Teresa, the pregnant teenage daughter of a powerful man known only as "El Jefe" (Spanish for "The Boss"), is summoned before her father and interrogated as to the identity of her unborn child's father. Under torture, she identifies the father as Alfredo Garcia, whom El Jefe had been grooming to be his successor. Infuriated, El Jefe offers a $1 million reward to whoever will "bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia".
The search progresses for two months. In Mexico City, a pair of business suit-clad, dispassionate hit men, Sappensly (Robert Webber) and Quill (Gig Young), enter a saloon and encounter Bennie (Warren Oates), a retired United States Army officer who makes a meager living as a piano player and bar manager. The men ask about Garcia, believing they will have more luck getting answers out of a fellow American. Bennie plays dumb, saying the name is familiar but he doesn't know who Garcia is.
It turns out that everyone in the bar knows who Garcia is; they simply don't know where he is. Bennie goes to meet his girlfriend, Elita (Isela Vega), a maid at a ghetto motel. Elita admits to having cheated on Bennie with Garcia, who had professed his love for her, something Bennie refuses to do. Elita informs him that Garcia died in a drunk-driving accident the previous week.
Bennie is excited by the possibility of making money by simply digging up the body. He goes to Sappensly and Quill, in the hotel room of the man who hired them, El Jefe's business associate Max (Helmut Dantine), and makes a deal for US$10,000 for Garcia's head, plus a US$200 advance for expenses.
Bennie convinces Elita to go on a road trip with him to visit Garcia's grave, claiming that he only wants proof that Garcia is in fact dead and no longer a threat to their relationship. En route, Bennie proposes, promising that their future will soon change, and she can retire from being a cleaning lady. Elita is cautious and warns Bennie against trying to upset their status quo.
While having a picnic, Bennie and Elita are accosted by two bikers (one played by Kris Kristofferson and the other by Donnie Fritts), who pull guns and decide to rape Elita. Bennie seems unsure how to react. Elita agrees to have sex with the bikers if they spare Bennie's life, then goes off with one of the bikers (Kristofferson). He rips off her shirt to look at her breasts, lets her slap him twice, slaps her back, then walks away; she follows. Bennie knocks the second biker (Fritts) unconscious while he's playing Elita's guitar. Bennie takes the gun and finds Elita passionately kissing the biker, ready to make love with him. Bennie shoots him dead and kills the second biker as well, as he approaches them.
Bennie confesses to Elita his plan to decapitate Garcia's corpse and sell the head for money. A disgusted Elita, still shaken from what has just happened, begs Bennie to give up this quest and return to Mexico City, where they can be married and live a modest life of relative peace. Bennie again refuses, although he agrees to marry Elita in the church of the town where Garcia is buried.
They find Garcia's grave, but when he opens the coffin, Bennie is struck from behind with his shovel by an unseen assailant. He wakes up to find himself half-buried in the grave with Elita, who is dead. The corpse of Garcia has been decapitated.
Bennie learns from villagers that his assailants are driving a station wagon. He catches up with the men after they blow out a tire. Bennie shoots them, searches their car, and claims Garcia's head. Stopping at a roadside restaurant, he packs the sack containing the head with ice to preserve it for the journey home. Bennie begins addressing the head as if Garcia were still alive, first blaming Alfredo for Elita's death and then conceding that both of them probably loved her equally.
Bennie is ambushed by members of Garcia's family. They re-claim the head and are about to kill Bennie when they are interrupted by the arrival of Sappensly and Quill. The hitmen pretend to ask for directions. Quill produces a sub-machine gun and murders most of Garcia's family, but is fatally shot by one of them. As Sappensly sorrowfully looks at Quill's corpse, Bennie asks: "Do I get paid?" Sappensly turns to shoot, but Bennie kills him. Bennie returns to Mexico City, "arguing" with Garcia's head all the while.
At his apartment, Bennie gives Garcia's head a shower and then brings it to Max's hotel room. Feigning willingness to surrender the head for his $10,000, Bennie reveals he is no longer motivated by money; he says Alfredo was a friend of his and demands to know why Max and the others want Alfredo's head so badly. He also blames Elita's death on the bounty and intends to kill everyone involved. Several men pull guns, but Bennie manages to evade fire and kill them all. He takes a business card from the desk with El Jefe's address on it.
After attending baptism for his new grandchild, El Jefe greets Bennie as a hero and gives him a briefcase containing the promised million-dollar bounty. Bennie calmly relates how many people died for Garcia's head, including his beloved. El Jefe responds apathetically, telling Bennie to take his money and throw Garcia's head to the pigs on the way out. Infuriated that the object responsible for Elita's death is viewed as nothing more than garbage, Bennie guns down all of El Jefe's bodyguards.
Teresa enters with her newborn son as Bennie points a gun at El Jefe but hesitates to shoot. She tersely urges Bennie to kill her father. Bennie obliges, taking along Garcia's head as he leaves the scene with the words: "You take care of the boy. And I'll take care of the father." Bennie drives away, only to be killed by El Jefe's men, their machine guns tearing him to pieces.Warren Oates as Bennie
Isela Vega as Elita
Robert Webber as Sappensly
Gig Young as Johnny Quill
Helmut Dantine as Max
Emilio Fernández as el Jefe
Kris Kristofferson as the biker
Donnie Fritts as the second biker
Director Sam Peckinpah was working on The Ballad of Cable Hogue when screenwriter and long-time friend Frank Kowalski told him an idea for a film: "I got a great title: 'Bring Me the Head of...,' - and he had some other name - 'and the hook is that the guy is already dead'." Peckinpah loved it, and began writing on it then and also in England while making Straw Dogs. He went on to write the shooting screenplay with Gordon Dawson. Producer Martin Baum had formed his own independent production company, Optimus Productions, and had a deal with United Artists. Peckinpah approached him with 25 pages of the film's script. Baum read it and liked it. United Artists agreed to pay Peckinpah to write the script but he told Baum that he did not want any money for it because he owed him one. Peckinpah told Baum that if United Artists liked the script then they could pay him.
Peckinpah started pre-production in mid-August 1973 in Mexico City. With the exception of a few key people, the crew was entirely Mexicans. He hired director of photography Alex Phillips, Jr., one of Mexico's premiere cameramen. They bonded over a dislike for wide-angle lenses, an admiration for zooms and multiple camera setups. Peckinpah told him, "I make very few takes, but I shoot a lot of film because I like to change angles. I shoot with editing in the back of my mind". While scouting locations, he relied extensively on his gut instinct and desire to portray a gritty, realistic vision he had of Mexico. He spent a lot of time searching for the right bar that would be Bennie's workplace. Peckinpah finally discovered a place in the Plaza Garibaldi known as "Tlaque-Paque". He looked around and said, "this is dressed. This is for real". Mexican members of the crew told him that the bar's owner had an infamous reputation and it was rumored that he once killed a woman there, serving very little jail time because he bribed the right people in positions of power.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia went into production in late September 1973, and Peckinpah was quoted in an October issue of Variety magazine as saying, "For me, Hollywood no longer exists. It's past history. I've decided to stay in Mexico because I believe I can make my pictures with greater freedom from here". This upset the Motion Picture and Television Unions and they openly censured the director for his statement at their National Conference in Detroit. They also threatened Alfredo Garcia with union boycotts upon its release, labeling it a "runaway" production. In his defense, Peckinpah claimed that he was misquoted. Before the film was to be released, the unions relented on their boycott threat.
As principal photography continued into the month of December, the demands—both physical and mental—were taking their toll on the cast and crew. To help relieve the tension, Peckinpah and the producers bought out a local bar and threw a surprise party. Principal photography ended three days before Christmas, and the director took a week off before supervising the editing of the film.
On its release in 1974, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García was disapproved by viewers and critics and failed at the box office. However, the film has since found a contemporary audience, maintaining an 82 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 22 reviews. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was listed in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.
Some film critics (including Michael Medved) argue that Bring Me the Head of Alfredo García is one of the worst films ever made, while others (among them Roger Ebert and Slant Magazine) consider it a masterpiece. Michael Sragow of New York magazine called it "a catastrophe so huge that those who once ranked Peckinpah with Hemingway may now invoke Mickey Spillane".
The film has developed a cult following and is shown at theaters as a retro classic. It played one night in a theater in Chicago in January 2013, where over 300 people showed up to watch it during a snowstorm. The film is also periodically shown on cable channels.