Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia Review
In 1973, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was released by MGM, if released is the right word; allowed to sneak out after curfew might be more accurate. The release version was heavily cut and, after receiving largely negative reviews, failed dismally with the public. Time, and the discovery of the Preview Version, has revealed it to be a great film but that success came too late for Peckinpah who took the failure very hard. Already drinking heavily, he plunged into a combustible combination of anger and depression. A few years later, this would have meant a further mile down the road to self-destruction. In this case it resulted in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
It would be possible to describe the film as a two hour shaggy dog story in which the viewer’s expectations are continually confounded by events. It begins in what appears to be a 19th century Mexican idyll, suddenly cuts to the 20th century jet-age, moves on to a strangely Southern Gothic Mexico and ends up in a gunfight which harks back to The Wild Bunch and anticipates Scarface. It’s also very funny, very moving, and totally unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The awe-inspiring human Kilimanjiro that was Emilio Fernandez plays el Jefe, a particularly foul Mexican ne’er do well, whose daughter has been put into the capirotada club by a mysterious gigolo named Alfredo Garcia. Somewhat put out, el Jefe hires two camp American henchmen to find someone who will hunt down this impudent stranger and decapitate him, and they find just the right man; Warren Oates. Now, Warren Oates is playing Bennie, an itinerant piano player, but actually he’s playing the distillation of everything you ever loved about Warren Oates. Having nothing better to do, Bennie agrees to take on the task but soon discovers that there is a hitch; his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) informs him that while she knows who Alfredo Garcia is, there’s not a lot of point in searching for him because he has just been killed in a car accident. Yet Bennie is nothing if not resourceful and, determined to prove his almost-instinct almost-true – “Nobody loses all the time” – he sets out in search of the corpse in order to complete his mission, get as much money as he can and finally achieve his apotheosis as a successful man of means.
Needless to say, in Peckinpah’s world, nothing is ever simple. In the Old West, even as late as 1914, it was still possible for Pike Bishop and the Wild Bunch to go down in a glorious hail of bullets and become the legendary heroes they always wanted to be. But times have changed and, more significantly, Peckinpah has changed. He’s tasted defeat at the hands of the money men more than once and he’s bitter but defiant. He’s working for Martin Baum, one of the few producers who left his work alone, and United Artists, who knew the value of an artist’s freedom. Finally, he can make a statement about how he sees his role as an artist in Hollywood and it’s a powerful one. Bennie is a hired gun given an impossible task and he comes through despite everything that the bastards who make the rules can throw at him. Cheated, robbed, cuckolded, bereaved and bloodied, he refuses to lie down and play dead. Ultimately, the gesture of bold defiance is doomed to failure but the gesture is what’s important to Peckinpah. It’s his two-fingers to Hollywood – particularly to Jerry Bressler, Charles Fitzsimmons and James Aubrey, the three suits who did so much to make his life difficult during the first thirteen years of his career. While making the film, he was quoted 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 got him into all sorts of trouble, but there’s a vivid sense in Alfredo Garcia of scores being settled and new possibilities South of the Border.
It was a beautiful dream. But that’s all it was. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was mocked by critics and rejected by audiences and Peckinpah slunk back with his tail between his legs to make The Killer Elite, shooting what scenes he didn’t assign to his assistant through ever-increasing mountains of cocaine. For a long time, Alfredo Garcia was a laughing stock and named as one of the Fifty Worst Movies Of All Time in a particularly shameful book. The film, however, never quite disappeared. It had a few vocal supporters even at the time – not that anyone was listening – and it began to find an audience among those people who search out products of that most fascinating period of American cinema – the Seventies. Certainly, it’s a quintessential Seventies film; quirky, brutal, blackly funny and cynical about the intentions of powerful men.
Yet it’s also a complete one-off. There are deep veins of cynicism and cruelty in Peckinpah’s work but there is much more. Humour, for one thing, which irresistibly bubbles up when you least expect it. There is too a heartfelt feeling for the beauty of the natural landscape and a feeling of elegy for a vanished world. Most of all, there is the mood of doomed, hopeless romanticism, of feelings never quite resolved, of love never fully requited or sufficiently valued, and a promise of life never quite fulfilled. This comes out intensely in Warren Oates’ performance as he gazes with thwarted longing as his hopes gradually slip out of his grasp. He meets it with comic madness – chattering away to Alfredo’s disembodied head which sits beside him on the passenger seat before developing a deep sentimental attachment to it – but it’s impossible to miss the depths of sadness in the heart. In this, he is well matched by Gig Young as one of the henchmen; the actor’s characteristic aura of alcoholic despair makes him a bloodbrother to Bennie – and Peckinpah used him to good effect once more in his next film.
More problematic, as usual in Peckinpah, is the treatment of women. Within the first five minutes a girl is stripped to the waist prior to having her arm broken, while the only significant female character is a prostitute who is threatened with abuse and rape. But that’s a very simplistic view of the film. No-one could accuse Sam of being remotely feminist, or even particularly insightful about women, but Elita’s character is one of his most interesting and her awkward, tentative relationship with Bennie is conveyed with surprising depths of emotional truth. She’s also given her own dream of a better life; married bliss symbolised by her desire for a simple church wedding. The dream is shattered of course because this is Peckinpah where dreamers always wake into the dawn of disillusionment. It’s also the case that Elita exists in a context where macho behaviour and, by extension, misogyny is deconstructed, most memorably in a scene where a biker, played by Kris Kristofferson, attempts to rape Elita but finds himself impotent at the sight of her naked body. The two trade slaps, the biker walks away and Elita, now given the upper hand and accustomed to this kind of abuse, takes over. Equally, Bennie is far from a typical macho hero. He postures and swaggers but it’s cosmetic, masking a basic gentleness which makes him an ideal man for Elita. If there’s a more touching portrayal of male and female relationships in the director’s work than the conversations about marriage in the meadow or the moment in the shower where Bennie, in unflinching close-up, tells Elita that he loves her, then I can’t think of it.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is sometimes described as a kind of horror film and certainly there are Gothic overtones to this quest into a Mexican heart of darkness. It’s also an action movie with some thrilling set-pieces and a characteristic use of slow-motion. But what comes across most strongly is the humanity and honesty of the film. The late Roger Ebert described Bennie as “heartbreakingly human” and he is one of Peckinpah’s most attractive and likeable heroes. In the end, against all the odds, Bennie doesn’t compromise and refuses to sell out his humanity for what the Coen Brothers once described as “a little bit of money.” In this film, neither does Sam Peckinpah.
This review is of the Italian Blu-Ray which is easily available online. There are also Blu-Ray releases from Spain and France but I haven’t seen the former and the latter is apparently appalling. As far as I know, there are no plans for an American or British release at the moment.
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer framed at 1.85:1 is very pleasant indeed. It’s not going to blow you out of your socks but it’s not likely to have you throwing them at the screen either. The bad news is that the transfer comes from a pretty dated and worn source and this results in some obvious damage throughout. A new 4k scan would, of course, be the ideal solution but I can’t see it happening any time soon. Given this, the results are pretty good with vivid colours and lots of lovely film grain. Detail varies and is at its worst in the darker interior scenes, particularly towards the beginning. But the exteriors are often beautiful and I was particularly taken by the natural look sequences between Bennie and Alfredo’s head in the car, especially those shot through the half-closed window.
The LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack allows for excellent clarity which copes well with Warren Oates’ mumbling. Music and effects are well balanced in the mix which sounds cleaner than the one on my Region 1 DVD.
The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer which demonstrates the problems involved in selling the film to an audience who, sated with the grim political reality of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation and seeking lighter fare, knew in advance that they didn’t want to see it. The next week they made a hit out of The Longest Yard, a cynical but rousing piece of audience-pleasing pulp which pushed all the buttons that Peckinpah just wasn’t interested in. The audio commentary from the Region 1 DVD is missing.
There are Italian subtitles available but these are optional, as is an Italian language track. The disc is encoded for Region B playback only.