The Underrated: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
I should really rename this series “the forgotten about”. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and that’s because I haven’t really seen anything that I’d class as that underrated. However, while watching Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which is arguably the ultimate Sam Peckinpah movie, it occurred to me that the film receives nowhere near the love that it should do. Even if it is arguably to blame for some of Cokey McFrankensteinhead’s more wild excesses. I find it surprising that in this day and age of remakes, particularly of notorious films from the day, that this Grand Guignol of bloody tragedy and ultraviolence wouldn’t have flitted across some marketing whore’s desk. I mean, if you think about it, the supremely unpalatable Straw Dogs received a grotesquely inappropriate remake last year (which genius cast Kate Bosworth in the Susan George role? She’s got the sex appeal of a tapioca filled jockstrap) so it’s astonishing that arguably the definitive pulp movie somehow has remained untouched.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia had a somewhat troubled genesis. Conceived by Frank Kowalski, the story of one man’s attempt to retrieve a corpse’s head was transformed by Pekinpah into something almost completely unpalatable for audiences at the time. Certainly unpalatable for most (Ebert excepted) critics. Filming in Mexico, the gun crazy wino tweaked the nose of Hollywood with increasingly insane pronouncements about American cinema, and thereby pissed off the unions who threatened to boycott the film. It went down as the film that Peckinpah thought he had the most control of; the film that represented his purest vision, and on that note, one can only say that he was one supremely fucked up dude.
Warren Oates plays Bennie. Bennie is a down on his luck American ex-soldier eking out a sorry living playing piano in a shitty bar in Mexico City. He’s approached by Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young), two homosexual hitmen working for El Jefe, a wealthy land owner who is somewhat upset that his daughter was impregnated by one Alfredo Garcia. Bennie happens to think he knows the location, and he confirms with his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) that Garcia died in a drink driving accident. Bennie hatches the half-witted plan to cut the head off the corpse and return it to El Jefe for 10k. En route to Garcia’s grave Bennie and Elita are assaulted by two bikers (one of whom is played by Kris Kristofferson) who attempt to rape Elita compelling Bennie to open Pandora’s box and gun the pair of them down, thereby starting the spiral of violence that the film is set on. At Garcia’s grave, Elita is murdered and Bennie buried alive with her body, which causes his mind to, understandably, fracture. Bennie retrieves the head, has a few severely bizarre conversations with it and the violence escalates culminating in a, even for Peckinpah, astonishingly nihilistic and blood soaked ending.
Warren Oates has never been better than he is here as Bennie. His accelerating unravelling psyche is brilliantly portrayed, and the scene where he starts chatting to Alfredo is a superb piece of work. Vega, an actress that I’m not familiar with, is astonishingly good as Elita, and her performance is natural and incredibly warm. Incidentally, this is essential, because she supplies the emotional heart of the film- Elita loves Bennie unconditionally, and despite his greed bringing tragedy down on them, she’d willingly follow him into the jaws of Hell. It’s her death that alters Bennie’s motivation, and the transformation from being a greedy bastard after some cash into the spirit of revenge is one of the finest examples of high tragedy out there.
This is a “difficult” film, and that’s in part because it is so god damned nihilistic. Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a bleak and sordid tale, and as such is not easy to watch. Peckinpah’s Mexico is a down and dirty place, populated with characters with no redeeming feature; a land where life is cheap and respite from the misery is found in the bottom of a bottle. Garcia’s head becomes a grail quest for Bennie- it represents a sliver of hope in a horrible existence, and the eventual shattering of his delusions is what makes the film so hard to watch. Incidentally, apparently there is a scene out there, thankfully cut, that shows him making love (for want of a better expression) with Elita’s corpse, which is a bit too much even for Peckinpah.
As this is a Peckinpah film, we’re clearly not going to be short of gunplay, and Bennie kills more people than Spanish flu. Arguably Peckinpah’s most famous scene is the end of the Wild Bunch, and Alfredo Garcia is similarly stuffed full of slo-mo shoot outs. Yet, as stylised as the violence is, it doesn’t feel gratuitous. Bennie hasn’t borrowed Rambo’s jacket of invulnerability, and the death handed out, particularly to El Jefe, is brutal and coarse: life may be cheap in the film, but it is very hard to say that in all honesty the majority of the victims don’t deserve their demise- and as such this makes the end even harder to take, because Bennie is completely off reservation by this point and you get the feeling that he knows that his own end is coming.
Overall, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a minor masterpiece. It’s a gritty pulp story told with no little panache and stock full of stunning performances. I find it insane that this film rates on some people’s lists of the worst movies of all time along with schlocky trash like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or Manos. Such an absurd statement can only have been borne from the alienation of Alfredo Garcia, and the difficulty that elitist turd Medved had watching it. In some ways, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the definitive cult movie- and it does seem to have found its audience long after it was first released.
This is the film that has been credited with killing Peckinpah’s career, and it’s fitting that Bloody Sam went down in a hail of bullets, as I cannot think of another film that encapsulates an entire career like this one.
Until next time,