When I started this series of reviews about a month ago I mentioned that one of the reasons why I’d avoided doing it for a time was the variable quality of the films involved. Being aware that you’re going to have to sit through and then try to express your thoughts on movies that you already know are mediocre can be a little discouraging. What I didn’t mention, however, was the fact that the opposite is also true. When a film has a particularly strong critical reputation it’s equally daunting, though for different reasons of course. You instinctively wonder whether it’s possible to say anything that hasn’t been said before, and probably been said better. In the case of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s last western, I don’t promise to offer any startling insights but I do hope that I manage to at least express my own personal appreciation of this flawed masterpiece.
The film can, and I think should, be viewed as the death dream of Pat Garrett as he relives the defining events of his life, even as that life is slipping away. I ought to say right now that this view is dependent on the version of the film that’s watched – I’ll explain what I mean later, but for now I will simply say that it does have an impact on the way viewers approach the story. It’s 1909 and an aging and testy Garrett (James Coburn) is riding a wagon through New Mexico. His terse, snappish conversation with his companions is violently interrupted by the crack of a rifle shot. No sooner has the first bullet struck home than Garrett’s escort proceed to empty their own weapons into his mortally wounded body. As the old lawman tumbles towards the earth for the last time the scene is intercut with events of almost 30 years before, in 1881, when we see Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) getting in a bit of target practice by shooting the heads off live chickens. What follows sets up the mood of the rest of the film and explains the motives for the characters subsequent actions. Garrett has sensed that the wind has changed and is pragmatic enough to know that he must go with it or be swept away. He’s thrown in his lot with a shadowy collection of big cattle men and business interests, and has been appointed sheriff. The Kid, on the other hand, resolutely refuses to bow to the march of progress and is bent on continuing as he’s always done. Garrett points out that part of his remit is to ensure the removal, by whatever means are deemed necessary, of the Kid from the territory. This is one of the few times both men share the screen until their final fateful meeting in Fort Sumner, but the movie charts the movements of both as circumstances inexorably draw them to their predetermined positions. That early scene in the cantina where Garrett and the Kid lay their cards on the table and both are aware that they will have to face off sooner or later is full of the melancholy that dominates the picture, and it’s pure Peckinpah. From this point the hunt is on. Garrett brings the Kid in after a bloody shootout at an isolated shack and has him locked up in Lincoln to await execution. This leads to a wonderfully realized sequence in the stark jail room where the Kid’s flippant disregard for authority (both earthly and divine) goads his manic, evangelical guard Ollinger (R G Armstrong) into taunting and threatening him – again depending on which version you watch there’s a killer line that may be missed. When the Kid effects his escape after blasting Ollinger apart with his own shotgun there’s a very human side of him revealed. He swaggers along the main street and orders up a horse to take him out of town. What he’s presented with is a wild animal that promptly bucks him clear and lands him square on his ass. Instead of avenging his bruised dignity on the old Mexican who embarrassed him by offering a horse he couldn’t ride, he simply smiles ruefully, steals another and rides coolly off as befits a legend.
In truth, the whole film could be viewed as a series of memorable scenes. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s a lack of narrative structure; the story follows a very definite line and draws to a completely natural conclusion. What I’m trying to say is that there are certain characteristics that mark it out as a western that transcends the run-of-the-mill and elevate it to something grander. A prime example is the segment with Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado - it moves things forward by showing how Garrett’s pursuit is progressing but that’s not really the point. If anything, like one of Ford’s grace notes, the scene exists for the sake of its own beauty and and poignancy. I’m not going to spoil things for anyone who has yet to see the movie but I will say that it’s gut wrenching stuff and I’ve still never been able to watch it without a lump in my throat. The characters grow and develop as we move along too, especially Garrett. His cynicism and self-loathing increase the closer he comes to his quarry and the further he moves from the man he once was. By the end of the movie he has sold himself completely and his disgust at what he has become is a painful thing to witness. It’s also interesting to compare the portrayal of Garrett’s principal backer, Chisum (Barry Sullivan), to the one John Wayne offered a few years before. This is no heroic defender of the common man, instead he’s a coldly dedicated businessman who feels no sentimental attachment to those who worked for him in the past. This Chisum regards Billy as nothing more than a liability, both financially and politically, who needs to be exterminated. Those hands in his employ are shown to be similarly heartless, and it’s surely clear to Garrett that he’s only being tolerated so long as he has a role to play in Chisum’s schemes. In contrast to Garrett, the character of the Kid undergoes less of a change, perhaps because he’s the one who clings more firmly to the old ways. He starts out grinning, nonchalant and oozing self-confidence, and meets his fate with that attitude virtually intact. However, for all his free spirited charm there’s a hard edge there too. The first time I saw the film I was slightly shocked at the outcome of the duel that the Kid and Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) are unable to avoid. Having said that, I’ve grown to appreciate that little scene more and more for showing that shootouts in the old west were rarely the kind of honourable and noble standoffs that they’re traditionally portrayed as.
As I stated earlier, this was to be Peckinpah’s last western and it’s another of his ruminations on the passing of the old west and the dawn of the modern era. It was a troubled production, not least because of the director’s increasingly wayward behaviour, and the end product reflects that in the multiple cuts of the movie down the years. For all that though, it remains very much a Peckinpah film. It’s tempting to think that Sam saw something of himself in both the title characters: the Kid as the wild, anti-establishment figure that he encouraged others to see him as, and Garrett as the disillusioned independent trying to strike some kind of working balance between corporate interests and a free soul that was probably closer to the truth. As such, I think it’s Coburn’s performance as Garrett that drives the film and gives it much of its power. In terms of realism or accuracy he was too old for the part, but in terms of characterization he was perfect. He was of an age where you can easily understand a man’s need to seek out some form of security, that point when you realize that the recklessness of the past is no longer a viable option yet a part of you still yearns for it and rails against the advance of time and the compromises that are involved. Coburn’s lived-in features and grey hair help to get the point across, and the expressive eyes that could flash cold steel one minute and sardonic humour the next see that it strikes home. In contrast, Kristofferson plays the Kid as a devil may care adventurer, but one with a deep sense of fatalism. Even in that early scene in the cantina the twinkle in the eyes cannot disguise the fact that the Kid knows there and then, as surely as the grim faced Garrett does, that there can only be one outcome. Awareness is one thing of course, but the real fatalism is evident in the way the Kid only half-heartedly tries to elude his old friend. He heads for Mexico and safety but it’s clear enough that in so doing he’s hoping to find some excuse to return and play that one last card whatever the consequences. The supporting cast is something like a wish list of western character players and it’s another of the film’s great strengths. I don’t know how this works for those who come to the film without a familiarity with the genre, but for someone like myself it’s akin to meeting up again with a group of old acquaintances and simply revelling in their company. It would be impossible to go through all the people who drift in and out of the story and enrich it with their presence but, as I noted earlier, a special mention must be given to Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado who contribute to one of the finest moments in this picture, or any other for that matter. The only casting decision that doesn’t really work for me is the inclusion of Bob Dylan. I love the way his music blends in and complements the images on screen but his appearance as a character in the story is unnecessary in my opinion and is just too conspicuous.
The DVD release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, not unlike the production itself, has become a source of controversy. Ever since Peckinpah’s clashes with MGM boss James Aubrey led to the movie being taken away from him and hacked down into a theatrical version that he hated there has been no real director’s cut available. The closest thing is the Turner Preview version, derived from Peckinpah’s workprint. The 2-disc DVD from Warners includes both the Turner version and a new 2005 Special Edition that claims to come closer to the director’s wishes. Now the problem is that the 2005 cut adds some material but, most damagingly, removes or alters key scenes and lines of dialogue from the Turner version – the exact changes can easily be found by running an internet search or just sitting down and watching the two cuts to compare for yourself. The fact that both versions are available is good of course, but it should be mentioned that the Turner cut has not undergone restoration whereas the 2005 one has. My own preference is for the Turner version for a variety of reasons, but the strongest one is the fact that the bookending of the story remains intact. Others will have to decide for themselves. Aside from the restoration, or lack of it, the DVD set contains a plethora of supplementary material that’s most welcome. As for the movie, I hope it’s clear that I hold it in high regard. It’s not only a compelling story, but it’s also a study of fading dreams, vanished innocence and bitter regrets. It’s one of Peckinpah’s best and should rate high in any list of top westerns. Very highly recommended.