Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Deadly Companions: Despite Setbacks, A Maverick Filmmaker’s Maiden Voyage Remains Intriguing

When an artist starts out, their initial work is deemed ineffective and amateurish, a stepping stone to better things. However, time passes and people take a second look at the work and see what the artist was trying to accomplish, despite setbacks. That’s the case with the flawed but intriguing “The Deadly Companions” the debut film from the master of modern day action cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who came from working on established Western TV dramas like “Gunsmoke” and “Broken Arrow” and creating “The Rifleman” and “The Westerner”.
            Five years after the American Civil War, world-weary Union vet Yellowleg (Brian Keith, who starred in Peckinpah’s second albeit short-lived series) rescues puffy-faced lowlife Confederate vet Turk (Chill Wills) from being lynched, due to being to a card cheat. He enlists Turk and his partner, Fancy Dan lothario gunslinger Billy Kiplinger (Steve Cochran of “White Heat”), to rob a bank in Gila City, but another gang beats them to the punch. A gunfight ensues, ending in the death of the son of saloon gal Kit Tildon (fiery Maureen O’Hara of “The Quiet Man” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), who’s already fed up with being unfairly given a Hester Prynne reputation, courtesy of the townspeople. She decides to bury her son beside her husband in the town of Siringo, but it’s desolated, due to it being in Apache territory. Feeling guilty for accidentally killing the boy, Yellowleg offers his help with the funeral procession and stirs his two companions along, but all three men have secret, different, dishonorable reasons beneath the surface.

            What hurts the film slightly on the surface is the clash of Hollywood eras; Ms. O’Hara and her producing brother Charles B. Fitzsimmons representing the older one, Peckinpah representing the other. It’s almost sadistic that Fitzsimmons refused the soon-to-be maverick to rewrite the simple screenplay by Albert Sidney Fleischman (adapted from his novel), locked him away from the editing room and forbade him on-set conversations with his sister (I would have told them off on day one!). It doesn’t help that the production’s no different from a TV show (how ironic) and the music by Marlin Skiles is best suited to an old-time carnival or a cathedral. The song Ms. O’Hara sings…well, the less said, the better. All in all, it’s a ham-and-cheese vehicle for an aging Golden Age Hollywood starlet.
            But for Peckinpah, it was his training wheels and, due to the passage of time, his last laugh as he starts to deconstruct the romantic Hollywood western. There are the elements of individualistic honor, conflicts among lead characters, a religiously hypocritical society (Kit’s son refuses to go to Heaven with townspeople who criticize her), delusion of grandeur (Turk pathetically hopes to start a new Confederacy with the bank money) and physically scarred protagonists (Yellowleg has a lousy shooting arm and was nearly scalped…and it wasn’t by any Indian) that would be present in the director’s later work. There’s no over-the-top violence, like in the future magnum opus “The Wild Bunch”, due to the present yet slowly dying Production Code, but slight hints of sexuality (Ms. O’Hara bathing nude in the night time with her back turned to the camera).
            The cast is competent. Keith’s grimness and gruffness combats O’Hara’s passionate independence (wonder if Peckinpah used him as a conduit to get his true feelings across to her....and this is miles away from the actors's rappaport from "The Parent Trap"!). Cochran reps a phony, glossy Wild West while Wills (who would later be in the director’s “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid” ) reps a realistic, sleazy one while he’s lost in unrealized dreams or glories of the past (a prophecy of PTSD among Vietnam veterans, perhaps?).  Strother Martin has a straight-forward role as the town’s parson; later roles in “Bunch” and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” contradict that first one.
            If Peckinpah learned one thing from “Companions”, it was to have script control and damn pampered actors. If any viewer can learn one thing, you can see something intriguing in the early mistreated work of a maverick artist when time goes by.
Note: No trailer exist, but here's a clip, courtesy of VCI Entertainment, which has the film on DVD: http://www.vcientertainment.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=766

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