Peckinpah first achieved fame, or notoriety, for the critically acclaimed and graphically violent film The Wild Bunch (1969). His creative and often explicit fight scenes earned him the nicknames "Bloody Sam" and “The Picasso of Violence”, although his films aren’t too shocking to a 21st century audience. Reportedly, when The Wild Bunch was shown to the Nigerian army, the fight scenes, made the troops ‘go crazy’, shooting at the movie screen, and the next day storming into battle fully charged. Many critics hailed The Wild Bunch as best picture of the sixties, including high-profile film editor Paul Seydor, who called it one of the best films ever made.
Peckinpah was also known for his behind-the-screens battles with his cast and crew. The actor James Coburn called Peckinpah a ‘creative paranoid who creates tension’. One anecdote describes him dissatisfied with the gunshot effects in the film, shouting "That's not what I want! That's not what I want!”, whilst marching up and down the set. He then pulled out a real, loaded revolver, and fired it at a wall, shouting "THAT'S the effect I want!!" at a terrified crew. Before Peckinpah, the same gunshot sound effect was used in all Warner Brothers films, but after The Wild Bunch, each gun had its own distinctive shot.
It could be said that Peckinpah was a firearms enthusiast. He was an accomplished hunter and owned several guns. For much of his life Peckinpah was an alcoholic and a cocaine addict. Sometimes, when drunk, he would charge through his house shooting the mirrors, an image depicted in some of his films. His stormy romantic relationships – five marriages, three to the same woman – all ended in divorce. After the release of The Wild Bunch and the fame that followed, Peckinpah’s public persona was a crude, rude, hard-drinking, hard-living outlaw, and the violence of his films secured that image in the public mind. However, Peckinpah was described by those who knew him as both a ‘sweet, artistic type’ and a ‘brute’. He spent his youth on a wealthy suburban estate and on his grandfather’s ranch, where he grew attached to the Old West.
During WWII, he was deployed to China as a marine, but wanted to stay and get married to a local woman. He was refused permission, and it has been said that this deeply upset him. He left the army to study history at university, where he was introduced to theatre by the woman who would become his first wife. He developed a taste for the works of Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams, unexpected for a director who many dismissed as brutish and anti-intellectual.
The Ballad of Cable Houge was not like Peckinpah’s other films. A subtle comedy with a touch of existentialism, it tells the story of a hobo, Houge, who by chance discovers a water station in the middle of the desert, where he creates a profitable way station. Hogue seems to be on first name terms with God, bargaining with Him over matters of life, death and profit. However, the dialogue in The Ballad of Cable Houge is far more sentimental than in Peckinpah’s other films, and is filled with nostalgia for the Old West. Peckinpah’s characters philosophize on the nature of love, life and the end of their era. The iconic final scene depicts a stagecoach and motorcar driving off in opposite directions, symbolizing the end of the Wild West.
Peckinpah was incessantly bugged by Warner Brothers threatening to halt the film’s production. Expecting one of ‘Bloody Sam’s’ gruff tales of honour killings, the Warner Brothers executives were instead confronted with a sweet, comic and lyrical film. They refused to promote the film at all, letting it fade into obscurity. “To follow the most violent picture ever made with one full of warmth, love and humour, as well as magnificent acting,” says actor Max Evans “would create yet another world-wide controversy.”