Director: Sam Peckinpah
Stars: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan (!)
Ignorance Rating: 20 (5 Votes)
"This country's getting old and I aim to get old with it". - Pat Garrett
Seen by Peckinpah as the ideal film in which to stamp his authority and vision of the western frontier, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has the air of a film that should have been a masterpiece; seeing as Peckinpah had begun his revision of the Western with Ride the High Country and taken it to it's bloody conclusion with The Wild Bunch, the mythology surrounding the friends turned enemies was almost too good to be true. Pat Garrett was going to be his crowning glory, the apex to where he'd been going all his directing life. Yet, from the very beginning the film was riddled with problems with budgetary issues, time restraints and technical faults leading to expensive re-shoots and haemorrhaging money. Finally, studio bosses stepped in and producer James Aubery took control of editing, taking a hefty 18 minutes out of Peckinpah's version.
In effect the released theatrical version was rejected and disowned by cast and crew, Peckinpah kept his original version and only showed it to friends and family for the next 10 years, finally getting a release in 1988. In this revised release, the bookend sequence of Pat's death is reinstated; one can only imagine what a mess studio executives made of this film, leaving out these vital scenes takes away any form of pathos and removes a vital narrative element. However despite the reinstated scenes, Pat Garrett is still less than satisfying, never really finding it's place amongst the sprawling array of characters, vignettes of violence and muted, hushed dialogue.
Kris Kritofferson (Billy the Kid) and James Coburn (Pat Garrett)
Despite this promising beginning Pat Garrett doesn't really leave the starting blocks, choosing to keep us at a distance for the majority of the film by not developing the story, it's as if the film burnt itself out with that staggering, awe inspiring opening gambit. Alongside Kristofferson and Colburn, a whole plethora of genre stalwarts and old Peckinpah regulars fill out some of the film with worthy cameo's, if only for the majority of them to be shot down, including; Jason Robards, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, Chill Wills, Jack Elam, Richard Jaeckel, and Dub Taylor. There's poignancy in these old-timers deaths (especially Slim Pickens looking across the river, eyes widening as he awaits his death), all the while Coburn marches through the county, armed with a shotgun and dressed in black, an angel of death, lamenting and snarling, bringing down the end of a genre.
The film's opening sequence, the one reinstated in Peckinpah's cut and the version for which I base this review, starts some 27 years after the events, those surrounding the death of Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Garret (James Colburn) is mowed down by the same men that once hired him to kill his old friend, each shot is delivered in clinical Peckinpah slow-motion whilst the action cuts back and forth to a scene of chickens buried up to their necks being used as target practice. The shooters show themselves to be Billy and his gang, the action flashbacks to 1881 and Pat rides into town, orders up a whiskey and tells the boys that things are changing.
The original script by Rudy Wurlitzer called for the friends to only meet once at the end of the film, Peckinpah's inspired change to this was to start with the recriminations; Garrett meeting his maker at the hands of the same people that hired him to kill Billy. It’s to Peckinpah's strength as a story-teller that insisted Garrett and Billy meet at the beginning of the film, knowing that the audience needs to see that unique friendship for themselves. Garrett warns Billy that he has 5 days to leave the territory and lying beneath this slightly strained meeting is a nettled and furtive friendship, one that is eating Garrett up inside as he spends the rest of the film trying as he might in avoiding the inevitable finale.
We're fixed to Garrett throughout, Kristofferson's Billy never seems anything more than a ghostly figure, self-involved and prone to posing, we don't feel anything for him; whereas Colburn's Garrett is a fully rounded figure, dignified yet hollow, compromised and beaten. He trundles on regardless, fully aware that in killing Billy he's signing his own death warrant. He realises that the West is changing and rather than being swept up by it all he becomes part of the establishment never fully immersing himself in the '
The films stand out scene; it gets me every time.
A lot is made of Bob Dylan's score and the use of 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' aside; used sparingly and beautifully as Sheriff Colin Baker (Slim Pickens) prepares to meet his maker, it doesn't on the whole, work with this film. It jars with the images we see on the screen, as if the entire enterprise was made for an entirely different film; fractious working sessions with Jerry Fielding, an experienced film scorer, probably didn't help, seeing as Fielding held little regard for Dylan's music. Dylan also took a starring role as the figure 'Alias', a role which apparently shortened by the week until he was nothing but a footnote in the entire film, starting off with a strong introduction; where he dispatches of man using a knife to almost a nothing role for the rest of film; reduced to reading a menu out loud.
Peckinpah depicts a west falling apart at the seams, a lawless territory slowly becoming domesticated with politicians, money men and big business, which in turn leads to one Peckinpah's key themes; that of the expression of violence of man in these conflicted and compromised new societies. For all the film's problems, Peckinpah still gives us a stunning looking film on the screen, proving once again that his style and staging are second to none. The west has never looked so forlorn, desolate and hell-bound, with nothing but angry displaced men, disposable women and a decaying old guard slowly ebbing away, dotted around the barren wasteland waiting to die.
In the final sequence, Garrett tracks Billy down to Fort Sumner, approaching the house in the middle of the night, Garrett takes his chance and shots Billy dead, falling to the floor in another of Peckinpah's patented slow-motion shots. After his death Garrett turns to a mirror and shoots his reflection; shooting the man he has become proves futile and death will eventually catch up with him nearly 30 years later. Once Garrett has killed Billy a little crowd emerges and one man accosts him, calling him a "chicken-shit" and asks rhetorically "when are you going to learn you can't trust anybody, not even yourself Garret?" That man was Peckinpah, quite literally in a cameo as an undertaker, harassing and shouting down his mirrored self; berating himself in the public arena for selling-out to the man.