PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973)
(2005 DVD ‘Special Edition’ - 110 minute version)
With this 1973 western, Sam Peckinpah returned to the whisky-slugging man’s world of the genre for which he had the greatest affinity. James Coburn wanted him to direct as he had a yearning to play Pat Garret. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is an affectionate film with rich themes explored about the passing of the old Wild West, the easy and not so easy resolutions of disagreements through violence and the friendships and bonds between men as they age.
Garrett is an old friend of William ‘Billy the Kid’ Bonney; their history together going back to when Billy was a badge-man and Garret was an outlaw. Now their roles are reversed and Garret tells him as a friend that in five days he must take up the duties of Sheriff and bring his old buddy in as a criminal. The rest of the film is the lawman’s dogged pursuit of his mark but with respect accorded between the two men until their fateful last meeting when Garrett shoots Billy dead.
It’s easy to see why Coburn was attracted to Pat Garrett as a role. He plays the Sheriff with a cool understated elegance and an easy authority that sets him apart from other men, coupled with a reflective side that mourns the loss of friendship that comes with duty. Kristofferson is a genial, laid-back Billy but convincing also in his equal dead-eye physicality with a gun.
Along the way, Peckinpah stacks the deck with a marvellous collection of Western character actors. Jack Elam is Garret’s gentle deputy, resigned to a fatally cheating (for him) duel with Billy. R.G Armstrong gives a splendidly enraged cameo as the deputy almost psychotically infused with religious fervour and boiling hatred at Billy’s provoking of him: “Repent, you son of a bitch”, before Billy kills him with a blast from his own dime-crammed shotgun. Jason Robards makes an urbane Governor Wallace, offering Garret $500 on behalf of a syndicate to apprehend the Kid. Garrtet suggests Wallace’s group “take your $500 and shove it up your ass and set fire to it”. He will bring in Billy anyway, but as his decision, not for money. Chill Wills is featured as a saloon owner.
Another memorable and moving portrayal is Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker. Pickens was born to be a Western movie player and here he is tremendously poignant when he is gut-shot in a siege by Billy and makes his way to the water’s edge, watched lovingly by his wife Katy Jurado, at peace as he knows he will soon die.
Aside from Kristofferson, there are two other actor/singers in the film. Rita Coolidge, married to Kristofferson at that time, is his lover Maria. The most well-known and publicised addition to the cast and soundtrack is of course Bob Dylan. As an actor, playing the enigmatic stranger Alias (always referred to as ‘Boy’ by Garrett), Dylan doesn’t make a strong enough impression on screen, despite a number of scenes and close-ups. He’s very much along for the ride, but his music is indelible. PAT GARRETT was the first time many people would have heard his seminal ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ which resonates beautifully at key moments in the film. Astoundingly, Peckinpah didn’t like the song and left it out of his longer ‘Preview Cut’.
The issue of varying prints of the film would become a real bone of contention when PAT GARRETT was released - and aside from a truncated editing period due to cuts in the over-run budget made by producer James Aubrey, was symptomatic of a breakdown in Peckinpah’s relations with the studio MGM. His increasingly erratic behaviour was fuelled by the full-blown alcoholism and cocaine use that would later ruin him. On the first day Dylan reported for work on the set, he watched previous dailies with Kristofferson and Peckinpah, who was so unhappy with the footage that he stood up and urinated on the screen.
PAT GARRETT involved a record six editors struggling to complete a satisfactory theatrical print. Peckinpah approved a 124-minute preview cut which the studio demanded be shortened to 106 minutes. Peckinpah kept a copy of his version which wasn’t made available publicly for many years. In 1988 his cut came out on Laserdisc, which caused a positive critical re-evaluation of the film’s quality. To add to the confusion of different versions, in 2005 there was a Special Edition on DVD (the version I have) which not only was a composite of both releases but also added previously missing scenes.
Whichever way you see it, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is a Western gem, and I say this as someone who only likes certain examples of the genre. I tend to be drawn mainly to those that are ‘revisionist’ myth-busters, comedies or deeper Westerns that deal with consequences of actions (rather than the old-fashioned racist ‘Cowboys versus Indians’ fodder) such as BUTCH CASSIDY and UNFORGIVEN. This film has a pleasing sense of mature regret about the facile way that guns cancel out life thoughtlessly, doubly powerful for being made by a director felt to be a pornographer of firearm-related violence. A great and wordless scene demonstrates this neatly whereby Pat is on a river-bank and idly joins in a boating family’s shooting target practise of a bottle in the water. The father is seemingly threatened by Garret’s involvement and begins firing at him instead.
Peckinpah himself has a short Stan Lee-style spoken cameo near the end just before Garrett goes to reluctantly take down Billy. He quietly encourages the Sheriff: “You finally figured it out, huh? Go on. Get it over with.” I’d venture that as a last pure Western of his, in spite of his personal battles Peckinpah had figured out some things in his own work…