah, who died in 1984, enough.  The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Straw Dogs are all fabulous movies. In fact, Major Dundee is also more than worth a view.

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