Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (MGM, 1973)
Magnificent, moody, monumental
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (interesting that the characters were mentioned that way round) was probably, despite certain shortcomings, the best Billy the Kid movie we have had.
It does depend, though, on which version you see. The original theatrical release was savagely cut by Metro exec James Aubrey and his many editors, to the point where director Sam Peckinpah and many of his lead cast thought it had been ruined. But a full version survived and in 1988 the so-called ‘Turner’ edition came out, what we would call these days a director’s cut, or close to it, with many of the excisions restored. Later still, another ‘special edition’ was released, with different cuts. It’s all quite confusing. My own preference is for the Turner, even though it made the tragic omission of not using Knocking on Heaven’s Door for the death of Slim Pickens, apparently at the behest of Peckinpah. A good DVD purchase will give you a choice, along with extras.
The production of the movie was pretty nightmarish all through. Peckinpah was a severe alcoholic who needed a tumbler of vodka in the mornings just to stop the shakes, continued drinking as the day went on (grenadine, would you believe) and by mid-afternoon was pretty well wasted. He was one of those aggressive drunks, too, and it nearly came to fisticuffs with some of the cast. There was extreme heat during the shooting, and an outbreak of influenza ripped through cast and crew. There were major problems with a faulty camera that meant that many of the shot scenes were unusable. And most of all there were continual arguments with the studio over budget overruns, delays, and ‘unnecessary’ scenes, with both sides losing their cool quite comprehensively. According to producer Gordon Carroll, the movie's set was "a battleground". The film finished twenty-one days behind schedule and $1.6 million over budget. Classic Peckinpah, you may say.
And yet. If you do manage to view a decent version you will see a melancholy, atmospheric, even magnificent work.
James Coburn topped the bill as Garrett. At 44 he was longer in the tooth than the real Garrett had been but that didn’t matter. Movie Garretts were traditionally older, providing an almost father-figure to the young outlaw. And this version stresses Garrett’s fear of aging without proper means of support. It's why he sell out. Coburn was in any case possibly the best Garrett there has ever been. From memorable small parts in Western features at the end of the 1950s, to his superb silent knifeman Britt for John Sturges in The Magnificent Seven in 1960, probably the best actor on the set for Peckinpah as the one-armed scout Samuel Potts in Major Dundee in 1965, a couple of unfortunate Italian westerns we shall gloss over, and then he was a real SOB in the rodeo comedy The Honkers in ’72: he was, by the time of PG&BTK, more than ready to bring tough-guy/elder statesman authority and steely purpose to the role of the New Mexico county sheriff.
Kris Kristofferson was cast as Billy. It was in many ways a strange choice. A former US Army captain and helicopter pilot, he had resigned his commission to pursue songwriting and was certainly not known at the time as a leading actor. He was 36 at filming, and quite stocky, not an obvious choice for a ‘kid’ part. All sorts of other actors were considered for the role. Al Pacino told an interviewer in 2014 that he was offered it, but it didn't work out because he couldn't ride a horse. At different moments there was talk of Jon Voight, Robert Redford, Bo Hopkins, Sam Shepard, Jack Nicholson, and even Marlon Brando and John Denver playing the Kid. The mind boggles. (Actually, Peckinpah had been wanting to make this picture for a long time and the prototype was One-Eyed Jacks in 1961, a very vaguely Billy the Kid story which Brando was bad in). Kristofferson was actually a good actor, and overcame the obvious physical handicaps to portray a fatalistic Bonney.
Quite unusually, the film concentrates on the end of Bonney’s career and life, and doesn’t include the Lincoln County War at all, so no elderly mentor Tunstall, no murder of Sheriff Brady, no McSween house siege, none of that. It starts at Billy’s capture (as usual, at a cabin rather than a rock house) and deals with his escape from the Lincoln court house and eventual execution by Garrett at Fort Sumner.
It was written by Rudy Wurlitzer, with many additions/changes by Peckinpah himself. Wikipedia says that “Wurlitzer reportedly resented Peckinpah's reworking of the narrative. Wurlitzer and Peckinpah had a strained relationship, and Wurlitzer would later write a book highly unfavorable to Peckinpah.” Wurlitzer had written the Monte Hellman picture Two-Lane Blacktop, though this was his only Western.
I say it starts with Billy’s capture. It doesn’t, really, because there is (in some versions) a prologue during the titles of the death of Garrett in 1908. We see him in a buggy, murdered by an unnamed rifleman, and this is intercut with a very unpleasant scene of Billy and his friends at Fort Sumner in 1881 shooting the heads off half-buried chickens for sport. Blood and cruelty is everywhere, is the message, I suppose.
It’s established early that Pat and Billy were old friends long before Pat started wearing the sheriff’s star. “We did have some times, didn’t we?” says Billy. There is in fact little or no evidence for this former friendship, and as Billy was only 21 at his death, just when were these ‘old times’? But many Billy stories found it dramatically useful. That’s OK.
Equally early the elegiac tone is set. “Times change, Bill,” says Garrett. “Times, maybe. Not me,” Bonney replies. This was of course a favorite theme of Peckinpah, and indeed the 1960s/70s Western as a whole, the ‘end of the West’, the passing of a heroic time, the encroaching of pesky ‘civilization’, law and order. Pat (very like Robert Ryan’s character in The Wild Bunch) abandons his free lifestyle in favor of modern corporate interests; Billy does not; but it doesn’t make any difference. The West is dying either way. Wire figures prominently, both in the dialogue and photographically, and this is a symbol of the end of the old ways. Many of the scenes are shot at twilight.
The posse arrives at the shack and blasts it to bits. Charley Bowdre is hit and is ready to go out and get as many as he can before dying. He’s played by the geeky-looking Charles Martin Smith, probably best known for being Terry in American Graffiti but to Westernistas memorable for The Spikes Gang and The Culpepper Cattle Co. The sole survivor (there’s no Dave Rudabaugh), Billy surrenders, adopting an arms-out Christ-like crucifixion pose (symbolic, man).
The Lincoln court house scene is beautifully photographed, an almost Rembrandt-like interior, with Bob Ollinger sitting alone on a wooden chair, cradling his shotgun. This is RG Armstrong, a wonderful Western character actor in my view, much used by Peckinpah, and this could be his very best performance. He is almost deranged in his religious thirst for retribution, and he is a thuggish bully.
The photography is one of the strongest points of the film. The picture was shot using Durango, Mexico locations, in Panavision and Metrocolor, by John Coquillon, who also filmed Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron for Peckinpah.
I liked Deputy James Bell too, as played by Matt Clark, Qualen the year before in Jeremiah Johnson and Kelly in 1976 in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Both deputies meet their inevitable fates, Bell shot on the stairs (in this version Billy finds a secreted pistol in the outhouse) and Ollinger cut down with his own shotgun loaded with dimes. “Keep the change, Bob,” Billy callously tells his corpse.
It’s at this time we get our first view of Bob Dylan. It is said that Peckinpah first wanted Roger Miller, of King of the Road fame, for the songs but at Kristofferson’s suggestion was eventually taken by Dylan, whom he hadn’t heard of at the time (I wonder which planet he had been living on). Not everyone liked Dylan’s music for the picture. Roger Ebert called it “simply awful” and Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote that “The music is so oppressive that when it stops we feel giddy with relief, as if a tooth had suddenly stopped aching.” Nevertheless, the album has become one of Dylan’s biggest sellers and the songs, especially Knocking on Heaven’s Door, among his most covered. It is hard not to be moved at seeing the wonderful Katy Jurado weeping at her husband Slim Pickens’s death as that song swells – if you have the right version in the DVD player.
As an actor, though, Mr Dylan makes a great singer. Variety said, “His acting is limited to an embarrassing assortment of tics, smirks, shrugs, winks and smiles.” His character, Alias, is some kind of hanger-on, perhaps slightly retarded, a character that seems to have been developed from Hurd Hatfield’s in The Left Handed Gun. He is given opaque dialogue. Alias what? someone asks. Alias anything you like, Dylan replies. Another asks, Who are you? Comes the reply, That’s a good question. It is actually all rather tiresome.
Pat runs into bearded Alamosa Bill and, oh joy, it’s Jack Elam, and he casually makes him a deputy. Bill accepts just as casually, you get the impression almost out of politeness, but it will have tragic consequences. The formal duel between Billy and Alamosa, before a red-headed family that reminds you of Once Upon a Time in the West, whose paterfamilias is Gene Evans, is curious, almost extraneous to the plot, yet oddly powerful and memorable.
With the names I’ve already mentioned you can see another really strong point of this movie, and that’s the excellent cast of Western character actors employed. Almost every scene has a familiar face, and you will spot Emilio Fernández as Paco the sheepherder, LQ Jones as Blackie, who tells Pat that old timers like them ought not to be shooting at each other, Harry Dean Stanton as Luke, whose girl Billy steals, Elisha Cook Jr as Cody, Dub Taylor as Josh, Bruce Dern as a deputy, Chill Wills as the fairly disgusting saloonkeeper Lemuel, and many more.
It’s a wonderful line-up. By the mid-70s many of these actors were no longer in their first flush of youth and that makes them even more suited, somehow, to such a picture. Slim Pickens, by the way, is a part-time lawman but he has the name Cullen Baker, a well-known Texas desperado and killer.
Jason Robards (who had ‘Billy’ form; he had been Joe Grant in the 1955 Gore Vidal TV play) has an entertaining (and brilliantly acted) cameo as Governor Lew Wallace, whom Pat visits while he is dining with two scurrilous politicians from the Santa Fe Ring (Jack Dodson and John Chandler). I love the way when Wallace introduces them that he hesitates before the word gentlemen. They try to bribe Garrett and he tells them where they can put their $500 and what to do with it then, a suggestion that the governor finds “a commendable notion” and a line which Coburn would get to repeat in another Billy the Kid movie in the following decade, when he was playing Chisum.
In this one Chisum is a real bad guy, one of those ruthless and exploitative ranchers who oppress decent folk, and whose hands murder them. Chisum is played by Barry Sullivan, another ‘reference’ because Sullivan was of course Garrett in The Tall Man on TV.
Deputy JW Poe (John Beck) isn’t much better. Garrett despises him. It is suggested that he is a hired man of the Santa Fe Ring.
Then there is the scene in which Garrett watches a family descending the river slowly on a barge and the father shoots bottles thrown into the water. Garrett and the father aim their rifles at each other, more out of a marksmanship challenge than out of homicidal intent, then both decide to lower their long guns. It’s another curious interlude. You can see why the studio bigwigs might want it cut; it does not advance the plot at all. Yet it is strangely moving, and pleasing that it survived.
As we near the end of the tale, Garrett recruits an unwilling Sheriff McKinney to go with him after Billy, and it’s Richard Jaeckel, third-billed in fact, yet another ‘throwback’, for he had been former Billy ally Jess Evans in Chisum in 1970. This recycling of actors is rather amusing, I find.
So Garrett, Poe and McKinney come to Fort Sumner for the dénouement. Pete Maxwell is played as a dotard by the great Paul Fix. Billy beds another Mexican girl - there are more 1970s bare breasts. Garrett’s inability to forge relations with women (the scene with his wife was cut out of the Turner version but it was essential) contrasts with Billy’s instinctive success. Billy drinks alcohol, I noted (which the real Billy didn’t). Garrett talks to the coffin maker and it’s Peckinpah himself. Pat then waits on a porch swing for Billy to finish making love before he kills him. Then we finally come to Quien es? and the end.
In the last scene Pat pins his badge back on, a deliberate reversal of the High Noon bit, and rides out, with a small boy throwing clods of dirt at his back.
And we return to an epilogue of Garrett’s own death down near Las Cruces twenty-seven years later. These intro and outro framing scenes of Garrett’s death were cut by Metro on the theatrical release, along with much else.
The film is melancholy yet unsentimental, elegiac yet not nostalgic, and it is slow and gentle without being plodding. These are not easy tricks to pull off. The body count mounts and mounts (even after several viewings it’s not always clear why people are shot) and the film is violent. There's blood. Many die in slo-mo. But it was a Peckinpah movie after all; what did you expect? This and The Wild Bunch were Peckinpah’s greatest achievements. Pat Garrett was his last Western (unless you count Alfredo Garcia). It’s a magnificent, moody, monumental piece – I think.
Reviews at the time mostly didn’t see it that way. Roger Ebert said, “It's a movie that exists almost entirely on one note--a low, melancholy one--and achieves what I thought would have been impossible for Peckinpah: he's boring.” Pauline Kael in The New Yorker described the film as "peculiarly unrealized" and mused that "probably nobody involved was very happy about the results". Gene Siskel in The Chicago Tribune wrote that the film "appears to have been shot in emotional slow motion, and the self-inflating lethargy and mugging of all concerned reduces the enterprise to an exercise in pretension.” Variety declared, "Whereas Peckinpah's nostalgia for a frontier world where might makes right and women were for the taking has previously been communicated via forceful acting and striking visuals, here there are few graces to camouflage the narrative banality." The Monthly Film Bulletin called it “a paralyzed epic, an impenetrable mood piece.” And so on.
MGM earned only $2.7 million in theatrical rentals, against its budget of more than $4.6 million, so they weren’t too happy. But they should have released a director’s cut. People were far more interested in a new Peckinpah film than in yet another Billy the Kid tale.
And the critics in ‘73 probably saw that original theatrical cut. Other assessments, based perhaps on different versions, have been generally more positive. The Los Angeles Times called it “a remarkable film that is perhaps Peckinpah's best, most mature work to date." Brian Garfield called it “a rambling, brutal shambles of a movie, very self-conscious and self-indulgent, but sometimes fascinating and always pictorially beautiful.” The BFI Companion to the Western praises its “powerfully elegiac tone”. Dennis Schwartz says it is “right up there with all the better Westerns”. The French loved it, of course. “De tous les cinéastes qui s’attaquèrent à la mythologie de l’Ouest, Sam Peckinpah fut sans doute celui qui en livra la vision la plus subversive, la plus violente mais aussi la plus poétique. ” (J-B Thoret)
You will doubtless have your own opinion. Tell me it.