It’s no leap to say that the conversations we’re having now about sexism and gender representation—in art and in life—are growing perpetually louder. So when we look back at Sam Peckinpah, who directed masculine-minded genre pictures defined by their resolutely cruel tone, we look with a microscope: Was he getting off on the explicit violence? Was he as spiteful of women as he was of the men in his movies? Was he a caricature of John Wayne-era machismo—has his time passed? Many of his films are playing the Somerville Theatre this summer. So while we can’t speak to his character, we can speak to his work. And there’s artistry in his cruelty.
When we talk about that artistry, we often do so by talking about aesthetics: The discontinuous, shell-shocked editing of the gunfights in The Wild Bunch (July 15), or the blood-streaked textures of the cinematography in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (August 5). But Peckinpah’s voice is also defined by an abiding interest in the darkest pockets of male existence—in the intricacies of codes of honor among thieves, in the effects of combat on body and mind, and in the psychological causes of sexualized violence. And those interests were clear even back when his movies were filmed with a more functional eye.
Take 1962’s Ride the High Country, which—save for some stunning moments set in a preacher’s shack, where Peckinpah shades everyone as though they were under candlelight—visually resembles many other Westerns of its era. The narrative also seems typical: Joel McCrea plays an aging gunman hired to transport gold from a mining colony, and he brings an old outlaw friend (Randolph Scott) and a young buck (Ron Starr) along with him. The latter pair plan to double-cross him for the loot, but then the young one falls for the aforementioned preacher’s daughter (Mariette Hartley), awakening all his moral impulses in the process.
We’ve heard this one before. But then the rhythm drops out from under us. Hartley’s character is engaged to one of the miners, and she marries him. It’s only after “I do” that she realizes her beau intends to share her with his snaggletoothed cousins. Peckinpah shoots the whole ordeal from her perspective, lingering on the details as she’d notice them: The tackiness of the local madam, then the shabbiness of the bar they’re in, and then—as the camera shakes with a wildness it never possessed before—the brazen passes of her new relatives. We stay with her point-of-view the whole way through.
It’s a sequence that recontextualizes similar incidents in other Peckinpah films, like the traumatic assaults that send Straw Dogs (July 22) into its own fits of furious violence. Beyond the blood, the gore, and the brutal displays of misogyny, there’s a melancholy and a terror, embodied by sequences like this wedding—there’s a lament that a man’s world is the one we’re stuck with.
RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 55 DAVIS SQ., SOMERVILLE. JULY 1. 8PM/NR/$10. SOMERVILLETHEATREONLINE.COM