Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia opens on a young woman (Janine Maldonado) in a white dressing gown. She lays idly by a pond, rubbing her pregnant belly and watching a family of ducks float on the placid surface. The image immediately registers as thematic but vague. Water, pregnant women, white birds, white in general— these are (sometimes problematic) shorthands for things like purity, creation, nature and nurture. It’s doubtful that Sam Peckinpah wishes to center this theme, but it does introduce a crucial aesthetic contrast to what follows, as the rest of the movie deals with corruption, destruction, greed, and callousness signified by bodies and cars torn apart by gun fire and grimacing faces in hot, squalid locales, and all in relation to men.
The pregnant girl, Theresa, is brought into a great hall where her father, crime boss El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), demands to know the name of the man who impregnated her. He subjects her to humiliation and torture until she reveals the name of the father, Alfredo Garcia. Once El Jefe puts a bounty on Garcia’s head, two dead-eyed, soulless American hitmen named Sappensly and Quill (Robert Webber and Gig Young) traverse the country in pursuit. They stumble upon a dive bar in Mexico City run by Bennie (Warren Oates), a shaggy, sun kissed Rick Blaine in aviator sunglasses. The two men mean business, as evidenced when one of them slugs a girl just for rubbing his leg. Long considered a misogynist filmmaker, Peckinpah’s view of women has earned him much scorn during his political career and beyond. Scenes such as this do little to change that perception, and yet for all the violence and enacted upon women in the movie, a couple of them possess undeniable strength as characters. Peckinpah’s male gaze is cruel and objectifying, but they respond with self-empowerment.
Nowhere else is this more clear than in the character of Elita, Bennie’s girlfriend, who reveals that Garcia died in a drunk driving accident the week before. She’s a classic cypher out of the French New Wave with whimsical cultural tinges, such as a penchant for serenading with the guitar. Bennie covets an imaginary future with Elita despite her adherence to the present, and he sees access to this future being as easy as digging up a grave (desecration being a huge no-no in the culture, just one of the ways he disregards reality to justify his pursuits). The pair enjoy a brief period of serenity until being accosted by two bikers (Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritz). In a somewhat bizarre sequence, Elita follows one of the bikers to a secluded spot in the hills, where he rips her top off. Behind the camera, Peckinpah leers at Elita’s exposed body. He relishes in the objectification. At the same time, the biker stands passively while Elita gives him two hard smacks across the face, which he then returns in a strange, ritualistic exchange of power. She lays down with him, initiating the actual sexual encounter in a far gentler manner than the biker likely intended. Ultimately, Bennie will shoot both of these men dead before they can consummate the crime. While cruel and prurient, the scene provides Elita with a mysterious agency, a duality that makes the movie’s exploitation elements unexpectedly complex.
In these scenes Peckinpah seems disdainful of women only half as much as he disdains men, who he takes righteous pleasure in maiming. The use of violence signifies utter revulsion toward masculinity, and at the end of the day, masculinity translates to capitalism. Bennie may be an expatriate but he can never escape the American Dream. The irrational pursuit of easy wealth by him and others ends up destroying all he holds dear. In a dramatic reversal about a third of the way into the film, Bennie becomes deranged and seeks vengeance on all those involved in the acquisition of this head. His war path will bring him all the way back to the beginning, to the desk of El Jefe, only now he knows the utter pointlessness of Jefe’s request. It exists solely to make a rich asshole feel powerful no matter the cost. And again, in a moment that leaves a woman both powerful and powerless, El Jefe’s daughter implores Bennie to kill him.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia ends on a pessimistic note, with blind followers of power and money still incentivized to enact violence in service of absolutely nothing material, to their own detriment, even. And yet it’s blaze of glory finale will leave frustrated, class conscious viewers momentarily seen if not more cynical. For all its nastiness, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia has a passionate, activist sensibility at its core, although channeled through a very flawed source. It’s the kind of movie that inspires ambivalence, both because of its mix of justice and pessimism and also its confessional but uninterrogated complicity in the economic, gendered structures it hates. | Nic Champion
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia comes as a special edition from Kino Lorber and includes commentaries with co-writer/co-producer Gordon Dawson and film historian Nick Redman, and with Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle.