In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sam Peckinpah

  • Introduction
  • General Introductions and Overviews
  • Book-Length Critical Studies
  • Anthologies of Criticism of Peckinpah’s Work
  • Archival Sources, Bibliographies, and Reference Works
  • Documentary Sources on Film and Online
  • Biographies
  • Reminiscences and Biographies of Peckinpah’s Associates
  • Interviews with Peckinpah
  • Interviews with Peckinpah’s Associates
  • Profiles and Magazine Features
  • Genre, History, and Myth
  • Violence, Misogyny, and Machismo
  • Portrayals

Cinema and Media Studies Sam Peckinpah
Paul Seydor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0221


Christened David Samuel (b. 1925–d. 1984), Sam Peckinpah is one of the most important film directors to rise to prominence after the Second World War, best known for his six Western films plus several others outside the genre. Born into a family of homesteaders, ranchers, and entrepreneurs who crossed the Great Plains and settled in Northern California, he could claim a direct connection to the Old West through his father, a ranch foreman who became a superior court judge and his mother, the daughter of a rancher and US Congressman. “I grew up sitting around a dining table talking about law and order, truth and justice, on a Bible which was very big in our family,” Peckinpah once said, “and I started to question them.” His distinctive voice and vision as writer and director can be seen early in his television work, notably his own series The Westerner (1960). His first feature, The Deadly Companions (1961), set a pattern of acrimonious creative differences with producers and studios that would plague his entire career. Confessing to “a weakness for losers on the grand scale” and “a sneaky affection for all the misfits and drifters in the world,” he revealed a preoccupation with aging men of action in collision with a relentlessly advancing modern world in his second feature, Ride the High Country (1962). Creative conflicts with studios on his next two features resulted in his being effectively blackballed before returning in 1969 with The Wild Bunch, a visionary epic that opened to enormous controversy owing to its unprecedented violence and his refusal to resolve his conflicted attitudes toward that violence. This initiated Peckinpah’s most productive period, nine films in eight years, on which his reputation largely rests, films marked by controversies that were exacerbated by his lifelong alcoholism and a combative, self-destructive streak in his personality. In 1978, a heart attack interrupted his career; five years later he directed his last feature, dying a year later at fifty-nine. His last films were not well received, but each has had its champions, and in the decades since they have been increasingly revisited and reappraised. Peckinpah’s depiction of the waning years of the Old West, the violent collision of mainstream society with men and women on the fringes, and the ironic, ambiguous relationships between history and myth, heroism and villainy, have rarely been equaled in cinema and never surpassed. His distinctive combination of fast-cutting and slow-motion added to basic filmmaking vocabulary the world over and he forever transformed the way violence and action are shot and edited. Peckinpah’s feature films number only fourteen: while they are by no means uniform in their accomplishments, in the best of them style, artistry, and vision establish him as one of the seminal filmmakers in the history of the medium.

General Introductions and Overviews

Several of the entries under Book-Length Critical Studies can serve as introductions to Peckinpah’s work, but as they are very detailed and/or segregate a selection of films for study from precisely defined and delimited perspectives, they serve less well as overviews. The best overviews, those that track the life, work, and career in a synoptic trajectory, are to be found in shorter forms, beginning with two obituaries: Sragow 1985 critically summarizes the whole career, articulating Peckinpah’s preoccupation with men of action as deeply flawed heroes and the transcendent energy and brilliance of his style. Murphy 1985 remembers Peckinpah in terms of his predecessors in American cinema and literature: “Peckinpah shot the dream going, gone rotten, machines and money choking the garden.” By contrast, Murray 2002, in a career appraisal that goes from the man to the director to the legend to the work and the reputation, acknowledges the darkness but reminds us his films are also “an affirmation of life.” Throughout the 1970s some of the best film criticism to be found anywhere was from a group of critics associated with Movietone News, the magazine of the Seattle Film Society, edited by Richard T. Jameson. Movietone News content is now available via the Parallax View website, where pieces by Jameson himself, Kathleen Murphy, Rick Hermann, and several others cited in this bibliography can be accessed: it would be difficult to find a better overview of the serious and volatile critical response to his films at the time of their initial releases. The High Hat, another website, posted a tribute to Peckinpah with essays on selected films and a roundtable discussion of The Wild Bunch which in their combined vigor, enthusiasm, and candor certainly provide a sense of both the excitement these films still generate and the depths they plumb. Rafferty 2012 is a perceptive overview of Peckinpah as a supreme director of Westerns and of action, calling the climax of The Wild Bunch “prolonged and hallucinatory, with a staggering body count and editing of such dizzying complexity that no mind in the audience remained unblown.”

  • The High Hat.

    A lively introduction to Peckinpah and his work, with substantial critical essays on most of the films, The Wild Bunch getting a rousing roundtable from all the contributors that addresses many issues. There are also thumbnail appreciations of the prominent players in the films.

  • Murphy, Kathleen. “Sam Peckinpah: No Bleeding Heart.” Film Comment 21.2 (April 1985).

    Originally published 1985. Taking a cue from the eulogy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue—Cable “has gone into the whole torrent of the years, of the souls that pass and never stop”—Murphy places Peckinpah “among friends”: his illustrious filmic and literary predecessors—Ford, Hawks, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner—those who “fished the dark waters” and said, “No, in thunder.”

  • Murray, Gabrielle. “Sam Peckinpah.” Senses of Cinema 20 (May 2002).

    This compact yet thorough review of Peckinpah the man, the artist, the filmmaker, and the legend, including the major critical and scholarly literature, with filmography and bibliography, concludes that “at their best his films deal with two of humanity’s most fervent concerns, our fear of violence and death and our dreams of a better life.”

  • Parallax View.

    These reviews and essays on Peckinpah’s films published in Movietone News throughout the 1970s and early 1980s constitute an excellent overview of the reception of Peckinpah’s work in the serious critical community during some of his peak years. Also includes pieces some of these critics contributed to Film Comment during the same period.

  • Rafferty, Terence. “Son of the West.” DGA Quarterly (Summer 2012).

    Both introduction and overview of Peckinpah as director of Westerns, this begins with his familial and ancestral connection to the Old West and reviews his development from The Westerner to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which Rafferty calls “as daring as The Wild Bunch” in the way it “slows the narrative to a fatalistic mosey.”

  • Sragow, Michael. “Sam Peckinpah: 1925–1984.” Boston Phoenix (8 January 1985): 3–5, 9–10.

    This eloquent tribute takes as its point of departure the deaths, eulogies, and funerals that proliferate in Peckinpah’s films, then moves on to a comprehensive overview in outline and detail of a career Sragow characterizes as “heroic” despite the director’s “feral, self-destructive side,” with which the heroism was always inseparably intertwined.

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