Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 27, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1973)

9. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Sam Peckinpah's self-destructive streak insured that a pattern emerged over his career. He would direct a film that was a commercial success, causing a studio to take a chance on the infamously hell-raising filmmaker. Production on his next movie would be a disaster, Bloody Sam returning to his old ways, resulting in a box office disappointment. For example: The record breaking “The Getaway” was followed by “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” During filming, Sam feuded with the president of MGM and drank too much. The film, of course, took too long to shoot and cost too much to make. It was taken away from the director in post-production and re-edited. The version released to theaters was poorly received by critics and audiences. Only after Peckinpah's director's cut emerged years later did “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” get reevaluated. 

In 1909, former New Mexico Sheriff Pat Garrett is assassinated. Twenty years earlier, Garrett was friends with William Bonney, otherwise known as the outlaw Billy the Kid. In the aftermath of the Cattle Wars, Garrett was made into a sheriff of New Mexico. He was tasked with hunting down the Kid, his former friend. After Billy escapes imprisonment, a manhunt ensued across the state. Garrett and his crew chase after Billy and his gang, both parties making friends and causing bloodshed as they go. Eventually, the two former friends meet again in Roswell for one last time.

Sam Peckinpah's first five movies were westerns, forever associating the director with the American genre. By 1973, the director had taken a break from oaters, his last three films being in more contemporary genres. “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would be his last proper Western. The film would be his definitive statement on his often revisited theme of the death of the West. The cattle barons and authority figures are attempting to bring order to the West, meaning untamable outlaws like Billy must die. When the Kid is killed, it's not just the West that goes with him but also a very American form of honor and camaraderie. Garrett's mission has him betraying his friend for strictly capitalistic reasons.  This makes Peckinpah's ruminations on the death of the West far more personal than in his previous films.

Another reoccurring aspects of Peckinpah's films were two men, usually old friends, going on one last mission together. They are always weighed down by their mutual nostalgia, as well as their regrets and mistakes. This becomes more of a fabric of the story than ever before with “Pat Garrett.” As the two men journey towards each other, both encounter old friends and enemies. It's almost as if they are tracking back through their own pasts. Yet there's very little bittersweet about this journey. The regrets have soured into something more bitter, Pat and Billy's trek becoming more indulgent and self-destructive as they go along. Which is fitting for a film as much about the death of friendship as the death of Billy the Kid.

The film's use of violence fits into this theme as well. More so than ever before, Peckinpah emphasizes the uselessness and hollowness of bloodshed. This is most apparent in a scene where Billy stops by an old friend's house for dinner. One of Garrett's deputies just happens to also be there. After eating, the two step outside for a duel. The other man miscounts and Billy shoots him dispassionately. It's a totally senseless death, having no real reason to occur and little affect on the story. You see this again in a sequence where another friend of Billy's is found tortured, his skin bloodied and slashed. Many men die throughout “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and none for a good reason. Maybe there's never a good reason for anyone to be killed.

Another topic Peckinpah has repeatedly touched upon is the way men abuse women. The male protagonists of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” often mistreat the women around them. In an early scene, Garrett argues with his wife before leaving on his mission. He does not respect her opinion. On the path towards locating Billy, he meets and violently interrogates a prostitute. Afterwards, he sleeps with several of the women in the brothel. The camera lingers in this sequence, drawing attention to the excesses of Garrett's action. Many of the women in the film are prostitutes, the men using them without care for their feelings. When non-working girls appear, they're usually loyal wives who questioned their husband's violent ways but are ignored.

Peckinpah hoped “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would be his definitive statement on the Western genre. He would re-team with his “Straw Dogs” cinematographer, John Coquillon, in order to achieve a visual presentation that was a cross between the classical widescreen western presentation and Peckinpah's grittier aesthetic. The cramped interiors frequently present in Peckinpah's films reappear here, in the bars and brothels and small houses the characters call home. This is in contrast to the wide and flat vistas that also appear throughout, that classical western imagery. This combination gives us a look at both versions of the west, the one of legend and the grittier, deconstructionist angle.

The film would allow Peckinpah to re-team with one of his favorite leading men. James Coburn, last seen in “Major Dundee,” plays Pat Garrett. Coburn is well cast in the role. He plays Garrett in a multi-layered way. The first shoot-out between Pat and Billy has an almost playful quality, as if the two old friends are toying with each other. As Garrett continues on his quest, he butts heads with the money men in charge, compromising his honor but attempting to hold onto it. As the story progresses, more and more joy goes out of Coburn's eyes. Garrett's weariness becomes more and more a part of the character. He exits the film chased by a child throwing rocks, the world around him recognizing Garrett for the traitor he is.

Starring in the other title role is Kris Kristofferson. This was only Kristofferson's third proper film role and he was still best known as a musician at the time. One of the stars of outlaw country and the director of the grittiest westerns were an awfully good fit. Kristofferson plays the Kid as a mischievous hellraiser at first, who almost commits murder like it's a game. However, he also proves to be a man of odd principals. As chaotic and bloody as Billy's quest is, he's his own man. Kristofferson is very well suited to this part, being equal parts charming while embodying the character's wild spirit.

“Pat Gerritt and Billy the Kid” is also among the few Peckinpah films that could be called epics. The cast is fittingly large. Many recognizable faces, many of them Peckinpah regulars, appear in small roles. Slim Pickins has a small but unforgettable part as the ill-fitted sheriff that briefly joins Pat Gerrit's journey. Jason Robards appears as Governor Lew Wallace, bringing his distinctive voice and odd sense of authority to the shifty part. A young Harry Dean Stanton has a brief part as a member of Billy's gang. Lastly, Peckinpah regulars L.Q. Jones and R.G. Armstrong also show up as an untrustworthy gangster and a self-righteous deputy.

Also among the supporting cast is Bob Dylan, making his feature acting debut as Alias, a mysterious blacksmith that joins Billy's gang. Dylan's quiet, somewhat stilted performance suits the odd character. Dylan, naturally, also contributes several songs to the soundtrack. Among them is “Knockin' on Heaven's Door,” which memorably plays during Pickins' death scene. This, of course, would become one of Dylan's trademark songs. The song's haunting melody and thoughtful lyrics work beautifully in that moment. Dylan's main theme song, several different versions of which play throughout the film, isn't as immediately memorable. However, his particular voice and meaningful words, which transform in meaning through the movie, still work just fine.

Three versions of the film exists. The version released in theaters in 1973, that Peckinpah asked to have his name taken off of, runs 106 minutes. Which is quite a bit shorter than any of the other versions. Unless you dig up a VHS release from the eighties, this cut of the film is now hard to find. More commonly seen is the Turner Preview Version and the 2005 Special Edition. The Preview Version is a rough director's cut, assembled as a preview for the studio. This is the version Peckinpah would show friends for years. The 2005 Special Edition was assembled for the DVD release by Peckinpah scholar and experienced editor Paul Seydor. I watched both versions for this review.

While the Preview Version is the only one we can consider truly definitive, as it's the only version available actually cut by Peckinpah, I do like some of the choices Seydor's cut makes. Such as the inclusion of the scene with Garrett's wife or using the complete version of “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” Seydor also switched around a few scenes and shortened some others. None of these choices really affect the flow or pacing of the film much. Seydor's most unusual cut is removing the final scene of Garret's death, reducing bookends to just a cold open, and making some questionable decisions during the opening credits. But both versions of the film are good and they are similar enough that you're not missing too much watching one or the other.

Considering its often tinkered with status, over the years, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” acquired the reputation as Peckinpah's lost masterpiece. Since we never truly got to see the director's ideal version, it's hard to rank the film definitively within Peckinpah's career. However, in its current version, the movie still makes an impact. It's a crystallization of many of the themes Peckinpah explore throughout his career, with many wonderful and moving moments, a strong soundtrack, and a well utilized cast. It is clearly among his best films. [Grade: A-]

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