Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay by Albert Sidney Fleischman, based upon his novel
Released in 1961
Currently available upon multiple DVD & VHS formats.
Starring Brian Keith & Maureen O'Hara
Also Featuring Strother Marton, Chill Willis & Steve Cochran
Sam Peckinpah's first feature film couldn't exactly be called a trifle, although it's certainly far from a masterpiece. It's a cheap, mildly formulaic Western film that, excluding a couple of sequences, would seem out of place alongside the other 13 movies he went on to direct. Still, it was Peckinpah's first foray to the screen, following a routine stint on television shows like Gunsmoke and the ill-fated Westerner, and in that light, it's more of a successful experiment than some of the legendary directors later failures.
Using a cast of regular Western actors, Deadly Companions is a pretty simple narrative--a couple of no-account criminals team up to help a mother take her deceased sons body across dangerous terrain to bury him alongside his long-dead father. The trips difficulty stems from the fact that Brian Keith, the groups much-loathed leader, is responsible for the death of the boy, and that the remaining criminals have little interest in assisting him in his self-imposed feelings of responsibility. Sounding a chord that resonates through nearly all of Peckinpah's later work, the producers of Deadly Companions wouldn't allow Peckinpah to explore the potentials of the body itself--which may have formed part of the mans interest in the realitively dull narrative in the first place. 13 years later, when filming the trials and tribulations of Benny and a decaying head in his Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah was finally able to showcase the basic problems inherent in transporting a dead body through the hot desert sun--in Deadly Companions, this is dealt with in a few short lines, and ignored from there on. Excepting this, Peckinpah was mostly left to his own devices, although many viewers may assume that the shoehorned in love affair was forced upon him, it's really more just a nod to the demands of a cheap genre piece. (A similar relationship that seems out of place appears in Sam's Major Dundee, when Charlton Heston's crazed title character begins to pause at moments in the film to declare, with a straight face, his feelings for a woman who seems to have appeared solely to hear his bizarre pick-up lines.) More often than not, Peckinpah was successful at presenting intimate relationships between platonic men far more believably than he was at depicting those that involve men and women. There are exceptions, like the previously mentioned Alfredo Garcia, and the Ballad of Cable Hogue, but for the most part, Peckinpah seemed unable to capture anything that might be mistaken for a Richard Linklater film. (Or even John Hughes.)
The only other thing worth mentioning about Deadly Companions is that it's a relatively difficult movie to find if one is interested in seeing it in anything like what it appeared as in 1961. Although multiple versions of the DVD exists in the US, all are cheap unlicensed properties, with varying aspect ratios and low-grade sound quality. The highest quality version of the film available comes from a small German company, and that version is only playable on a Region Free DVD player. While there are some films that are actually worth the expense of importing a foreign DVD, the Deadly Companions is really more for those fans most interested in seeing where Peckinpah got his start--and even those fans, of who this writer is one, will probably be satisfied to pay less than five dollars for the cheap American knock-off.
-Tucker Stone, 2007