A tribute to an underappreciated Peckinpah player
Warren Oates will always be known to a generation as Stripes’ military blowhard Sgt. Hulka. Or, as Bill Murray christened him in the film, ”The Big Toe.” But Oates was more than just a funny foil in fatigues. Before his death from a heart attack in 1982 at age 53, he appeared in dozens of gritty little classics from the ’60s and ’70s as a grizzled sidekick whose cockeyed smirk and taste for liquor, ladies, and loaded weapons made him one of the cinema’s most recognizable character actors.
After three films together, Sam Peckinpah, best known for such bloody, bullet-riddled westerns as The Wild Bunch, came to his senses and recognized the leading man in his midst — that behind the sneer and the stubble, Oates was in fact a star. A sleazy-looking star, but a star nonetheless. Peckinpah’s 1974 south-of-the-border death trip Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was a rare leading role for the Kentucky native, as well as a showcase for his desperate brand of onscreen depravity. And Oates snarled and tore into the part like a rabid dog with a porterhouse.
The film kicks off when a Mexican land baron discovers that his young daughter is pregnant. And when he finds out the name of the man who defiled her, he sics his gringo posse on the AWOL stud with a $1 million bounty to the person who brings back his noggin in a burlap sack.
As the bounty hunters spread out over Mexico, two of them drop into the fleabag cantina owned by Oates’ down-and-out Bennie. There, they grill the expat and dangle money in front of him, backed by threats. Bennie, a loser in every sense of the word — from his clip-on tie to his tequila-soaked shirt and his cheap Foster Grant shades — signs on to help track down Garcia. An added incentive is the fact that Garcia was also sleeping with his prostitute girlfriend (the beautifully vulnerable Isela Vega).
The girlfriend informs Bennie that Garcia is already dead. So he talks her into taking him to his grave so he can dig up the corpse, hack off its head, and get the loot, which will bankroll a new life for the two of them. They hit the road, followed every mile of the way by the sadistic hired guns who want to cut Oates out of the reward.
I’ll grant you that it’s not much of a plot. But there’s something about Oates’ live-wire performance (and the handful of signature Peckinpah slo-mo shoot-outs) that makes Garcia eerily hypnotic. You feel like you need a delousing after watching Oates slowly lose his mind over the task he’s committed himself to. And yet it’s impossible to look away from him. After all, Bennie’s sold his soul to the devil, and it really doesn’t even matter to him if he’s shot down in the end because he’s already dead anyway.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a seedy, unforgettable little ’70s classic. No doubt about it. And if you like it, there’s no reason why you should stop there for a helping of the always-underrated Oates. So here are five more of the late actor’s films worth checking out:
Ride the High Country (1962) His first collaboration with Peckinpah. A Western double-cross epic starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Makes a great double feature with the 1969 Peckinpah-Oates masterpiece The Wild Bunch.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Oates, in his flashy GTO, races James Taylor and Denis Wilson in their souped-up ‘55 Chevy across grand stretches of existential landscape searching for something… but what?
The Hired Hand (1971) Peter Fonda directs and costars in this tender, elegiac Western about two drifters who decide to settle down and wind up paying a hefty price for it.
Race With the Devil (1975) A slightly cheesy horror thriller about two couples in a Winnebago terrorized by a Satanic cult. Costarring Peter Fonda and, get this, M*A*S*H’s Loretta Swit.
Stripes (1981) Come on, he’s Sgt. Hulka! The Big Toe! Like you need an excuse to watch this one again anyway.