Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid Review

Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is some kind of miracle. Directed in a chaotic frenzy by an out-of-control drunk, hacked to pieces by MGM, restored in 1988 and now restored again, it somehow survives everything that time, the critics, well meaning fans and the money men can throw at it. Derided or ignored on first release, it has gradually been revealed as a film which defies categorisation but is, without doubt, some kind of masterpiece. The problem is that it’s not like any other kind of masterpiece because it is fundamentally incomplete. We don’t possess it in the form which the director intended – and neither the 1988 Turner Preview version nor the new 2005 cut have any kind of absolute authority, although as you will see below I have very strong views about which is better. Even taking into account the circumstances of its production and distribution, its ragged and a little incoherent. Indeed, the word masterpiece is perhaps misplaced – but I can’t think of any other way to describe a film which is so gloriously, completely alive in every possible way. It gives us so much of its director’s vision – and it always did, even in the mutilated MGM version – that it remains as fundamental to the Peckinpah canon as The Wild Bunch and at its considerable best, it has things which are better than anything else he ever produced. It’s also wildly, madly, strangely beautiful in a way which is almost impossible to pin down.

The film is unusual for Peckinpah in that it deals with real-life historical figures – Garrett, Henry McCarty AKA William Bonney AKA Billy The Kid, Lew Wallace, Chisum – but it does so with a characteristic combination of myth-making and debunking, a kind of check-and-balance which sees Peckinpah build up legends and knock them down in a single scene. Billy The Kid and Pat Garrett got to know each other in 1878-79 when Garrett was a bartender in Lincoln County. How close they were is a moot point but they clearly found each other congenial. However, when Garrett became Sheriff in 1880, he was required by his electors to hunt down cattle rustlers and he put together a posse to capture the Kid. The film follows this, give or take some discrepancy with dates, and shows how Garrett was required to hunt Billy down in order to satisfy the requirements for social order laid down by the New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace and the interests of bankers and cattle barons. The film begins with a flash-forward to Garrett’s death at the hands of his creditors who objected to his demands about goats grazing on his land and ends with the killing of Billy in July 1881.

Essentially, the movie is about a friendship destroyed, one which we first see in its dying stages, and which haunts the entire story. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of The Wild Bunch and its central relationship between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton. Pat and Billy are reunited at the beginning of the film in New Mexico but it’s a meeting which is more reminiscent of an impending divorce than a celebration of friendship. They reminisce a little about the old times but the prevailing tone is one of mutual suspicion. Pat, knowing that he is about to become Sheriff of Lincoln County, asks Billy to leave for Mexico –he doesn’t want to have kill his old friend but the reasons are not purely altruistic. Billy represents Pat’s past, his younger self that has been abandoned, and killing Billy will be a kind of spiritual suicide. In a sense, it could be argued that the two men are basically one soul which has been separated – Billy representing freedom, Pat the demands of commitment and domesticity – and this reading is encouraged by the ending of the film where Pat shoots his own reflection shortly after killing the Kid. But it’s a very simplistic psychological reading and one which I’m ambivalent about. Friendship is something far more psychologically complex and while two men can clearly complement each other, the division isn’t nearly so simple. Garrett, despite working for the politicians and landowners he despises, remains a maverick right up to the point where he allows Billy to finish his lovemaking before killing him and continues to be a thorn in the side of an establishment which (as the opening sequence demonstrates) has to have him killed. It could even be argued that Garrett is a far more daring man than Billy simply because he tries to live his own life within a framework which encourages conformity. He has responsibilities – Billy simply has his freedom and his friends.

James Coburn’s Garrett is a glorious creation, one of the finest performances in American cinema. He embodies a spirit which has had to accommodate something which Billy has never had to consider – the failures and compromises of age and experience – and which is bucking against the chains which society wants to place on him. His life is a disappointment but what life isn’t when compared to the dreams of youth? But Garrett isn’t mellow or accepting. He may say that “this country is getting old and I aim to get old with it” but he’s still going into his middle age kicking and screaming. There’s a wonderful moment when he goes home, back to his loveless marriage and sterile domesticity, and pushes open the gate in readiness for his own personal hell – a motion which is later repeated shortly before he kills the Kid. Coburn’s delivery changes as the film goes on, his openness at the beginning gradually constricting into a combination of sarcastic aside and spit. This is particularly well demonstrated in the key scene where he goes to meet the Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace (Robards), and makes short work of some bankers who try to bribe him to kill the Kid. Right at the start of the film, before he dies, the voice has become so tight and whisky-sodden that you can barely hear what he’s saying. Coburn dominates the film but that’s not to say that it’s a one-man show.

Kris Kristofferson has never been so sheerly likeable as he is in this film. His Billy The Kid is a tough, cheating, shoot-em-in-the-back bastard but also courageous, funny and resourceful. He acknowledges that the Kid was fucked-up but he doesn’t try to psychoanalyse him into a frontier juvenile delinquent.

Surrounding the central duo is a quite astonishing cast of familiar Western faces where the omissions are easier to enumerate than the inclusions. I don’t mean the big stars – you wouldn’t find John Wayne going within a million miles of a Peckinpah movie, particularly not one as left-wing as this – but the character players who filled up a thousand Hollywood oaters over the past forty years.

Some of them are familiar Peckinpah faces – L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, Emilio Fernandez – while others come from an older tradition – Chill Wills, Barry Sullivan, Jack Elam, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Elisha Cook, Paul Fix, Dub Taylor. This is entirely appropriate because the elegiac quality of the film comes partly from its status as one of the last major Hollywood westerns, albeit one which was then destroyed by the studio which made it. It’s the ending of a whole tradition, presented both with love for the old ways and a determination to find new things to say and new ways of saying them. Essentially this is what the studio system always hated, it’s an politically subversive genre film. In Peckinpah’s films, the prevailing political tone tends to be left-liberal. You can take away from that Straw Dogs where his macho bullshit gets the better of him, but generally speaking Peckinpah is on the side of society’s rejects – the outlaws, the refugees, the poor, the oppressed. Sometimes this is relatively subtle but more often it’s as schematic as the very basic opposition between truck drivers and police in Convoy. Peckinpah tends to have an instinctive distrust of authority and particularly moneyed authority; his social analysis is basically anti-capitalist. Time and again, the real villains in his work are landowners, bankers and politicians; anyone who is able to use money and property to get what they want at the expense of others. Government is usually corrupt, local government particularly so. Pat’s becoming Sheriff isn’t only a betrayal of his own principles, it’s an acceptance of the necessity and inevitability of corruption – his small triumph is that he still manages to find his own way of preserving what he sees as his honour.

Meanwhile, of course, the West is irrevocably changing as it always does in Peckinpah’s work. The film is set earlier than his previous two Westerns but even in the 1880s, civilisation was overtaking the West and the money men were busy carving it up into fenced-off divisions. It’s still possible to think of Mexico as the idyllic paradise which The Wild Bunch so comprehensively debunked but the possibilities for ever getting there are rapidly being closed off. The West portrayed in Pat Garrett is brutal and dirty and all sense of romanticism has been shrugged off. We don’t need the lengthy massacres of the earlier film to tell us this – the early scene when the youngest of Billy’s gang is riven with bullets is enough to slam the point home. Peckinpah, in this farewell to the genre, seems to have completely despaired of a world where loyalty and friendship are becoming impossible and money and power are what gives meaning to life. Life is cheap, with even Billy’s life worth a mere $1,000 to the bankers who find him so troublesome, and
short and nasty. Endemic political corruption is already breaking the country apart as the scene with Wallace and the Santa Fe ring makes clear – and this was particularly relevant in 1973. The darkness of the world of this film is reflected in John Coquillon’s rich, moody cinematography, far different from the look which Lucien Ballard gave to The Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah went through hell making this film and encountered a multitude of problems, some of them not his own responsibility. The Durango shoot was riddled with illness and MGM were aghast at the dailies and putting pressure on the producer to rein Sam in. However, his drinking was becoming a major problem by this point in his career, causing the film to go over schedule and wildly over budget. Had he behaved more responsibly, it’s conceivable (perhaps) that the outcome of his battles with MGM might have been more positive. But what MGM ultimately did in taking the film away from him merely confirmed Peckinpah’s own view of himself as the misunderstood artist at the mercy of uncomprehending philistines. They simply played into his hands – and this was unfortunate because it no doubt prevented any serious self-examination on Peckinpah’s part. You can see the film as a parable about the role of the director within Hollywood, at the mercy of the men who hold the purse strings. Forced to disclaim everything they believe in, turn on and reject their friends, the artist-professionals are eventually destroyed by all the compromises they are forced to make. The only positive result of the battles on this film is that it led directly to Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, one of the great fables about the maverick artist operating within an essentially corrupt system.

Yet the real miracle is that despite all the troubles, the film is packed with unbelievably gorgeous things. There’s the editing of the opening, where a chicken shoot is cross-cut with Garrett’s own death as Billy seems to jump through time and shoot his one-time friend many years after his own death; the death of Slim Pickens as he goes down to the river to meet his fate and shares a look with his lover Katy Jurado as he gradually slips into the void; Garrett sitting and waiting for Billy to finish his lovemaking before he dies; Jason Robards as Lew Wallace musing about the melancholy Mexican evenings; the scene where Garrett and a boat pilot shooting at a bottle on the river. Then you’ve got the witty, literate and poetic script, the rich, dark cinematography and Bob Dylan’s lovely music score, the later proving particularly crucial during the final confrontation. The film is clearly flawed and some of the subplots - notably the one with Paco the Mexican played by a miscast Emilio Fernandez – are a little redundant but it’s full of marvellous moments which cohere because there’s a strong overarching vision in the film which reaches beyond the production and studio problems.

The DVD and the Battle of the Cuts

Two versions of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid are included on this DVD. The original release version of the film was cut by MGM to 106 minutes without Peckinpah’s involvement and is generally considered a travesty – though it’s worth pointing out that some of who saw that version first loved the film anyway. That version isn’t included on the DVD release. In 1988, the director of the Z Channel, a cable service dedicated to rescuing films which have been underrated, found and transmitted Peckinpah’s own cut of the film, a 121 minute cut which represents the only version of the film which we know for certain has directorial authority. However, this was a version which, some scholars suggest, is unfinished and would have been cut further by the director had he been given a chance to ‘fine tune’ it. So, Paul Seydor – author of a well regarded book on Peckinpah and a working Hollywood editor – took it upon himself to consult some people involved in the production and create a ‘Special Edition’ which he claims is a representation of what Peckinpah would have produced had he been able to work on a ‘fine cut’.

OK, cards on the table. I love Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and it’s a great movie in any version you care to name – even the theatrical cut is obviously an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. But over the past couple of weeks, I have come to loathe and despise the new Special Edition to a point that I’m becoming quite pathological about it. It’s one thing to fine tune the editing and try to tidy up a few transitions so the film runs a little more smoothly. It’s quite another to take it upon yourself to remove entire scenes simply because you don’t like them. How DARE Mr Seydor simply get rid of the only scene in which Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook appear just because he happens not to like it. Then we have some of his editorial decisions which strike me as plain wrong. On the commentary, Seydor keeps going on about choosing things from the theatrical cut over the preview cut as if this were a good thing. Bear in mind please, that this theatrical cut is the one which broke Peckinpah’s heart and ended his working relationship and friendship with editor Robert Wolfe.

Seydor is also inconsistent. On the one hand, we’re told that we have to lose the wonderful line “What you want and what you get are two different things” – the line which is spoken so beautifully by Coburn and sums up not only the film but also Peckinpah’s vision of life – because it’s unnecessary and over-explanatory. On the other, we get Dylan’s lyrics restored over Slim Pickens’ death scene which are surely over-literal to the nth degree (lovely as the song is). Personally, I feel that the removal of one ruins the final scenes and the inclusion of the other ruins the lyricism of the looks between Pickens and Katy Jurado. I’d also argue that the inclusion of the scene between Garrett and his wife, impressive as it is, is unnecessary because everything we need to know about the marriage is told to us by the way Garrett stoops his shoulders as he walks towards the house.

She says to him, “You are dead inside” but we alredy know this. Then Seydor decides to drop the reprise of Garrett’s death in the final moments thus losing the beautiful circularity of the framing structure. What we get in this new ending strikes me as a dribbling away.

Indeed, even if some scenes are essentially superfluous in the ’88 cut, such as the scene with Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook, then they add a lot to the flavour of the film, notably in that case some irresistible and affectionate comedy. Taylor’s monologue is a particular delight – just the way he wears that nightcap and says “Shiiitt!” is funny. Now, Seydor claims that this had been taken out by Peckinpah in his preparation for the theatrical cut but since we don’t have documented evidence of that and it happens to help his case, I will restrain from commenting further. Losing most of Peckinpah’s cameo is also a mistake. Yes, it’s over-explanatory and far from subtle. But Peckinpah wasn’t a subtle man. He loved films being too much, he adored overkill. He frequently bludgeons points into the viewer with a white-hot intensity and his violent invective directed at Pat Garrett is a powerful moment. Some people find it embarrassing but I think it’s pure, undiluted Sam and to take it out is presumptuous at best and disgraceful at worst. Then we’ve got bizarre decisions – the preference for the Ruthie Lee scene over the Taylor/Cook scenes, the awful mistake of including the ludicrous theatrical cut credit titles and putting Dylan over the title, the edited version of the exchange between Garrett and the brothel owner, the loss of lines such as “Paris, France” and Bob’s marvellous “I’ll take you for a walk across hell on a spider’s web”, Billy’s second shot at Bob’s body which gives meaning to the line “Keep the change Bob!” I’m also indebted to Brad Stevens for pointing out that there’s a continuity problem in the new cut involving Garrett’s moustache during the scene with his wife and the scene which follows. And why on earth move the scene with the bottle on the river? Seydor’s explanations don’t make it clear apart from some vague notion about ratcheting up suspense which the film doesn’t need.

Most of all, the new cut damages the film in a more insidious way. What Seydor criticises for being slow and ragged seems to me to be part and parcel of what makes the film what it is. It’s a slow, meditative, messy film which is deliberately languorous in pacing and to try and edit it into something sharper totally misses the point. It’s the choice of an editor used to working on 21st century Hollywood movies and, in my eminently humble view, not the decision of a dedicated lover of the film. What Seydor and his friends on the commentary call ‘slack’ strikes me as thoughtful and beautiful. The beats at the end of scenes seem to me to be there for a reason. All in all, this strikes me as vandalism not entirely unlike (in spirit) what James Aubrey at MGM did in 1973. There’s a lot of talk about the director’s final vision but the suggestion that this Special Edition cut has more authority than the Preview Cut is, frankly, complete bollocks. As far as I can tell, it has considerably less. Seydor keeps talking about the theatrical cut “prepared by Sam and his editors”. This is total and utter bullshit. If you believe David Weddle’s biography, Peckinpah was barred from the editing room and regarded the work done by Wolfe and Spottiswoode on the theatrical cut as a betrayal. Neither man would ever work with Peckinpah again and there’s no sign that Peckinpah wanted them to.

Will anyone really care about this? Newcomers to Peckinpah’s work may well find the 2005 cut more to their taste and it’s probably going to be the version which posterity accepts as the definitive version because it looks and sounds so good on the DVD. But the new cut has divided Peckinpah fans right down the middle – some of them love it as much as I hate it.

None of this would matter as much if the 1988 Turner Preview Cut had been given the royal treatment given to the 2005 Special Edition. Sadly, the disparity in transfer quality is all too evident.

Both versions of the film are anamorphically enhanced and framed at 2.35:1. The Special Edition is very slightly cropped but it’s not a serious problem. The colours on the Special Edition are considerably better than those on the Turner Preview Cut with skin tones looking more natural and saturation in general being far more satisfying. Everything on this version is sharper and more pleasing. The level of detail is also better throughout and there’s considerably less print damage. The Turner Preview Cut looks pretty poor in comparison with scratches and dirt throughout and washed-out colours. The whole look of the two films is different, which is a whole other area for debate. The following still captures illustrate my point. The top is from the 2005 cut, the bottom from the 1988 cut. A certain brownish tinge on the new version seems intentional.

The soundtracks suffer from similar comparative problems. The 2005 version has crystal clear sound throughout. The 1988 version suffers from occasional drop-outs, wobbles and a final two minutes which are so distorted it’s almost impossible to listen to them. Since this isn’t the case with any other print of the 1988 cut that I’ve seen, I’m not sure why they are present here.

As for the extras, they can be disposed of in a few words. The commentary tracks are different for each cut of the film but an awful lot of time is taken up by Seydor justifying his changes and not much information about the making of the film is included. There is some consideration of the themes and characters but not a great deal and discussion of the historical background is notably absent. Both tracks are easy to listen to and lively but I began to get increasingly annoyed with them and don’t wish to hear them again. Also with the 2005 version, we get the same trailers that are on the other discs in Warners’ Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

On the second disc we get the 1988 cut along with some featurettes. “Deconstructing Pat and Billy” is a brief documentary in which an informative interview with Katy Haber is combined with more self-justification from Paul Seydor. For some reason, Seydor is shot in half-shadow as if he were an informer against the Mob. “One Foot In The Groove: Remembering Sam Peckinpah and Other Things” is an interview with Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts which has lots of good things in it but is spoilt by a very amateurish filming style that keeps offering us irrelevant glimpses of the camera crew and detracts from the content. The 30 minutes are, however, packed with great anecdotes that make it worth staying the course.

Finally, we get two songs from Kristofferson, one of which will be familiar to anyone who saw the BBC documentary “Man of Iron”.

Both versions of the film have optional subtitles along with the original mono soundtracks. Unfortunately, neither disc offers subtitles for the extra features.

Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is an amazing movie and deserves to be as widely known and loved as The Wild Bunch. Sadly, this new disc doesn't do it the honour it deserves because, firstly, it doesn't include a properly restored version of the 1988 Turner Preview version and, secondly, the extras are so shoddily put together. A great disappointment in many respects.

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