1970s, 4/4, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Western

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

#2 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

Roughly mangled in editing by then president of MGM, James Aubrey, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was dismissed at the time as a lesser work of a filmmaker whose best days were well behind him. Sam Peckinpah’s newest western was supposed to be another The Wild Bunch, but the truncated form of the film that got released in theaters was too incoherent for audiences or critics. It lost money, and Peckinpah reportedly urinated on the screen during a screening. Several years later, the preview version, Peckinpah’s last cut of the film, was released, and a Special Edition that made some further edits was released in the 2000s. It’s that Special Edition that I was able to track down, and I have to say, it might be my favorite film by Sam Peckinpah.

I’ve said it before, but the public perception of Peckinpah and who he actually was as an artist are pretty divergent (sort of like Martin Scorsese). The public sees little more than The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, two films that end with extreme violence, but they’re actually something of an exception. Sort of like how Goodfellas was very much a Scorsese film while also standard apart from the vast bulk of his filmography, so do The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs for Peckinpah. I think that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid may be the film that most fully encapsulates Peckinpah as a filmmaker, much like how The Age of Innocence most fully encapsulated Martin Scorsese’s.

I think this is a film that isn’t that concerned with trying to match history all that closely, especially regarding the characterization of William Bonney himself. I seriously doubt he was this quiet, soulful type that Kris Kristofferson brings to Billy the Kid, but the point isn’t the history. The point is Peckinpah finding telling a story that appeals to his own thematic obsessions, and those are men outside of their own time against a changing world that can’t accept them leading to violent clashes. In this telling of the Billy the Kid story, it’s how two men deal with times that are leaving them behind. On the one hand, Billy the Kid won’t change. He refuses to change as the West civilizes, represented by Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) and the powerful rancher Chisum (Barry Sullivan), and he’s willing to kill his way to that old life. Up against him is his old friend, Pat Garrett (James Coburn). Were the two actually friends? There seems to be some level of disagreement among historians, but whatever.

So, let me finally get to the story. Garrett has been elected sheriff of the small town of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and he makes it his mission to track down and capture the outlaw Billy the Kid. He quickly tracks Billy down, his men killing the two men Billy is with, and taking him into custody which Billy quickly escapes from, killing two deputies. The real chase is on, and yet, the movie slows down. It hadn’t exactly been breakneck speed from the outset, but there’s no real fire under Garrett to get Billy as soon as possible. It allows for a laconic view of two men who mirror each other. The tone and almost meditative pace of the film reminded me of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and if Dominik wasn’t partially inspired by this film, I’d be very surprised.

And that steady pace and meditative tone is where this movie has its sneaky power. Garrett and Billy are mirror images of each other. Effectively brothers looking at a new time and trying to make their own mark. Neither are good men, and they approach similar situations in the same way. Billy stops by a trading post where one of Garrett’s new deputies, Alamosa (Jack Elam), just happens to be eating. They get into a duel at ten paces, but Billy simply turns around as Alamosa walks, shooting him down when Alamosa turns at eight instead of ten paces. This is similar to how Garrett takes out Billy in the finale. How Billy takes out the deputies to escape gets mirrored by Garrett finding three of Billy’s men in another trading post, playing with them, getting one, Alias (Bob Dylan, who also wrote the music), to hit another with a shotgun, and shoots down the third.

The film really starts feeling melancholic at about the halfway point when Garrett finds another sheriff, Baker (Slim Pickens), to go after some of Billy’s men. It goes wrong and Baker ends up mortally shot in the stomach. He walks off to the nearby river and looks out as his wife rests beside him and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (written for this film) plays. Dylan’s music is a big part of why this movie’s small moments like this work. They’re a perfect fit.

Billy has his choice to stay hidden, to simply run away, but seeing the violence of Chisum’s men convinces him to return to his gang. There’s a certain Robin Hood element to his character that I kind of doubt aligns with reality, but it works in the film. And then there’s the showdown at Fort Sumner. Well, less of a showdown and more of Garrett and two men sneaking in after having gathered the information of where Billy is holed up, and Garrett all but shooting Billy in the back. The two barely have any screentime together (the original script kept them apart completely until the end, but the finished film, over the objections of the screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, evidence of the power of directors over screenwriters), and yet the mirror-image nature of the two characters dealing with similar situations over the film gives it a surprising emotional resonance.

Peckinpah’s filmography is about a few things. Violence, changing times, powerful men taking advantage of the less powerful, and life on the edges of civilization are big ones (all present here), but the one motif most seems to come to the surface here is the relationship between violent men. Billy and Garrett, being old friends but on opposite sides of a conflict that actually seems opposed to both of them (the civilization of the West), are on an inevitable path towards violence against each other, and it’s not the kind of fistfight that you just walk away from. The encroaching world is killing men like them, and Garrett has chosen to survive in it, even if he doesn’t fit. There’s a deep melancholy that pervades this film as these questions swirl around our characters that I really get into.

I love the film rather completely, but it has a wide host of small side characters that make it feel like the film should have been a solid half hour longer, at least. The clarity around Billy and Garrett isn’t diminished, but the world of toughs and prostitutes around them feels a bit thin for their mechanical narrative purposes, especially when he recruits a man to join him on the way to Fort Sumner right beforehand, about an hour and a half into the film, with whom he has a history that needs to get spilled out right then. It’s not huge, but it’s just evidence of the kind of chaotic way Peckinpah made movies.

Still, I can’t really argue with the overall results. It gets into this melancholic groove that I just fall into easily. It’s probably the most Peckinpah movie Peckinpah had made up to this point. The movie that most fully embraces the things he was trying to say as a filmmaker. I loved it.

Rating: 4/4

8 thoughts on “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”

  1. I think the decision to link, even tenuously, this story to Billy the Kid was a mistake. As a story unlinked to history, it’s fine. But knowing anything at all about the real people in history completely breaks my enjoyment. The casting is all wrong for the historical characters (oddly, Emilo Estevez is the closest to the ‘real’ Billy in appearance and age) and it mangles actual events.

    If you re-named everyone and retitled the film, I might be able to appreciate it as it is. But I can’t get out of my own head and my own study of history.

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    1. It’s the outline of the Billy the Kid story that Peckinpah filled in with his own stuff. A drunken stupor of historical fiction, per se.

      I’m obviously okay with it, with the understanding that I’m most likely not watching anything all that close to the history.

      I don’t often hit that block where mangling history bothers me, but it does from time to time, just not here. This period in the early to mid 70s feels like Peckinpah knowing that he was never going to get the kind of freedom he needed and deciding to go for broke.

      Alex Cox (who directed Walker which was also written by Rudy Wurlitzer) had some interesting things to say about the film on his blog here:

      https://alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com/2022/06/26/on-the-virtues-and-versions-of-pat-garrett-billy-the-kid/

      It’s here where the world learned that Criterion was going to release the film. Fingers crossed that it happens soon.

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