Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter gives a listen to stories about Sam Peckinpah, Warren Oates, and the making of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Sam Peckinpah was a firebrand of a man and an equally ferocious filmmaker. He has more than a few absolute bangers in his filmography, but he also has movies that don’t quite come together. 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia belongs in the former camp with its grim, bloody, and surprisingly heartfelt tale of a man, a woman, and a head in a bag. Kino Lorber is releasing the film to Blu-ray with a sweet 4K scan and a handful of extras, so to celebrate we gave a listen to the disc’s commentary track.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
Commentators: Gordon Dawson (co-writer, associate producer), Nick Redman (moderator)
1. Frank Kowalski brought the idea to Peckinpah during a drive to Las Vegas, and the filmmaker was immediately intrigued. The pair worked up a treatment while working on Straw Dogs (1971), but they couldn’t quite crack the script. Peckinpah reached out to Dawson saying “I’ll give ya ten grand, you got ten days, I want a script.” Dawson was happy for the money and had nothing to do the next ten days, so he said yes.
2. Many have suggested that Warren Oates’ character is meant as a self portrait of Peckinpah. Dawson confirms he wrote the character as a caricature of the filmmaker expecting Peckinpah would trim those elements, “but by god he didn’t take much away.”
3. Peckinpah came to the film after having an extremely rough time making Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), and Dawson adds that “we all had a horrible time” on that film. “He was very bitter by the time he got to this,” but he entered this production hoping for the best.
4. Dawson recalls Peckinpah being a stubborn filmmaker who often held up production for his own inane reasons. “You can’t put a camera in his hands because he’s afraid to start, and then you can’t take it out of his hands” once he’s started filming.
5. Parts of the film was shot outside of Mexico City at a compound belonging to the owner of the Corona Beer company.
6. While shot in Mexico, censorship issues prevented them from actually stating it takes place there so they had to identify it as Spain in the script.
7. The villain is played by Emilio Fernandez who was reportedly a bad man in real life too. “He absolutely plays himself every time I’ve ever seen him,” says Dawson, adding “because he is that evil mother — he’s dead right? — he is that evil motherfucker.”
8. Dawson first met Peckinpah as a costume assistant on Major Dundee (1965) saying “I was scared to death of him and rightfully so.” He explains it in part suggesting that Peckinpah was constantly off balance and poorly organized, and the only way he could maintain control was by making others feel constantly unsure of their own work. Peckinpah made exceptions for his lead actors, but everyone else was “fair game.” Dawson continued to work with Peckinpah in various roles up through this film which was their final collaboration — it was also Dawson’s final feature film, period.
9. Peckinpah came from a proper, professional family — his brother was a superior court judge — but his self-made persona was one of a black sheep outcast.
10. The filmmaker loved Mexico, and he was beloved by the locals working on the film… at first. “Toward the end of this picture the bloom was totally off that rose. The Mexicans really didn’t like him.”
11. Peter Falk was considered early on for the lead role here, and Dawson laughs trying to picture him in some of the film’s later scenes.
12. “I first liked Warren Oates as a wardrobe man because he always hung up his clothes,” says Dawson, adding that he was beloved by everyone who worked on the film. He also liked Oates as an actor as he made bad dialogue sing.
13. The scene where Bennie (Oates) and Elita (Isela Vega) are interrupted by the two bikers has been a controversial one over the years as viewers debate its intent. Dawson says it was originally written to be pretty straightforward, but Peckinpah and his actors “went off script” resulting in its final form which leaves Elita’s motivation unclear.
14. Vega was set to be topless during the attack, and before filming she gathered the cast and crew on the day, removed her shirt, and showed her breasts to everyone. “Here they are,” she said, “take a good long look, stare as long as you want, but I don’t want to worry about all of you staring when I have to do my work.” Dawson adds “that woman has the balls of a lion.”
15. “You have to over-prepare for Sam,” says Dawson, which accounts for his films being frequently over budget. The various departments never wanted to be without whatever Peckinpah would want on a given day.
16. Peckinpah was rarely concerned with explaining his films or clarifying his stories, and Dawson recalls him once saying “When I read Pauline Kael’s review I’ll tell you what it was about.”
17. Oates was unsure how to play the scene where he’s buried alive and has to claw his way out of the grave, so he decided to take mushrooms beforehand. “It took him two or three days to get out of that experience.”
18. Dawson recalls The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) as being Peckinpah’s favorite of his own films.
19. They brought a “fly expert” down from California to breed and control the flies needed for the scenes with them buzzing around the severed head.
20. Dawson is a strong believer in costumes and sets truthfully looking their supposed age, and that meant they would often ruin props in the service of aging them. He recalls taking over a hundred hampers of clothing to Mexico for The Wild Bunch (1969), and when he returned them they were nothing but tattered, torn, grue-covered remnants. The studio’s wardrobe department accused him of knocking Warner Bros. out of the western business as they no longer had costumes.
21. They talk about animal cruelty on film sets back in the 60s and 70s and how it was always justified as being in service of the picture. Dawson adds that after blowing off chicken heads the villagers ate well that night. Still, “when I look back on it now, I cringe.”
22. Benny survives in the original script with plans to return the head to the grave site, but it was changed during production. Peckinpah came to Dawson on the final day, handed him a sheet with fourteen shots listed, and told him to shoot the scenes — while he went off to see a woman he had recently met. So Dawson ended up filming the end sequence as Benny crashes through the gate and is gunned down by a dozen men as the car slams off the road.
23. Dawson decided to call it quits with Peckinpah after their experience here. His wife wasn’t enjoying what he became while working with the filmmaker, and as this ended up seeing Peckinpah at his lowest and most useless it was ultimately an easy decision. Peckinpah tried to cajole him back while he was struggling with Convoy (1978), but he declined as he was busy writing an episode of The Rockford Files (1975-1979).
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“It’s been forty years, a lot of tequila has passed over these old synapses.”
“There’s a lot of very dark comedy in this thing.”
“Sometimes he’d make you lean in for an ass-chewing.”
“This one prepped really well, but it got a little rocky during filming.”
“He was a lot easier when he was drinking as you could count on him to pass out.”
“This graveyard scene, a funny story happened here…”
“Thank god he didn’t have a Twitter account.”
“We were just out there mining the ore, the fine jewelry was made in the editing room.”
“They say the greatest part of a writing career is having written your last goddamn script.”
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia remains a tough, thrilling film, and Dawson’s memories make for some fascinating insight into Peckinpah. It’s clear that Dawson had real respect for the man, but it’s also clear that he knew when to hit the eject button on that relationship. It’s a great commentary — one of two on the disc as it also includes a track with four film historians — and well worth a listen.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.