Sam Peckinpah had made a name for himself on the TV screen, writing, creating and even directing two different series, the classic The Rifleman and the lesser known The Westerner. The man that would go on to direct classics like The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Ride the High Country had to start somewhere though in films, and that's 1961's The Deadly Companions.
Drifting along from town to town, a man named Yellowleg (Brian Keith) teams up with two fellow drifters, Turk (Chill Wills) and Billy (Steve Cochran), agreeing to knock off a bank in a tiny, isolated desert town. As they ready to pull the job, the trio instead gets caught up in someone else's robbery, and a young boy is actually killed by Yellowleg in the process. The boy's mother, Kit (Maureen O'Hara), insists the boy be buried with her deceased husband, buried in the far-off and possibly abandoned town of Siringo. Feeling the extreme guilt over the accidental shooting, Yellowleg insists on guiding Kit through Apache territory to Siringo, but the dangerous journey holds secrets and trials that none of them were expecting.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and for Peckinpah in films, this was it. It is an interesting debut -- both good and bad -- that certainly is a forerunner of his later movies. While limited by a smallish budget, Peckinpah shows a knack that viewers would come to expect with movies like The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country. According to O'Hara's biography, the filming was a less than pleasant process as first-time feature film director Peckinpah adjusted to shooting on a bigger scale than TV allowed. It's interesting though because with the exception of maybe Junior Bonner or Ballad of Cable Hogue, this is probably his least violent film. There are flaws, but I also think there's a hidden gem among all those flaws.
Let's start with Brian Keith as Yellowleg, a former Union officer traveling the west looking for vengeance on the man who tried to scalp him during the Civil War. That man? Chill Wills' Turk, a former Confederate soldier on the brink of lunacy trying to revive the Confederacy. Keith's Yellowleg (we never learn his real name) wears his hat low on his hat, never taking it off, because of the scar across his forehead from the failed scalping. He's also carrying a bullet in his shoulder and struggles to fire his gun accurately because of the wound. Peckinpah favored wounded, scarred anti-heroes dealing with extreme internal demons struggling to come to terms with those demons. I like Keith more and more with each passing part, and this is a very good one, if not one that's easily remembered as one of his best.
That's what I like about this first Peckinpah feature film. It isn't a classic by any means. But considering it was released in 1961, it's hard not to be impressed. This is far from a typical western released in that year, starting to reflecting the changing times, and that's what surprised me (although I guess it shouldn't have. Peckinpah wasn't exactly a touchy-feely kind of guy). This is one epically dark western. Each and every character is a tortured individual, all struggling to cope with something. Even the bad guys -- perfectly cast Cochran and Wills -- are trying to rape O'Hara's Kit, rob banks, shoot Yellowleg in the back and so on. Not nice guys. The background gives it all more depth; a former Union soldier obsessed with revenge on the Confederate who tried to scalp him? Oh, and a little boy gets gunned down in the first 20 minutes? It's hard to imagine a 1961 getting any more dark.
As I mentioned, this is far from an action-packed western. At the same time, it isn't exactly story-heavy either. It leans more toward episodic as Yellowleg, Kit, the two gunslingers and the dead boy make their way to Siringo. The focus is on Yellowleg's demons, Kit's mistrust and hatred of the man who killed her boy, and a vengeful Apache trying to kill them. I liked the dynamic between Keith and O'Hara especially. An IMDB reviewer compares it to an artsy Euro-western, and I'm hard pressed to disagree. The music from Marlin Skiles -- heavy on Spanish guitar, accordion and harmonica -- is oddly effective and appropriate. The look (including on-location shooting in Arizona, especially Old Tucson) is dreary and washed-out, reflecting the generally dark demeanor and tone of the story. Oh, and it is a Peckinpah film, watch for Strother Martin as a fire-breathing parson.
Things aren't perfect of course. At 93 minutes, 'Companions' can be a tad disjointed. Scenes transition from one to another without any real transition, scenes ending on odd notes as the screen fades to black. The ending especially is a little crazy as the studio took the finished film away from Peckinpah (a recurring trend later in his career) and reedited it into an indecipherable, completely out of place happy ending. It's still a good movie that doesn't deserve all the flak it takes, and one Peckinpah fans should definitely see. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube, but it is a public domain print and therefore, not a good one. Hold out for another airing on TCM.
The Deadly Companions (1961): ***/****