Love, adventure, shoot-outs, schemes, road trips, and a man with a price on his head are the ingredients in this delicious concoction directed by Sam Peckinpah. Released in 1974, this film begins with an unwed mother forced to betray her lover and divulge his name. From that moment on, the game is afoot, and the directive is “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!” We then jump to meet our leading man, Warren Oates, playing Bennie, an American bartender in Mexico. He is told by bounty hunters that if he should see or know the whereabouts of Alfredo Garcia, they would pay him handsomely for him…preferably dead. We soon learn that Bennie’s lady friend, a Mexican prostitute named Elita (played by Isela Vega), has had a long romance with Mr. Garcia. Unfortunately, after leaving her the last time, he had a car wreck and is buried already. After some quick thinking, Bennie arranges a way to make some cash by delivering the man’s head to the bounty hunters that found him in his bar earlier. If you listen close enough, you might even catch a reference to Bogie’s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in the opening scene where we meet Bennie. The rest, as they say, is history.
When we meet Bennie, it seems that he is not the cleanest character, shady to say the least. But we soon get a glimpse of his cool character and more chivalrous self under that reserved exterior. While talking to the bounty hunters that question him about Garcia’s whereabouts, one of the bar’s prostitutes meanders over and starts rubbing one of the bounty hunter’s thighs (the lucky guy being none other than Roger Webber of 12 Angry Men and The Dirty Dozen fame). Webber knocks her out without a thought, and as she falls to the floor, the look on Bennie’s face – even with sunglasses in place to hide his eyes – makes it clear that he would like to give a little hair of the dog to the man for doing such a thing. He becomes cooler and quickly the bounty hunters leave, bribing him and telling him where they can be found if he has any information. That glimpse of anger at the rude treatment of the prostitute makes the viewer much more likely to see Bennie as a good guy instead of the rough guy that the first impression gives.
However, decent guy or not, Bennie still wants that money, and after meeting up with Elita and calling her every name in the book (she was incommunicado for 3 days with Garcia), he formulates his plan. With Elita to guide him to Garcia’s grave, $200 expense money from the bounty hunters, and a 4-day window in which to produce the goods, Bennie sets off on a road trip that turns out to be as much of a story as the story itself. This illustrates another example of the gritty truth of the movie – anyone that knows anything knows that the journey is just as important as the destination. This is made even more pleasant of an idea when you add in Elita’s lovely voice and guitar as she sings Mexican folk songs along their way.
“In this house, we know nothin’.”
During the trip, we get to see that even though Bennie has issues with Elita’s chosen line of work, they sincerely love one another. But that’s where the magic in this movie really happens- between Bennie and Elita. The interaction between the characters is endearing and genuine, with their physical actions mirroring how well they express their affection for each other. The morning after they meet up again, Bennie is sitting in bed pulling crabs from his pubic hair, obviously from his night with Elita, but he never says anything about it. He simply asks her to change the sheets, because he knows she is what she is, and he loves her regardless.
“What’sa matter baby? As long as I’m with you I don’t give a damn.”
Elita is an unconventionally beautiful woman, and Vega plays her with such raw sincerity that you forget that this is a woman playing a role. She moves naturally, she smiles and laughs naturally, and she wears her heart on her sleeve for Bennie’s taking. Every expression on her face is perfectly executed. There is a picnic scene under a tree during their road trip that is exquisitely emotional, poignant and heartbreaking at the same time. Theirs is a relationship full of outside troubles and inner turmoil, but they both love each other and want to find a future where they can be together. Elita’s sobs of joy in this scene are heart-wrenching. The viewer with any heart at all cannot watch this scene without falling in love with the couple presented to them.
Things go south for the duo when they stop with a flat tire and decide to camp under the stars for the night. As they are preparing to eat their evening meal over a campfire, they are interrupted by two thugs who commence terrorizing them. Kris Kristofferson, as one of the bikers, decides to have his way with Elita, and begins to lead her away. Furious, Bennie tells him that he will kill him one day – to which Elita replies “No you won’t, Bennie! I have been here before, and you don’t know the way.” She stands up straight and goes with Kristofferson, determined to do what he wants and win their freedom. (This is reminiscent of The Getaway, and what Ali McGraw’s character does to buy McQueen’s freedom.) I won’t tell you the rest, but it is a pivotal point in the film and their relationship.
After the camping incident, Elita expresses her horror at the idea of beheading her old lover for money, and implores Bennie to realize that the money is not worth this, and that the only thing that matters is that they are together. Bennie is relentless, and pushes on to the grave site. Stopping at a hotel for the night, Elita is insulted by the hotel owner and told that they don’t allow “that”. Bennie gets them a room, regardless, and Elita beams with pride and love as he defends her honor. This leads to another wonderfully romantic scene, with Elita in the shower for a very long time. Bennie checks on her, and finds her sitting on the floor in a ball, crying. Oblivious to his dry clothes and the water everywhere, he gets down on the floor with her and tells her simply “I love you”, and holds her. This is another tender moment when the expressions of the actors are so real that you can’t help but forget that this is a film…but isn’t that the point? Oates’ eyes are so full of love for Vega that it hits right at the heart of a person, and Vega expresses such love and relief as she gazes back that again, your heart melts for these two people in this ugly situation, as they have a moment of beauty.
Unbeknownst to Bennie, he has been followed the whole way. At the grave, things go woefully awry and Elita is lost to Bennie forever. Although he had been angry with her at times throughout the film, it has always been clear that he is angry because he cares so much for her. Now, his anger takes over again as he runs from the pain of her loss. He decides to hunt down the men responsible, and when he does, he demands to know who started this bounty hunt in the first place. Armed with that information, Bennie drives off to the violent and bloody Peckinpah ending to an absolutely mesmerizing film. It turns out Elita was right – the money was not worth losing their love, and Bennie was a fool not to listen. But sometimes that’s the way it goes.