| Lucas Hardwick |
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, May 5 through Sunday, May 7. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
Warning: plot spoilers below!
Everyone has a head and we’re all kind of obsessed with them; so obsessed, in fact, that the conceit of removing it forcefully will never not be the most macabre form of dismemberment. After all, decapitation was a rather popular crime deterrent in the Dark Ages. In the Tower of London Museum one can actually lay eyes on the very block of wood where numerous noggins were separated from their flailing felonious bodies. I remember looking upon that chunk of execution history a little too long in a disturbed awe, imagining how some bug-eyed soul was the last person to get the ol’ John the Baptist treatment in that very spot before shuffling off this mortal coil. As befits a functional and appropriate brevity, heads were sometimes placed on pikes outside of a location that wished to let those passing through know to do so at their own peril, lest they act up and their noodles adorn the end of a post like so many ne’er do wells.
Conversely, in the spirit of keeping heads attached, for years any number of articles have popped up here and there about the possibility of an actual head transplant: a real-life blinking head moved to a body more fit for doing all the living that unspokenly goes with it.
If you’ve seen enough Italian sleaze horror, then you too will find the whimsy in head transplanting science originating from Italy. Italian doctor Sergio Canavero claims that the mother of all switcheroos is indeed possible and that a Chinese colleague has already accomplished the procedure on a cadaver. Everything was set to make it happen publicly in 2017 with a 33-year-old Russian man suffering from muscle melting Werding-Hoffman disease.1 The ailing comrade, however, eventually swapped the risks involved in trading heads for the joys of having a wife and family.
The reality is, the idea of lobbing off heads, much less sticking them on new bodies, is so fascinating, we’d love for it to have actually happened just to be able to brag to the cosmos, “Hey, we’re putting heads on different bodies over here. What a time to be alive!”
The business of heads and their removal or replacement is delightfully disturbing. It’s one of those notions that’s so far out there, we’re both fascinated and terrified by it. It’s an idea we can barely wrap our heads around. And while it certainly posits many ethical curiosities due to its grisly terminal efficiency, the captivating road to decapitation reveals more existential conundrums. We are so personally involved with heads that exploring ideas beyond the gruesome act of removing one, well…really gets into our heads.
Of course, this is entirely what’s going on in Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 noodle-nabbing, bounty-hunting road movie Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, where American expatriate Bennie (Warren Oates) is tasked with the morbid duty of tracking down said head. This all comes as a result of the wealthy Mexican crime honcho, known only as El Jefe (Emilio Fernández), discovering that his young daughter is pregnant with Garcia’s progeny. “I will pay one million dollars. Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia,” shouts El Jefe to his entourage of thugs, and in a montage of planes and automobiles setting forth on a headhunting odyssey, the film is underway.
Emilio Fernández as “El Jefe.”
Two of El Jefe’s goons wind up in a Mexican bar flashing a photo of Garcia’s grinning mug, asking if anyone has seen the wanted man. Bennie claims he’s heard of Garcia, and for a mere ten thousand dollars is conscripted to obtain Garcia’s cranium to be handed over to El Jefe’s cronies. But Bennie only knows Garcia because his girlfriend, the prostitute Elita (Isela Vega), also knows him—or knew him, rather, and in the biblical sense. Elita informs Bennie that Garcia died in a drunk driving accident a few days prior. Simple, right? No problem. Go dig up Alfredo Garcia and whack off his head, and presto, Bennie and Elita are on their way to financial independence.
There’s plenty of plot to go around, almost enough to snuff out the story, but Peckinpah keeps our heads on an emotional swivel with lots of internal turmoil for Bennie to deal with. Alfredo Garcia haunts Bennie; not in a ghostly sense, but in the sense that Elita’s affection for Garcia is made apparent early on, and the idea of Garcia, and the love he and Elita shared, becomes a specter that follows Bennie throughout the film.
Kentucky boy Warren Oates as “Bennie.”
Even though Garcia is dead, Bennie feels threatened by him. Garcia begins to consume every aspect of Bennie’s life. Bennie wakes up next to Elita and discovers she’s given him crabs, and though it’s never said, you, me, and Bennie all wonder for a moment if those weren’t originally Alfredo Garcia’s crabs. From this point forward we see Bennie transform from a negligent boyfriend to a lover who’s ready to toe the line. Bennie’s change plays out severely, like that of someone who learns they’re dying and has suddenly chosen to get their affairs in order.
Bennie’s obsession is a slow burn as, at first. he almost seems to devolve from his selfish and confident state into something akin to a cuckold. We see this aspect of Bennie reveal and resolve itself in a scene where he and Elita are accosted by two American bikers, one of whom forces himself on Elita in what winds up being an uncharacteristically gentle rape scene. It’s not rape in the traditional sense as we witness Elita become almost content to give herself over to the man. The scene evolves into a private and personal affair. Even a rapist exhibits more passion than Bennie.
Up to this point in the scene, Bennie just lets it happen. He seems powerless to do anything to stop it. In fact, he doesn’t even try to prevent it until he, at last, knocks the other biker unconscious and takes his gun. Bennie emerges transformed from the forlorn lover with a broken heart, confronts the first biker before Elita is completely violated, and shoots him dead.
In these few moments we see Bennie not only rescue his lover but make a choice to exact change instead of remaining stagnant. If there’s one thing to be said about Bennie thus far, it’s his inability to live beyond his limitations. Bennie poetically affirms his stagnancy when he says to Elita, “I’ve been no place I want to go back to.” Bennie is a fixer and believes the way to Elita’s heart is a pile of money that offers the promise of a future. What becomes apparent is that a dead man’s passion exhibits more ambition than Bennie has shown.
It’s not until Bennie and Elita finally arrive at Alfredo Garcia’s grave that the film reaches its head-scratchiest potential. Just as Bennie is about to unburden the deceased Garcia of his money-making melon, he is knocked unconscious. Bennie soon awakens to find someone has beaten him to his bounty. Tragically, his beloved Elita is also dead.
It doesn’t take Bennie long to track down his attackers and steal back the Head of Alfredo Garcia. And it’s at this point that Bennie enters a new stage of his transformation. He is now packing around the visage of the man he has become so haunted by, the man whom his Elita was so taken with. Now that Elita is dead, the Head of Alfredo Garcia is his only connection to the woman he loved, and having been complicit in her death by bringing her along, Bennie is consumed by guilt. Just as he was about to rise above his own inadequacies, Bennie is reduced to being equal to, or even beneath, the head of a dead man that we never see beyond a smirking photograph. Bennie isn’t even afforded the horrific heroic act of removing Alfredo Garcia’s head—a task implied by the film’s very title.
Bennie talks to Alfredo. He cleans him up. He even becomes friendly with Alfredo, and he knows that the only thing he can do now to honor Elita and sanctify himself to any degree is to see his mission through. Delivering the Head of Alfredo Garcia is no longer about money for Bennie. It’s about love and resolving his own inner conflict.
Let me tell you ‘bout my best friend.
The Head of Alfredo Garcia was an opportunity for Bennie; an opportunity for a fresh start that would give him the confidence to become the companion Elita needed him to be—at least that’s what he believed. It was an opportunity to initiate change, which is big doings for someone who’s “been no place [they] want to go back to.” And in Bennie’s case, the unstoppable force of change he initiates is violent and fatal, as if change itself is what keeps Bennie in all those places he never wanted to go back to. It’s the ultimate defeatist commentary.
This film transcends its darkly comic trappings to become something even more sarcastic and more cynical that suggests there’s no hope for people like Bennie—that a severed head gets a better break in the world than anyone attempting to carve out their own destiny. It’s a theme that fits all too well with the mustard-hued ’70s cinema chic that tinges the film with the flavors of whiskey, dirt, and cigarettes. These are the bitter colors and flavors of complacency and defeat.
What’s a good existential dilemma without our old pal irony? Elita doesn’t love Bennie the way she loved Alfredo Garcia. And to bring our tragedy full circle, given the inciting incident that set this story in motion—El Jefe’s daughter bearing Alfredo Garcia’s child—it appears Alfredo perhaps didn’t love Elita the way she loved him.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a story told almost entirely through the emotions of its characters, and much of that is left for us to interpret. It’s a fitting conceit, since we cannot know the motivations or feelings of the dead man’s head that basically takes charge of the film—and how could it not? The Head of Alfredo Garcia becomes the key to Bennie’s destiny and a symbol of his past, and ultimately reveals the internal struggle of a man who was doomed to never find peace within himself.
1 Hahn, Jason. “Man Set to Undergo World’s First Head Transplant Backs Out After Finding Love and Becoming a Dad.” People.com (April 10, 2019). https://people.com/human-interest/valery-spiridonov-head-transplant-backs-out/
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon