Why Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns Are So Controversial

By: Beth Moreton | Published: Feb 13, 2024

According to the Directors Guild of America, Sam Peckinpah was one of the most influential directors of the 20th century. 

However, it was his film, “The Wild Bunch,” released in 1969, that was said to appall audiences due to the slaughter in one sequence. But for a director so highly regarded, could the films that made him a household name also be the cause of his greatest downfall?

The Wild Bunch Was Released During the Vietnam War

One problem audiences picked at about “The Wild Bunch” was the timing of the film’s release (via DGA).

An image of Sam Peckinpah and Holden during filming for The Wild Bunch.

Source: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

The Wild Bunch was released during the height of the Vietnam War, in which American troops were fighting in. Due to the violence going on in the real world, audiences felt it was a bit much to see even more violence (real or not) on their screens.

The Wild Bunch Earned him the Nickname ‘Bloody Sam’

The film “The Wild Bunch” is full of blood, gore, and violence from beginning to end, leaving multiple impressions on audiences.

A behind-the-scenes image during the filming of the opening scene of The Wild Bunch.

Source: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the complaints about the amount of violence in the film, the film ended up giving him the nickname “Bloody Sam” because of the amount of blood present in the film, according to The Guardian.

There Is Too Much Violence in Peckinpah’s Films

Regardless of whether the film was released during a war or not, another issue is that there is more violence going on in them than audiences can take in.

A behind-the-scenes image of The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah is to the right of the image and the filming is going on below him.

Source: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

At the time that his films were released, there was more violence in them than the rest of Hollywood was used to, according to Zocalo Public Square. This was also something audiences weren’t used to and may be why some were put off his films entirely.

Peckinpah Rarely Used Storyboards

Where most film directors will use a storyboard as a way to plan out the sequences of each scene, Peckinpah decided to take a much different approach.

A still from the film The Wild Bunch. There is a room full of me, some are sitting at tables whilst three are standing up. The tables have a chequered tablecloth and food and drink on top.

Source: Facts Verse/YouTube

Instead, Peckinpah would choose his sequences based on the atmosphere he felt on set each day, drawing more on his inspiration at that moment than preparing.

Peckinpah Was Said to Have Been Bad-Tempered

While his Westerns might have been controversial to audiences, there were allegedly things going on behind the scenes which only added to the controversy.

A black and white image of Sam Peckinpah while shooting one of his films. He is sitting next to a camera.

Source: Facts Verse/YouTube

Peckinpah was said to have been very bad-tempered, which was considered off-putting to any producers who were going to be working with him.


His Behavior Almost Got Him Fired from Major Dundee

Aside from his bad temper, Peckinpah felt that he had to prove himself and live up to the standards of the likes of John Ford.

An image of Sam Peckinpah while shooting a film. He has his head in his hands. There is a camera to the right of him.

Source: Facts Verse/YouTube

While trying to reach these standards, Peckinpah found himself going over the budget and falling behind schedule. Things got so bad that he ended up in a fight with one of the producers and almost got himself fired in the process (via Zocalo Public Square).


Major Dundee Almost Ended His Career

Picking fights with one of the producers and constantly arguing with those higher up than him massively damaged his reputation and made Peckinpah unemployed.

A still from the film Major Dundee. There are men on horses next to a stone wall and a bridge. There is a building and trees in the background.

Source: HD Retro Trailers/YouTube

However, he was lucky enough to be able to go back to the TV industry, where he was hired to direct an adaptation of “Noon Wine.”


Peckinpah Was an Alcoholic and Drug Addict

The anger that caused him to become practically unemployable for several years by the film industry has been put down to his alcoholism and drug addiction.

A black and white photo of Sam Peckinpah and others working behind the scenes on a film. Peckinpah is sat in the director's chair and there is a camera next to him.

Source: Facts Verse/YouTube

His reliance on these substances and the constant picking fights with producers and others on the films he worked on led to no one wanting to work with him. 


Straw Dogs Is One of Peckinpah’s Most Shocking Films

While audiences may have thought that “The Wild Bunch” was Peckinpah’s most shocking film, his 1971 film “Straw Dogs” shocked them even more.

A still from the film Straw Dogs. A man and a woman are in shot, and the man has his arm around the woman.

Source: ryy79/YouTube

The film depicts sexual violence, and where audiences had previously found the bloodshed of “The Wild Bunch” too much, this was on a whole different scale. 


Straw Dogs Is Banned in the United Kingdom

Peckinpah’s film “Straw Dogs” was considered so violent and graphic that a few years after its release, it was banned in the U.K.

A still from the film Straw Dogs. In the foreground, there are two men shaking hands and there is a woman behind them. In the background, there is a group of people watching them and they are standing in front of a church.

Source: Film Noir/YouTube

According to The Independent, when the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984, the film was banned and hasn’t been seen since.


Peckinpah’s Personal Life Is Believed to Have Inspired His Directorial Choices

Many might question why Peckinpah chose to focus on Western films. Not only were they popular at the time, but Peckinpah himself had grown up on a ranch.

A black and white photo showing behind the scenes of one of Sam Peckinpah’s films. Peckinpah is seen kneeling on the floor with a member of the cast/crew and there are other crew members around them doing work.

Souce: Facts Verse/YouTube

However, after his mother sold their ranch, Peckinpah found this hard to forgive. With the harsh view of women that his films take, many believe this is potentially down to this one event, according to The Guardian.


Peckinpah’s Directorial Skills Are Forever Cemented in Cinematic History

Aside from the controversial nature of his films, Sam Peckinpah will forever be known as someone who changed the direction of cinema.

A black and white photo of Sam Peckinpah. He is wearing sunglasses and is watching something and has been joined by another man.

Source: Facts Verse/YouTube

His directorial style was one that was different from any other style of direction the film industry had ever seen and is one that many directors to this day still take on board.