Deadly Companions, The (1961): Peckinpah’s Directing Debut, Starring Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith

Sam Peckinpah’s first feature as director, The Deadly Companions, is a modest, unassuming, character-driven western that doesn’t begin to show the iconic stature that Peckinpah would have several years later, with such classics as the 1969 The Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah belongs to a generation of talented American directors who came from TV and moved up the ranks before making Hollywood films in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

After the cancellation of his 1960 TV series The Westerner, Brian Keith was cast as the male lead in The Deadly Companions. He suggested Peckinpah, the producer and director of The Westerner, as the director for this film.

Producer Charles B. Fitzsimons agreed on the condition that it would be a low-budget film, shot on location in and around Tucson, Arizona.

Set in the late 1860s, after the Civil War, the film is based on the novel of the same name by A. S. Fleischman.

The tale centers on Yellowleg (Brian Keith), a former sergeant in the Union army, who is obsessed with tracking down Turk (Chill Wills), a Rebel army deserter who tried to scalp him when he was wounded on the battlefield.

Yellowleg finds Turk and his sidekick Billy (Steve Cochran) in a cantina and convinces them to help him rob a bank.  They go to Gila City, where the bank is located, only to realize that another group of bank robbers is also in Gila City for the same reason, to rob the same bank.

During a shoot-out with the other bank robbers, Yellowleg accidentally kills the son of dance-hall hostess Kit Tilden (Maureen O’Hara).

Remorseful at having caused the death of Kit’s son, who was only 9, Yellowleg forces Turk and Billy to accompany him through Apache territory to bury Kit’s son at the gravesite of her husband in the ghost town of Siringo.

When Billy attacks Kit, Yellowleg throws him out of their camp. Then Turk deserts. As Kit and Yellowleg finally reach Siringo, Yellowleg realizes that he is in love with her.

Billy and Turk reappear, having robbed the bank in Gila City, leading to a final confrontation between Yellowleg and Turk.

The atmosphere is appropriately bleak and Peckinpah reveals what would become one of his signature strengths, building and sustaining tension via dialogue as well as cutting.

The pacing of the film, especially in its melodramatic sequences, is slow and dragging.  At least half of the story revolves around the changing relationship between Yellowleg and Kit, and their banter is not that interesting to observe.

Unable to rewrite the screenplay or edit the picture, Peckinpah vowed to never again direct a film unless he had script and artistic control.  The Deadly Companions is the least interesting and the least known of Peckinpah’s films.

Cast:

Maureen O’Hara as Kit Tilden

Brian Keith as Yellowleg

Steve Cochran as Billy Keplinger

Chill Wills as Turk

Strother Martin as Parson

Will Wright as Doctor Acton

Jim O’Hara as Cal, General Store

Peter O’Crotty as Mayor of Hila City

Billy Vaughan as Mead Tildon Jr.

Male camaraderie, lust, greed, and vengeance

 

Cast:

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Screenplay: A. S. Fleischman

 

DVD: March 8, 2005

Running time: 90 Minutes