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When men were men

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  September 3, 2008

In PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (September 6 at 7 pm), Garrett himself (James Coburn) has been compromised by progress. The governor of New Mexico (Jason Robards) makes him a sheriff and sends him out after his one-time buddy, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). This 1973 film, a hippie Western with a pair of pop stars — Bob Dylan, who wrote the plaintive score, makes an oddball appearance as a character known as Alias — is a fascinating failure, and though the latest (2005) restoration has clarified the narrative, the film still doesn’t work. But it’s magnificent to look at (John Coquillon shot it), and it offers indelible images and one of the director’s greatest scenes, where a deputy (Slim Pickens) expires by a stream while his wife (Katy Jurado) watches, her eyes full of silent tears, from a distance, unwilling to approach him and violate the privacy of his last moments. The sun glows crimson in the stream; Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” throbs on the soundtrack.

Peckinpah completist that I am, I wish the HFA had added his comic Western, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, his supremely relaxed trucker comedy, Convoy (which is a genial self-parody), and his two paranoid thrillers, The Killer Elite and The Osterman Weekend. But it offers just about everything else, including, of course, his most controversial picture, the 1971 STRAW DOGS (September 6 at 9:15 pm), which divides Peckinpah aficionados. Dustin Hoffman, in one of his canny early performances, plays a mathematician who moves to the Cornish village where his sultry wife (the remarkable, long-forgotten Susan George) grew up to escape the embattled atmosphere of Vietnam-era America. In the movie’s rather Neanderthal terms, that makes him a coward who can redeem himself only by defending his territory — including his wife — from invaders. The film is, of all things, Of Mice and Men informed by Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative: the intruders (who have also raped his wife) want to lynch a mentally handicapped local (David Warner) who has accidentally killed George’s double, a flirtatious girl who came on to him.

Straw Dogs is taut and memorable, but I’m not among its fans. I prefer the war film CROSS OF IRON (September 7 at 9 pm), with its staggering combat sequences and piercing images: an upended jeep, wheels still spinning; live soldiers buried in trenches, their flesh rippling like waves as the artillery rings out above their heads; blood seeping from a headless uniform half-sunk in the water; a tank, its operator unseen, plowing through rubble like an unkillable monster in some apocalyptic sci-fi picture. And, messed up as it is, I prefer MAJOR DUNDEE (September 5 at 9:15 pm), a Western on an immense canvas, in which Peckinpah and his cinematographer, Sam Leavitt, employed the resources of Panavision and Eastmancolor to describe the expansive beauty of the late-19th-century landscape. Like The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett, Major Dundee has been restored, but Peckinpah’s vision can never be achieved fully, because some of what he intended he never got the time and money to shoot. And the script itself is flawed; the second half — as Paul Seydor shows in a perceptive analysis in his book Sam Peckinpah: The Western Films — A Reconsideration — simplifies and thus contradicts the complex title character set up in the first half. Plus, Charlton Heston, who plays Dundee, is inadequate to the job; he’s overshadowed by the second lead, Richard Harris.

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