Peckinpah, Hellman, and Thanatos

In 1974, Warren Oates starred in two uncompromisingly gritty films directed by two of the greatest directors of revisionist westerns of all time. “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” by Sam Peckinpah. “Cockfighter: Born to Kill” by Monte Hellman. Two films about two men obsessed with realizing absurd goals in an absurd world. 

In Hellman’s film, Oates stars as a man with a self-destructive fascination in the controversial sport of cockfighting. He’s the best trainer around and he knows it. His tendency to brag about his skills- his cockiness if you will- drives him to make bets with huge stakes. And when he loses against one of the best cockfighters in the South (played by Harry Dean Stanton), he decides to keep his mouth shut (to take a vow of silence) until he becomes the new reigning champ.

Oates’ character has- as most self-destructive personalities on film do- a sweetheart back home waiting for him to come to his senses and settle down. He, of course, cannot do this. His passion for cockfighting is too strong. His dependency on the sensual allure of existential decisions, of betting all or nothing that his chicken can go all the way and kill, without itself dying, is the underlying force driving him along long after any sensible person would go. But he still holds out a vain hope that his amour will come around and accept his flaws: she won’t and he doesn’t realize it- that’s tragedy.

In Peckinpah’s late masterpiece “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” Bennie (Oates) works as a bartender and house pianist in a modern Mexican cityscape. When a Mexican drug lord finds out that his unwed daughter is pregnant, he sets up a bounty on the head of the man who did it. Two bounty hunter-assassin figures come to Bennie’s bar seeking information, and Bennie just happens to know Alfredo- a fact he doesn’t disclose to the two men. Bennie departs the city with girlfriend in tow and begins his epic journey to find his man.

Bennie’s girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) knows where to find Alfredo. But she is reluctant to point Bennie toward him because of her longstanding feelings toward Alfredo. Elita just wants Bennie to give up his pursuit and drive off into the proverbial sunset to make a new life with her. This idealized, storybook, hollywood vision is untenable for Peckinpah, and as such, is likewise for Bennie. Bennie’s self-destructive drive, his will to stop at nothing to obtain the bounty, causes him to err in his calculations, leaving Elita dead in a grave he dug to bring them life- to bring them Alfredo Garcia’s head, its bounty, and ultimately, financial stability.

Oate’s story in “Cockfighter” ends with a victory at the highest level of the competition that consumed so much of his life. He wins this game, but loses his future with his lover and has nothing more to look forward to. Bennie brings the head to El Jefe (the drug lord). He completes his quest. But he receives nothing in return, save a death as violent and purposeless as the life he lived. The question these narratives always bring to mind for me is why they didn’t do other than what they did. Answer: they couldn’t, and neither can we.

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