Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid November 23, 2020
1 Hr., 46 Mins.
t’s a wonder that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) was even released. The production of and aftermath to Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist Western was so beset with problems that it could plausibly work as the storyline of a movie if ever dramatized. As it was being made, the feud between MGM and the perpetually sozzled Peckinpah turned uglier by the day; constant financial and scheduling problems led the production to conclude 21 days
late and almost $2 million over budget. The theatrical cut, edited hastily and not at all to Peckinpah’s liking, was almost universally hailed a failure — a sting that throbbed particularly because of how lauded Peckinpah’s last Western, 1969’s The Wild Bunch, was. It did badly commercially on the domestic front, too. Somehow, the catastrophe didn't end Peckinpah's career. He would go on to direct five more movies.
Fifteen years after its tumultuous release, something miraculous happened to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The version Peckinpah wanted the world to see was released on video. Just as quickly as it was deemed a catastrophe, the movie was reexamined and subsequently greeted as a sabotaged triumph — perhaps one of Peckinpah’s best movies and among the finest of its decade. Peckinpah died in 1984, unable to see this notable change of heart.
My heart isn’t quite so tender for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; sometimes it can feel like one long languor, stretching over two hours to chronicle a game of cat and mouse that moves in slow motion. It’s inconsistently engaging. But this isn’t a movie that wants to excite the viewer and doesn’t need to be conventionally exciting, I don’t think, to work. It’s a somber tone poem that, morality of its characters aside, eerily captures a feeling of being left behind, and what kind of emotional toll this can take on a person as they’re trying to stave off this feeling. We’re meant to get caught up in the wistfulness, the sense of encroaching doom. The various motivations of its wide cast of characters, which can be hard to keep track of, are not so important.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a loosely historical account of the title sheriff’s (James Coburn) legendary hunt for the outlaw (Kris Kristofferson). In the film (unlike in real life), they are depicted at the beginning of the feature as good pals, with Garrett only venturing to bring his friend in because, six days after the movie opens, he will be appointed sheriff of Lincoln County. It’s too late for Billy the Kid to find redemption, but Garrett knows that with committing to law and order comes better chances of self-preservation and accruement of power in the long run.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has an overwhelming sadness to it, even if neither of the men on which it puts its focus is necessarily likable. We don’t root for them. The ultimate futility of this entire quest is driven in during the prologue of the movie, which dramatizes Garrett’s mysterious 1908 assassination (the film’s title card, dedicated to the ahistorical, says “1909”), and also by the simple knowledge that the days of the West as the Kid and Garrett have come to know it are numbered. The score, by Bob Dylan (who also co-stars in the movie in a part that doesn’t allow him to be much more than set decoration), has a just-right plaintiveness. The loaded decision to have the ensemble be rounded out with the now-wrinkled fixtures of old Hollywood Western movies (Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Barry Sullivan, and others) bake in the idea of being powerless to the turning of tides.
I won’t soon forget the shot of a teary Jurado gazing at a wounded loved one awaiting death just a little ways from her down a neighboring river, in the aftermath of a gun battle. Neither will I forget how the film makes the riding-off-into-the-sunset cliché look and feel. There’s a certain haziness to it whenever we get it; it’s overrun with gloom, not standard-fare optimism. The rhythm of a horse’s hooves could plausibly create the rhythm of a funeral march. Perhaps an accidental coda to the film’s mournful quality, Peckinpah would never again direct a Western, unless you count his Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. (To my eye, that movie, released in 1974, is more of a neo-noir set in a Western locale.)
So often while watching Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid it’s like we’re being pushed to react into thinking, “this is it,” and really be struck by the sadness of that. Contrived as it may sound, I really was struck after a while — something made more miraculous not only since no one in the film is particularly sympathetic but also because, for so much of the feature’s making, it seemed, in line with the movie’s narrative, foredoomed. Some fates don't last. B+