Awhile back, we did a Shouts from the Back Row podcast on the subject of MacGuffins. In case you’re not familiar with the term, it was coined by the one and only Sir Alfred Hitchcock and is defined as “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important”. One of the most unusual examples of this trope can be found in Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 movie, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where the MacGuffin is… well, the head of Alfredo Garcia. This is an object that all the characters want and it winds up causing much violence and bloodshed, yet there is very little logic about why Alfredo Garcia’s head is so damn important to everyone. After establishing himself as a reliable director of westerns, Sam Peckinpah hit his peak with the 1969 classic, The Wild Bunch, considered by most to be the one of the greatest entries in the genre. After following that up with such successes as Straw Dogs and The Getaway, Peckinpah had himself a commercial and critical failure after directing the very unconventional western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Though the film is very well-regarded today, Peckinpah found himself constantly butting heads with MGM and the studio eventually took final control of the film away from Peckinpah and released it in a heavily edited version. The frustrated Peckinpah followed up this experience by making Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the angriest, most personal film of his career. Like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it was originally a major commercial and critical failure, but it has developed a cult following over the years.
The film opens with a wealthy and powerful Mexican industrialist known as “El Jefe” (Emilio Fernandez, previously seen as the villainous General Mapache in The Wild Bunch) finding out his teenage daughter has been impregnated by a man named Alfredo Garcia. The outraged El Jefe offers a $1 million bounty on him, crying out: “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia”. Months later, two bounty hunters named Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young) are searching through Mexico City for Alfredo and enter a saloon owned by a burned-out piano-playing former Army officer named Bennie (Warren Oates). It turns out that Bennie’s prostitute girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega), once had an affair with Alfredo and that he was recently killed in a drunk driving accident. Bennie agrees to go on a road trip with Elita in order to find Alfredo’s grave and bring back his head for $10,000. Along the way, Bennie proposes to Elita and the two of them wind up getting married and even though Elita is disgusted when she finds out that Bennie is planning to steal Alfredo’s head, he assures her that the $10,000 reward will help them start a new life together. However, Bennie isn’t the only one interested in turning in Alfredo’s head for the reward. Once Bennie finds Alfredo’s grave, things start to go horribly wrong, which eventually leads to Bennie going on a violent rampage. In the end, the quest for Alfredo Garcia’s head becomes the cause of a great many deaths.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is quite an acquired taste and it’s easy to see why many people were taken aback by when it was originally released. Even though it’s a very violent film and contains bursts of Peckinpah’s stylized, balletic gunplay, most of the violence does not take place until the second half. The first half of Alfredo Garcia is pretty slow and episodic and tends to drag at times, though on a second viewing, you start to realize what a fascinating character study it is. The first scene of violence takes place while Bennie and Elita are having a picnic in the desert. Bennie is about to propose to her when they are interrupted by pair of bikers, one of whom (Kris Kristofferson) attempts to rape Elita. At first, she goes along with the biker willingly in order to save Bennie’s life. Like the infamous rape scene in Straw Dogs, the victim almost seems to start enjoying. Bennie is unsure how to react at first, but he finally rescues Elita in an explosive rage of violence. This sequence helps explain Bennie’s eventual actions and descent into insanity in the second half of the film. It’s similar to Dustin Hoffman’s descent into violence after the rape of his wife in Straw Dogs, but the key difference here is that the story turns into a surreal odyssey where the protagonist starts holding frequent conversations with a severed head. The head of Alfredo Garcia becomes such a unique MacGuffin because even though it starts out as an object that everyone wants, it almost evolves into a full-fledged character that Bennie genuinely cares about. While Peckinpah’s films have always been controversial for their level of violence, most of the violence in Alfredo Garcia is deliberately senseless and gratuitous as Bennie makes a conscious choice to go down a deliberate path of self-destruction.
When Bennie finally delivers Alfredo’s head to El Jefe at the end of the film, he could easily just collect his reward, but he becomes offended by the fact that El Jefe doesn’t even seem to care that much about Alfredo’s head any more. It’s often been theorized that Sam Peckinpah based the character of Bennie on himself. Hell, in many scenes, Bennie is shown wearing dark sunglasses indoors, which was a common trait of the director. Bennie’s self-destructive nature pretty much parallels Peckinpah himself, as his life and career were seriously hampered by rampant alcoholism and drug abuse. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia pretty much functioned as a way for Peckinpah to display all his frustrations and personal demons onscreen and he often said this was the only film in his career which turned out the exact way he wanted. Warren Oates was one of the most acclaimed character actors of all time and a frequent collaborator with Peckinpah and his performance pretty much makes the film. Not many actors could pull off acting out dialogue scenes with a severed head, but Oates somehow nails it and without him, the whole movie could have been a disaster. Oates also gets strong support from Isela Vega, a veteran Mexican actress who got relatively little exposure in Hollywood, but provides the heart and soul of the movie. When this film was released, it was hated by pretty much every critic except Roger Ebert, who described it as a “bizarre masterpiece”. Today, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia would probably be met with a much better critical reception and you’d almost equate it with a movie like Drive, as it functions as an artsy, surreal action picture. The film is definitely not for everyone, but it’s definitely an underrated gem for those in the mood for something different.