Classic Film Review: Peckinpah’s first feature, “The Deadly Companions” (1961)

In the late 1950s, the golden age of the TV Western, Sam Peckinpah was a TV writer and sometime director whose scriptsstood out thanks to their hard, unconventional and unsentimental edge.

In 1960-61, the future director of “Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch” and “The Getaway” parlayed that limited notoriety, and his association with rising star Brian Keith (Peckinpah wrote five episodes of Keith’s “Westerner” series) into his first shot at making a feature film.

“The Deadly Companions” is a Western quest tale, a dark and unsentimental spin on the John Ford/John Wayne fable “3 Godfathers” about desperadoes who care for an infant they stumble across on the run, a film which came out over a dozen before. Watching it, you can see the cantankerous Peckinpah poking The Old Master right in the eye more than once.

In an early church scene, set in a saloon that doubles as tiny Gila City’s house of worship, the congregation is rushed through “Rock of Ages,” the sort of hymn Ford milked and built many a stately, pious Western around.

“Companions’ co-star is the formidable Maureen O’Hara, a Ford favorite.

And the “3 Godfathers” here are mistrusting, violent and pitiless men who throw in together for a robbery. “I hear they got a new bank and an old marshal in Gila City” is all it takes for the ex-soldier still wearing his cavalry blue with yellow piping pants (Keith), the cutthroat Turk (Chill Wills, in a rare villainous turn) whom he recruits dangling from a noose, and Turk’s womanizing psycho-gunslinger partner Billy (Steve Cochran) to team up.

When the bank robbery is delayed due to “Yellowlegs” (Keith) considering having a bullet removed from his shoulder, others hit it first and the “trouble with his shootin’ arm” Yellowlegs accidentally kills the son of the doyenne of the local “dance” hall (O’Hara, playing a genuine “fallen” woman).

Ostracized by the locals, Kit (O’Hara) hisses that she’ll bury her boy next to his father in far off Saringo, “Apache country” on the Mexican border. Yellowlegs orders the “godfathers” to join him to escort her and the body, over her furious objections.

The movie has a TV-budget myopia but a hard-nosed tone and hardboiled dialogue that would become Peckinpah trademarks.

The simple, weathered saloon setting for the first scene, with Wills bound and noosed in his thick buffalo coat, balancing on a small beer keg to delay his strangulation, is a grabber. Yellowlegs recognizes the card-cheat who’s about to die and sets out to free him before the guilty man’s dissolute partner staggers in, tipsy and with two women, to shoot the rope and disrupt the ongojng card game, which isn’t paying much heed to rough justice they had a hand ordering carried out.

The mistrust in the impromptu trio is palpable, with Turk and Billy bristling at being given orders and Turk nagging Billy to shoot “Yellowlegs,” or Turk will do it himself — shoot him in the back.

“That ain’t no way to kill a man, not even a Yankee!”

Wills has one moment where his character’s itchy, hot overcoat gets the best of him and he scratches his back, bear-style, rubbing up against a Saguaro cactus.

The plot is head-slappingly illogical, from all the passed-up opportunities to shoot Yellowlegs to the various ways their journey is delayed. Losing a horse or two is one thing, but stopping to “bury the wagon?” The reasoning for ditching it is sound, but…

One thing I’ve never seen in all my decades of watching Westerns is the wild, drunken rumpus an Apache war party engages in after they’ve attacked and seized a stagecoach, many donning the clothes of the dead passengers.

That’s another shot at Ford, who launched Wayne’s career with the Ur Western “Stagecoach” in 1939. How are the Apaches drunk? Must have had a whiskey salesman on board.

Peckinpah’s biography “If They Move, Kill’em” supports the fact that he filmed this quick and cheap. The day-for-night shots don’t match a couple of lovely scenes actually filmed in twilight. The early gunplay is mostly sound effects. And did he lure O’Hara to the role by promising her she could sing the opening credits song?

It’s odd to watch a Cochran movie after reading how thriller writer James Ellroy portrayed him in his 1950s Hollywood drugs, sex, tabloid gossip and murder tale “Widespread Panic.” Cochran is one of the real-life characters in that riff on “Confidential” magazine’s days of infamy. Colorful Cochran is celebrated by the penis-size-obsessed Ellroy (His most juvenile book? I’d say so.), a B-movie figure of leftist politics and stag-film infamy, according to the novelist/”L.A. Confidential” historian.

As with most debut features in the celluloid century before you could make a movie on your cell phone, the miracle of getting “The Deadly Companions” made is worth considering. It’s far from Peckinpah’s best. But he got it made and made it all work.

And back in 1961, seeing O’Hara in this light and the Old West this rough must have been quite the novelty. I wonder what John Ford thought of it?

MPA Rating: “approve,” violence, adult themes

Cast: Brian Keith, Maureen O’Hara, Tom Cochran and Chill Wills.

Credits: Directed by Sam Peckpinpah, script by A.S. Fleischman. An American Pathe release on Tubi, other streamers

Running time: 1:33

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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