Art from Adversity
“Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” was Sam Peckinpah’s follow up to “The Getaway”, and it was envisioned as his final commentary on the western genre. But when the film released it was a commercial flop and mangled by critics. Ultimately it was disowned by Peckinpah and most people that worked on it because the version that hit the theaters was a truncated one that suffered badly from the clash between Peckinpah and the studio. However Peckinpah saved a copy of his original cut and this version is the widely accepted cut that you’ll find on (most) DVD and video editions of the film. This cut also made most critics re-evaluate the film and proclaim it one of Sam’s best.
As it’s evident from the title the film follows the two great icons of the west, lawman Pat Garrett and the outlaw Billy the Kid. The relationship between these two men is the main focus of the film as Pat Garrett was not always a lawman, actually the film makes it clear that he rode with the Kid in the past. And the film starts with a meeting of these two friends, but it is not a friendly meeting as Pat declares that he’s been hired to take the Kid in and gives him five days to clear on out of the state.
It seems like a familiar setup but what Peckinpah does with it is quite unique especially in the way he portrays Billy the Kid. In Peckinpah’s film he is not only an outlaw but also a very romanticized anti-hero. In fact oftentimes he is better received by the people populating the towns and the outskirts than the “good guy” Pat Garrett. This makes Pat’s turning on his friend even more poignant as he becomes a very tormented character because of it. Furthermore it underlines the passing of an era because Billy is portrayed as a man out of time, a living folk hero. And the bullet that finds him in the end is the last nail in the coffin for the era of the American outlaw and the Wild West, as well as the last nail in the coffin of the western genre. As if “The Wild Bunch” did not provide enough nails.
Obviously the two actors portraying Pat and Billy need to be at the top of their game for any of this to work, and honestly I was never really convinced by Kris Kristofferson as an actor until I saw this film. He gives by far his best cinematic performance here and makes Billy the Kid everything that he ever represented in the minds of the people. A murderous outlaw, a charming rebel and a true free spirit. But for me the performance of this film is the one that James Coburn gives. He was always a towering presence of the screen, but here he gives a superb and nuanced performance that is maybe not as charming as Kristofferson’s but Coburn is the broken heart and soul of this film.
Speaking of actors it is worth to mention that this film has one of the few on screen performances by the great Bob Dylan. And although he is not much of an actor it’s always fascinating for me to see someone like him on the screen. However the musical score he did for this film is awesome, and one of his most beloved songs (a song he did for this film) “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is used to amazing effect*.
“Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” is a magnificent film with two great performances. It’s a haunting film with its nostalgia and the note that it ultimately leaves with is one of profound melancholy. A sadness for a friend lost and an era gone by. It’s a Peckinpah film even though it might have not turned completely how he envisioned it. But then again Peckinpah’s art always came from great adversity, and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” certainly holds on that scale.
* I’ve read that Sam Peckinpah actually cut the song from his “preview cut”, feeling that Dylan’s score was forced on him by the studio. This is a damn shame because it is one of the most memorable moments in the “special edition” cut of the film (the cut I’ve watched last night).
James Coburn - Pat Garrett
Kris Kristofferson - Billy the Kid
Bob Dylan - Alias
Jason Robards - Governor Wallace
Harry Dean Stanton - Luke