Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A violent western? I did not know much about this movie.
What did I get? An odd mix of brutal realism and unabashed poetry, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is an ode to the romantic idea of best friends whom circumstance — well, let us say the realist hand of “society” — has pitted against one another. The movie is slow, stately, and cyclical; Peckinpah wraps himself in the trappings of the western genre and bluffs through the squishiness of the central premise. This anachronistic, cockeyed, soulful movie has scant interest in establishing the reality of its 1881 setting, but it has a patient, off-kilter conviction all its own.
The production of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was marked by unusual acrimony. Director Peckinpah and screenwriter Wurlitzer emerged from the process on poor terms, and the version that the studio eventually released — the one that hit #1 — was “butchered” much in the same way Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons was. Six editors are credited. It is not conventionally possible to see the original print today, as far as I’m aware. On the DVD you will find the 1988 “preview version,” i.e. a cut that Peckinpah prepared before the studio changed it, and possibly the 2005 “special edition,” which is a slightly shorter cut of Peckinpah’s preview version featuring hitherto unreleased footage. I believe I saw the 1988 preview version.
That version has been hailed by some critics as a masterpiece. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, myself, but it’s very easy to understand why lovers of the western (as opposed to genre tourists who happen to be Coen Bros. fans, say) may have taken it to heart. It’s honest by its own lights, and even as it upends many of the premises of the classic western, it nevertheless gives old-fashioned virtues like honor and friendship their proper due. Truly, this is the western as horse opera, and executed by an artist.
Having already screened and reviewed the bad-mojo cash-in of The Getaway, I was relieved to watch a Peckinpah release that is actually worth a damn. In other words, Peckinpah is here authentically engaged with the material he is directing. The overriding theme of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the irksome salience of “roles” in our daily lives and their tendency to disrupt direct and honest human relations. In that sense it is a pure anti-establishment movie; although it is frequently offhanded and arbitrary (witness the scene in which Dylan is made to recite the contents of a larder), it is not in the ordinary sense irreverent — if such a thing is possible, this is a work of reverent nonconformism. Plus, Peckinpah was too deeply a fan of the western genre to trash it. Either way, this is the kind of movie that demands the word “elegaic” but is a bit too scatterbrained to earn it.
In this movie, Pat Garrett, having been named sheriff of Lincoln County, is commanded by his betters (who include John Chisum) to drive William Bonney, known to us as Billy the Kid, out of Texas territory on pain of death. A bestie of Bonney’s, Garrett is reluctant to carry out this directive, but his role demands it. Coburn’s Garrett, understandably grouchy about all of this, becomes a walking symbol of scarcely solicited duty. Garrett meets with Gov. Lew Wallace, who offers him $1000 to capture Billy the Kid; Garrett gives half the money back, telling him to shove it up his ass. Got it? Our roles are vexatious burdens. Later on, Garrett is assigned a grizzled chaperone in the form of one John W. Poe, who is actually eager to find and kill the outlaw Billy the Kid; Garrett, and by extension the movie, judges him mercilessly for this.
Anyone who invests in “the system,” like Poe, is a joke. Early on, while Billy is briefly apprehended, overzealous deputy sheriff Bob Ollinger begins to needle Billy that he probably ought to start repenting, given that he is to be hanged in a few days. Ollinger, an obnoxious bore, eventually threatens Billy with a shotgun, showing himself to be horribly square and uncool. A few minutes later Billy shoots him dead in the street. Actually this is quite in line with the antiheroism Billy embodies — on two other occasions Billy is shown to murder another man in a decidedly unsporting manner. Plus, contrary to the legend, he has shitty aim.
Aside from the two eponymous principals, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid features a bunch of ostentatiously contemporary types pretending to be cowboys; nowadays, we would say that it is full of hipsters. As if this isn’t clear enough, you actually have Bob Fucking Dylan Himself standing around inauthentically and doggedly refusing to emote. That the movie is also scored by Dylan tends to alienate the viewer, in that the movie inevitably resembles a classic radio station every time the strains of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” start up, which is often.
Despite its essential flippancy, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is quite a good movie. It’s relaxed and confident; Peckinpah is somehow sufficiently unimpressed by — or maybe obscurely unaware of — his own anti-establishment bent that he doesn’t let it disrupt the proceedings much.
What here smacks of 1973? The attitude, esp. the soundtrack.
IMDB score: 7.4
My score: 7
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Rudy Wurlitzer
Starring: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, Barry Sullivan, Jason Robards, Bob Dylan, R. G. Armstrong, Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Slim Pickens, Charles Martin Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, Elisha Cook Jr., Bruce Dern
IMDB synopsis: It’s 1881 in New Mexico, and the times they are a’changing. Pat Garrett, erstwhile travelling companion of the outlaw Billy the Kid has become a sheriff, tasked by cattle interests with ridding the territory of Billy. After Billy escapes, Pat assembles a posse and chases him through the territory, culminating in a final confrontation at Fort Sumner, but is unaware of the full scope of the cattle interests’ plans for the New West.