The Sad, Sweet Poetry of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

Posted: June 3, 2016 in Reviews, Western
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Pat-Garrett-Billy-the-KidMore people have heard the stories behind the making of Sam Peckinpah’s last Western, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, than have seen the film – or so it seems. Made by a director in an alcoholic haze with the antipathy of studio bosses, the film has become the stuff of legends, punctuated by the apocraphyl tale of Peckinpah urinating all over the screen after a viewing of the dailies. Faced with a production that was over budget and behind schedule, the studio yanked control and hurried a version far from the director’s vision into theaters where it was panned. The film has been “rediscovered” twice since its initial release, with a “preview” edition in 1988 and a “special” edition in 2005. The AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland recently screened the special edition, simultaneously confirming AFI as the premiere conservator of America’s cinematic legacy and the film’s unique brilliance.

It was inevitable – and remains so – that Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid would be compared to The Wild Bunch. The film was his first Western since the release of his masterwork in 1969. It is not a criticism of the latter movie to say that it does not approach the greatness of the previous one. The Wild Bunch is matched only by Apocalypse Now in its presentation of a director’s hallucinogenic vision of brutal, basic machismo set in a landscape of unavoidable violence. Just as Coppola has never again reached that level of excellence, so too was this Peckinpah’s zenith. So put aside comparisons with The Wild Bunch, forget the stories of the making of the movie, and consider Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid on its own merits.

The film is an elegy, a sad, sweet poem dedicated to old souls who wander the earth, condemned to a life that breaks every measure of a man, be it duty, honor or friendship. There are hints that Peckinpah intended something far different, an epic tale of good and evil and the compromised men in the middle of these great forces. One imagines that Jason Robards as the Governor and Barry Sullivan as the evil Chisum were slated for greater roles, but are reduced to cameos, while seemingly every significant character actor to have appeared in a Western between 1950 and 1970 enjoys a memorable moment. Their subplots are not developed; many of the cast serve as archetypes and require no explanation in order to have worth. We recognize who they are meant to be in an instant and then are amazed when Peckinpah expands their significance in unexpected ways.

Slim Pickens has one of the most unforgettable and beautiful death scenes in American film history. Mortally wounded in the course of a gun battle, Sheriff Baker (Pickens) walks away from the fight to die by the river in fading light as Bob Dylan’s Knocking’ on Heaven’s Door plays on the soundtrack. Any cinephile seeing this for the first time will be floored and left wondering, “Why I haven’t seen this before?” Another Western institution, Jack Elam, also has a memorable going away as he wearily engages in a duel with Billy the Kid only to find that that the Kid is a better cheater than he is. “I never could count,” says Elam as he expires with no hard feelings. The need for gunplay evokes a deep sign and a “better get to it” in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. There is no bravado and today’s winner is tomorrow’s victim.

James Coburn as Pat Garrett recognizes this from the first frame. Going after Billy the Kid for money and security is worse than selling his soul. More than just a colleague, Billy is his young self and in killing him, Garrett will extinguish his own self and self-worth. Coburn never says that aloud, but it’s in his eyes in every scene. And what might have been regarded as stunt casting at the time, putting Kris Kristofferson in the lead, proves to have been inspired even if it was not intentional. The generational battle plays out on the screen, and while Bob Dylan appearing in a Western sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit run amok, his appearance as Alias is fine and worth every moment if that’s what it took to get him to write and perform the film’s music.

There won’t be another Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and there can’t be another Sam Peckinpah. Modern film making precludes either possibility, but we are the richer for having this film and Peckinpah’s other movies available to us still.


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