Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) (112 minutes)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
Written by Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T. Dawson.
Starring Warren Oates, Isela Vega and Robert Webber.
Sam Peckinpah achieved prominence as a director and writer by showing us the savagery and the effect violence had upon human beings. Although he directed some awesome films lacking bloodshed, his most famous picture was The Wild Bunch, a revisionist, neo-western epic. The movie shocked critics and audiences alike with an opera of bodies torn apart by various weapons and the wholesale killing of women and children. The Wild Bunch thus became the essence of a Peckinpah film, one against all his other movies were judged.
This was a shame because Peckinpah gave us some amazing cinematic treasures before he retired, such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue. However the film closest in spirit to The Wild Bunch is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The director also declared the movie as close to an autobiography of all his efforts. We know Peckinpah was an alcoholic and frequently abusive and combative on the set.
Panned by critics when it debuted, the picture is considered a cult masterpiece today. Influenced by The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and retaining the “dishonor among thieves” theme of The Wild Bunch and The Getaway. Peckinpah even has Gig Young give his name as Fred C. Dobbs, Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The picture opens up at a rather unhappy family gathering somewhere in Mexico. El Jefe΄ (Emilio Fernandez) a fabulously wealthy criminal has just discovered his daughter is pregnant. He tortures her into confessing that the father is one Alfredo Garcia, a man that El Jefe΄ was grooming to replace him as head of the organization. He offers one million American dollars on the spot to anyone who can bring back Alfredo’s head. I guess El Jefe΄ wanted to lighten up the somber mood.
So begins a descent into hell for all the major characters. Two bounty hunters (Gig Young and Robert Webber) follow the trail to a nasty brothel with an American piano player Bennie (the immortal Warren Oates). Bennie agrees to help the two find Garcia in exchange for a slice of the reward. The narrative soon reveals that Bennie’s prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) was one of Garcia’s lovers and that she knows where to find him.
The sub-plot of Bennie and Elita’s romance drives the story forward. Trapped in a sordid present, with no hope for the future, Bennie sees a way out for both of them through the reward money. It is heart wrenching to see the two characters so self-deluded that they can’t tell their doom is rushing headlong towards them. When they do stop for a tender moment, they are interrupted by bikers intent on raping Elita. The sequence ends with Bennie killing both scumbags and the nightmare plunge to the inferno continues.
Elita tells Bennie that Garcia died in a car crash several weeks ago and they head towards his grave. As Bennie starts unearthing poor Al, he is conked on the skull with a similar digging implement. When he awakes, interred with a dead Elita, Bennie finds Garcia’s head has been snatched. Told by the villagers some men in a station wagon were the perps, Bennie sets out on a course of revenge that leads to most of the cast being massacred by film’s end.
Once Garcia’s head is retrieved it becomes a character, as it is a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy (covered in flies and stinking) to reflect Bennie’s psychological friend. Now the chase is reversed. Bennie is determined to find the man who set all the death and destruction in motion to begin with. Unfortunately for all, massive amounts of money along with genuine sadists and sociopaths are a bad combination in Mexico. When Bennie finally arrives at El Jefe΄s hacienda, the Boss is dismissive about the loss of lives it cost to bring the rotting head in for the full reward. Bennie goes apeshit when told by El Jefe to throw the chunk of bone and meat to the pigs. It means all the lives lost, including his beloved Elita, were in vain. Instead of grabbing the cool million and splitting, Warren blasts the old bastid, taking the head with him. In fine Peckinpah fashion, Bennie drives off in a hail of machine gun fire, which results in his vivisection.
There is much to love about this film. The contrasts between El Jefe΄s ranch, Mexico City, the rural towns and the wild Mexican badlands are dramatically filmed. The acting is impeccable and one can argue this is Oates’ best performance. Musicians Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts make cameo appearances as the bikers. The movie can be looked at as a flawed hero with a flawed sense of honor. Perhaps, a bit like Peckinpah himself, who experienced a meteoric rise to fame and then was undone by the picture he directed before this one, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Sadly the director died at age 59, much too young and ill to fulfill his promise.