‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ – Peckinpah’s Revisionist Masterpiece?

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Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Written by Rudy Wurlitzer
1973, USA

Sam Peckinpah was not an easy man to get along with at the best of times and the battles he faced in making Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, now widely considered as amongst the top dozen Westerns ever made, are legendary even by his standards. Peckinpah wanted his name taken off the film after a distraught MGM instructed the half-dozen editors (probably a world record by the films release in 1973) allocated to the film to hack the footage into something more straightforward and to their minds more marketable, reducing the run time to under two hours and most crucially shaving off the pathos riven, 1908 set bookends of the film, these bridging buttresses detailing the final fate of one of the titular characters in light of the main narrative tragedy. Peckinpah had faced relentless obstructions on set as he was almost physically prevented from filming certain pivotal sections that had been crafted in his vision, moments and scenes that were seen as superfluous to the movies core plot, brief attendant interludes that are now considered as amongst the finest he ever captured throughout his turbulent career.

To the suits he was an embittered alcoholic,  a consummate trouble-maker who snorted herculean volumes of cocaine to enable his continued destructive drinking, to his devotees he was a romantic genius whose uncompromising divination’s of a dying era were obstructed and obfuscated by the ‘man’. Like the famous Western adage ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend‘  that truth may squat somewhere in-between, I’m always reminded of the anecdote of a star struck and idealistic young runner viewing Sam languishing hazily in the directors chair during an early morning set-up, remarking that he was witnessing a genius going through his artistic method, mentally conjuring up how he was going to approach a difficult scene during a moment of unusual calm, before a jaded assistant director retorted that he was doing anything of the sort and merely ensuring that his heart was still beating after a particularly bruising booze and narcotic fuelled session in the local gin mill the night before.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid 3

1881, New Mexico and the plot is deceptively simple. Pat Garrett (James Coburn in one his finest performances) is an aging and senescent plainsman who has been deputized and instructed to clear the province of any lurking renegades due to the anticipated investment in cattle and land being planned by a new confederacy of businessmen led by the Chisum alliance. The most notorious of these flies in the ointment is Billy The Kid (Kris Kristofferson) and his maverick band of demented outlaws, a rag-tag bunch of whoring and roaring wild men including memorable appearances from Charles Martin Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, Jason Robards and Richard Bright, best known as one of Michael’s core assassin’s in The Godfather movies – he had quite the low-key career. Given their bond of friendships and their shared history of nefarious activities Garrett visits Billy in his New Mexico hideaway to issue an ultimatum, he has five days to leave the territory or face the consequences. Snubbing the threat Billy is soon captured and a hangman’s noose is erected, just as a curious band of rubber necking denizens coalesce to see the legendary figure ‘get drawn out’. Breaking loose from his shackles Billy makes an urgent break for Mexico – so frequently Peckinpah’s idyllic, intangible Eden throughout his work – before a disgusting run-in with the Chisum corporation and their pillaging agents provokes his tainted moral code to return to the territory and face his historical, felicitous nemesis…

Peckinpah was at the vanguard of a series of revisionist films that decapitated the romantic myth of the West during the Seventies, revamping the popular view of the period through the noble Hollywood constructions of John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper to expose the bloody violence inflicted upon the indigenous people, the environment and each other in a merciless pursuit of power and commerce, as the fictional folklore of the gunslinger and their particular vein of honour and heroism was eroded in the face of a brutal modernity. These fracture points are aligned in the two titular characters of the film, Pat Garrett representing the pragmatic and sober shift from the criminal outlaw to instrument of the Union, Billy the twilight of the honourable yet murderous rogue, a duo framed under an inevitable shift toward a so-called civilisation, as the wilderness and the men who roam it are absorbed into the urban metropoli of the 20th century which Peckinpah so evidently loathed. Coburn is quietly magnificent in this film, the haunted disintegration of his moral core occasionally flickering across his granite face during some of the poetic asides, almost everyone he meets curses him and his Judas inspired quest as his neophyte attempts to better his status and standing finally prove fruitful – but at what cost? Kristofferson invests his Cheshire cat grinning outlaw with a sense of jaunty bravado but he’s no less lethal, gunning down numerous opponents in cold blood, Peckinpah nevertheless framing Billy as a neo-christ figure with his unwavering masculine compass, even framing him in a crucifixion pose during his surrender toward the start of the film.


One of the great moments in Peckinpah’s work is the wordless exchange of looks between Slim Pickens and his Mexican wife following a fatal incursion of brigands upon their land,  just a simple look, a hesitant smile, bereft of dialogue just says it all -an unusual pebble of moving poetry amongst the gunfire and carnage. The film exists in various forms with the restored cut from the 1990′s leaving intact the bookends of Pat’s fate a dozen years later, resurrecting Peckinpah’s initial intentions that align a sense of discrete pathos with his allegorical intuition, although Pat has brought himself another quarter century of life his fate was sealed as the sins of the Nineteenth century revisit him in the fulcrum of the industrial age.

It’s often overlooked just how visually attuned a director Peckinah was, with  much of his notoriety and legacy laid at the feet of his groundbreaking cross-cutting techniques coupled with the slow motion parade of executed legends falling to their doom through expansive Widescreen vistas. His appropriation of  the European cinema of the Sixties refracted through American genre nodes are beautifully attuned, and he also was a master of composition within the frame away from the counterpoint of images and surfaces as the planes and prairies teem with life in Pat Garrett, birds and livestock rambunctiously patrolling the purlieus of a fading dream. I’m not someone who ever drank the Bob Dylan kool-aid but I can see why he is so revered due to his haunting score for this film, a constitution that complements the elegiac visuals, it’s rolling, folksy and melancholic contours beautifully complement this sad tale, plus his small acting role in the film as a pint-sized knifeman is really quite memorable with one memorable line. Similarly the ancillary characters are brilliantly and economically detailed,  the tavern owners and henchmen, the snake oil salesmen and aging gunmen, they all have an individual character sketched out through their brief appearances, gesturing a historical, breathing world in which the tragedy unfolds.

David Thomson aggregates Peckinpah’s films as avocations where violently adept men accept corrupting and compromising contracts that they accept with a hesitant inevitability, likening these fictional pledges with the Mephistophelean bargains that Peckinpah acknowledged from his accursed producers – it’s quite an arresting sentiment. Sam always had a problem with authority and he clearly sympathises with his characters operating in the margins of society, at the far-flung reaches of so-called civilisation, romantically idealised in a world whose morals and sense of authentic purpose was shifting as the art form slowly vacillated to the demands of commerce from the high plateaus of genuine, heartfelt art.

All Peckinpah’s Westerns are essential viewing but Garrett is particularly embrued with a dysphoric charm, the finale in particular is exquisitely staged and breathes like an expiring gunslingers final, tortured breath. To see such a bloodthirsty film (by my reckoning a few dozen people are gunned down over the two hours) concluded on such a quiet note is almost unique and expertly measured, there is no final crescendo of violence, no enormous shoot out à la The Wild Bunch, the legendary tale of the Old West focusing on the central core of the story, a friendship sundered by the elemental forces of history and fate.

– John McEntee

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