Brutal Sympathy: Women in Peckinpah’s Westerns

Amanda Shubert in Critics at Large:

ScreenHunter_22 Jun. 04 13.11Can a filmmaker obsessed with machismo also be feminist? With Sam Peckinpah, you wonder. His luminous westerns – Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972) – are lyric meditations on machismo. They’re about cowboys, outlaws, drifters and rodeo stars caught in a changing world, and the last flaring up of their spirits before they are pinioned by the machinery of that change. But they are also about how those men relate to the women they encounter on their journeys, women, like them, trapped by circumstance and fighting to retain some glimmer of their humanity. The gloriously spacious landscapes of the American west (shot in each case by Lucian Ballard), with the teeming blues and yellows of wide skies and sweeping country, express the paradoxical entrapment these characters feel, their longing to break free and their uncertainty of what they’d be breaking free to, but they also infuse the movies with a kind of moral spaciousness. The characters, male and female, have room to be who they are, without judgment before the eyes of the camera. That’s the romanticism of Peckinpah’s westerns, and it often comes out in romantic plots that bring together pairs of lovers in sublime meetings of equals.

It’s not exactly that Peckinpah stands out among the work of other American New Wave directors for his sensitivity to female experience – not in a generation that includes Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Alice’s Restaurant), Robert Towne (Personal Best) and Brian De Palma (Carrie, Blow Out). It’s the way he gets at that experience that is so unusual and so dazzling. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can refract a feminist sensibility through male, at times misogynistic, perspectives.

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