Sam Peckinpah

The controversial director of Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch was a famously demanding taskmaster. He virtually invented cinema's slow-motion fascination with violence.


Born to a California legal family, American director Sam Peckinpah was raised on Peckinpah Mountain, the descendant of pioneers. Learning to ride and shoot early, he became a troublemaker as a teenager. After a spell in military school, he joined the marines in 1943.

Touring China, but never seeing active combat, he returned to college, discovering his calling in directing drama. After time at the University of South California, he took a job at KLAC-TV. Following a tiny appearance in 1956’s ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers’, Peckinpah began contributing episode scripts for ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’ and ‘Gunsmoke’.

Debuting with ‘The Deadly Companions’ in 1961, his next picture, ‘Ride the High Country’ (1962) made his name, winning international acclaim. His third, ‘Major Dundee’, in 1963, starring Richard Harris and Charlton Heston, was beset by on-set difficulties. With his reputation for awkwardness growing, Peckinpah was also fired from ‘The Cincinnati Kid’ in 1965.

Off-screen problems would follow Peckinpah throughout his career, during which he was married 5 times, three times to the same woman. He was off the scene until ‘The Wild Bunch’(1969) by which time his violent style was more acceptable. Seen as an allegorical critique of Vietnam, its impact was controversial and huge.

‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ (1970) was another musing on the end of the West, but ‘Straw Dogs’ (1971) was another chilling exploration of ordinary man’s propensity for violence, starring Dustin Hoffman.

‘Junior Bonner’ and ‘The Getaway’ (1972) both starred Steve McQueen, and were followed the next year by ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. The film’s shooting was a violent shambles, recut by the studio, but ‘Bring Me Head of Alfredo Garcia’ was a critical hit.

By now a cocaine addict, Peckinpah made ‘The Killer Elite’(1975) and the anti-war ‘Cross Of Iron’(1977) before suffering two heart attacks – one minor, in 1979, and one fatal, in December 1984.