Director: Sam Peckinpah; Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematography: John Coquillon; Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (original release), Warner Bros. (DVD); Producer: Gordon Carroll
Cast: James Coburn (Sheriff Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy the Kid), Bob Dylan (Alias), Richard Jaeckel (Sheriff Kip McKinney), Slim Pickens (Sheriff Colin Baker), Katy Jurado (Mrs. Baker), Chill Willis (Lemuel), Jason Robards (Governor Lew Wallace), R. G. Armstrong (Dept. Sheriff Bob Ollinger), Jack Elam (Alamosa Bill), Matt Clark (Dept. Sheriff J.W. Bell), Emilio Fernandez (Paco), Barry Sullivan (John Chisum)
- "Garrett: It... feels like times have changed.
The Kid: Times maybe, but not me."
There is one indelible sequence that remains with me from this film, almost haunts me really. Not haunts in the sense of scaring me or making me terrified, but leaving me in awe of how powerful an image can be. Amazingly, it’s not even an event that bears much significance in the central game of cat-and-mouse between the two titled characters. It is the walk to his death by Sheriff Colin Baker, played by veteran actor Slim Pickens. Mortally wounded while assisting Pat Garrett in a shootout, it as if Baker knows that that this will be the end. Mounting all of his strength, he begins to slowly stumble away from the site of the shooting, walking into the the colorful horizon toward a stream. Nearby, his wife sees him taking his final steps and lets out a wail, but nothing can stop the determined Baker on his death march. All of this action is set the to the strains of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” for which there could have not have been a more appropriate use. This scene epitomizes what made me fall in love with this film – the lyrical beauty of it all. For a director known for his excessive violence and hardened personality, this scene was the one that made me realize that there was more to the work of Sam Peckinpah than is commonly cited.
Much maligned upon its release, the troubles and pitfalls experienced during shooting and post-production are legendary. Filming was a near disaster, with many crew members catching the flu and technical difficulties being commonplace. Peckinpah continually clashed with MGM president James Aubrey, asking for both extra time and money that Aubrey was unwilling to grant. The director soldiered on, doing his best to see his own vision realized, which meant drafting local Mexican citizens to work as crew members and shooting some scenes without Aubrey’s knowledge. All of this meant that the movie was finished weeks after its expected completion date and ran well over budget. Still, despite all the trouble, Peckinpah felt that his original cut of the movie was among the finest films that he had ever made. As was to be expected, Aubrey disagreed and demanded that certain sequences in the film be removed. With control of MGM, Aubrey ultimately won, taking over post-production and significantly trimming the length. Peckinpah himself thought so little of the cut eventually released by the studio that he sued MGM in order to have his name removed from the credits.
Thankfully, rumors surrounding alternate cuts of the film continued to swirl in Hollywood and among movie fans, and eventually such versions closer to the original vision of Peckinpah would be released. In 1988, Turner Entertainment released a director’s cut of the film, restoring it to 122 minutes in length and causing many detractors of the film to reevaluate its merits. Later, in 2005, a DVD version would combine certain elements of both the theatrical release and the 1988 rerelease, resulting in a version slightly shorter in length than the director’s cut, but touted as being as close to the vision of Peckinpah as could be reached. It’s worth pointing out that in this write-up, I’m speaking to the 1988 and 2005 versions of the film. There is debate among which of the two is superior, but both are amazing films. Both include key elements that were absent in the theatrical version that elevate the film to a masterpiece in my opinion. If forced to choose, I would definitely say that the 1988 version is superior to all other cuts, but either of the two are worth seeing for someone watching for the first time. It’s also worth noting that I’ve come to this film very recently, having watched the two latest versions only within the last month or two and immediately fell in love with it. For someone who has never been a huge Peckinpah fan, even I was shocked at how quickly I was drawn to it.
The story, not surprisingly based on its very literal title, follows the final days of Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), the most famous of western outlaws in the late 1870s and 80s. Among his many comrades and friends is Pat Garrett (James Coburn), who once rode with The Kid but has now been hired as sheriff in order to clear him out of the New Mexico territory. With anyone at all familiar with western mythology or the legend of Billy the Kid, the ultimate conclusion of the story is never in doubt – Garret shot and killed the outlaw at Fort Sumner in 1881. The drama and tension of the story comes from the uncertainty over Garrett’s own conviction to follow through on the job that he was hired to perform. Early in the film, there is a scene in which Garrett warns Billy that he is now the sheriff and that he intends to rid New Mexico of him, whether that means chasing him out of the territory or killing him. It is as if Garrett is pleading with his old pal to leave for Old Mexico and not to make him have to kill him. He is telling him, like a father would a son, that the days of the renegade outlaw are over. But Billy, brash as always, refuses to heed the warning.
For all of the moments of bloodshed and shootouts that are found whenever Peckinpah is in the director’s seat, things are at times quite leisurely. This lilting pace gives the film a very dreamlike quality, which works perfectly and very much appealed to me. In this sense, the 1988 version of the film gets it right by inserting key sequences at the beginning and end of the film. In these sequences, we see an aged Pat Garrett as he is ambushed and killed. In the midst of the gunfire that will claim his life, the picture jumps back and forth to Garrett having flashbacks of his friendship with Billy the Kid. The ’88 version closes with similar shots of Garrett’s death, while the 2005 version uses only the flashback sequence in the opening. Both work, in my opinion, as it is necessary to set the proper tone for the dreamy feeling of the entire film -- although, admittedly, the 1988 is probably the better version. Also helping in creating the dreamlike effect is the fact that the strains of Bob Dylan’s soundtrack is always to be heard in the background, accentuating the beauty of shots created by Peckinpah and cinematographer John Coquillon. The movie in turn flows like the slow-moving river that Slim Pickens marches toward in his death scene, as if the audience is being bounced from one fleeting memory to another on the journey toward the end of the outlaw era.
While not earth-shattering, the performances are universally solid and the two leads give Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid very distinct and vibrant personalities. As played by Coburn, Garrett is the brooding ex-gunman who longs to be seen as a professional. In the Kid, Kristofferson plays him as impetuous as the historical record seems to indicate, while at the same time making the outlaw very likable. But in the end, the individual performances are not what is most striking about the overall production. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s the dreamlike quality and the sense that you are watching a requiem mass for a man and an era that makes it for me. I have often seen Pat Garret and Billy the Kid referred to as a revisionist western, but I think that this is something of a misnomer, as it has a different feel from other films that are categorized as such. To me, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as brought to life by Peckinpah actually are romantic figures, but ones that have simply outlived their time and usefulness.
I may be partial due to a lifelong fascination with Billy the Kid, but I don’t hesitate in declaring this to be the finest work that I have seen from Sam Peckinpah. If you haven’t seen the two restored cuts of the film, you owe it to yourself to at least give them a shot. Chances are, they still will not be for everyone, but they are worth seeing for any fans of Peckinpah or westerns in general.
Rating: 10/10 (It was a 9 until I watched it again shortly before posting this and it got upped -- it's that great of an experience for me.)
Other Contenders for 1973: Had I not seen Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid before I got to this year in the countdown, there is really no doubt in my mind that George Lucas’ American Graffiti would have been my selection. I’m a sucker for well done nostalgia films and that one fits the bill perfectly. Lucas would go on to bigger blockbusters, but in my opinion he would never direct another film to equal American Graffiti. This is another year of many solid films, all bunched together behind the Peckinpah. Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, the first western that the icon ever directed, is outstanding. Robert Altman’s take on the Philip Marlow character in The Long Goodbye is a must see. George Roy Hill made another Newman-Redford collaboration with The Sting, which I always find entertaining. My favorite Peter Bogdanovich movie is actually Paper Moon, which I know puts me in the minority. Martin Scorsese makes his first great gangster film with Mean Streets, and while I don’t rate it quite as highly as some others, it’s still one that needs to be seen. Don’t Look Now, from Nicholas Roeg, is at times chilling. And finally, The Spirit of the Beehive, from director Victor Erice, is one I’ve just recently seen but it’s quite good.
One movie I’ll have to point out that I’m not including is Badlands from Terrence Malick. Malick is among a handful of my favorite directors, but I have the unique opinion of his films that he has actually improved with each release, so I don’t rate Badlands as highly as most Malick enthusiasts.
All in all, though, a very deep year.