September 20, 2010

0 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973): 2005 Special Edition

Country: US
Director: Sam Peckinpah

After many acrimonious disputes between the notoriously difficult Sam Peckinpah and the producers of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Peckinpah left the project, and the film was then edited without his participation and finally released in 1973. Savaged by critics as a botched failure and disowned by Peckinpah, it was, predictably, a flop at the box office. A preview version edited by Peckinpah, about 20 minutes longer than MGM's theatrical version, was released on home video in 1988 (Peckinpah died in 1984), followed in 2005 by a "Special Edition" prepared by film editor Paul Seydor. This last was the version I watched, although I did refer to Peckinpah's 1988 cut for comparison. (More about this later.)

The crux of the film is the relationship between the two title characters. The two begin as friendly acquaintances meeting up again at Ft. Sumner in the New Mexico territory in the 1880s. But in the interval their relationship has changed, for the amiable Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), with his history of robbery and gunfighting, now finds himself on the opposite side of the law from his old friend Pat Garrett (James Coburn), who has been elected sheriff of Lincoln County by the cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) and other powerful economic interests. The two are now adversaries, and Garrett arrests Billy for a robbery committed a year before. After Billy escapes from Garrett's jail, the sheriff is summoned to Santa Fe and instructed by the territorial governor (Jason Robards), at the behest of a couple of political wheeler-dealers, to recapture Billy. A full pursuit is now on, and the rest of the film is the episodic account of how Garrett goes about hunting down his onetime friend.

If Garrett feels conflict between his personal feelings and his professional duty, he doesn't show it, and the conflict in the film remains externalized, the opposition of the hunter and the hunted. Garrett, who is older than Billy, seems weary of his former way of life and yearns for the stability of a more settled existence. Beyond that, he is motivated not by any personal animosity towards Billy or any adherence to a moral code, but strictly by the fact that he has been hired to do a job and intends to see it through. His tenacity is that of the professional who puts aside personal feelings to get the job done, not unlike the narrow dedication to purpose of the hard-boiled detective of film noir.

Billy, however, seems to take the situation differently. He doesn't see himself as a dangerous outlaw, but as someone who does what he needs to in order to survive comfortably in a harsh environment that offers little opportunity to a man of his willfulness and independence and lack of means. He's not the romanticized noble outlaw of Western fiction, but neither is he particularly a menace to the safety of ordinary men and women. He is actually a bit of an overgrown boy trying to avoid the boredom and staleness of conventional middle-class life and have a good time without putting too much effort into it, an attitude Garrett seems to have outgrown as he approaches middle age. If for Garrett the chase is a serious matter of duty, for Billy it seems more like a game, and the deadly consequences of losing that game don't really bother him much. At one point Garrett explains that this is precisely why he believes Billy won't manage to escape: "There's too much play in him."

Peckinpah places the personal conflict between Garrett and Billy in the context of a larger historical and political-economic conflict—the populist one between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. The territorial governor and his cronies represent the interests of those who desire to control land, resources, and human lives, openly acknowledging that they press for Billy's capture because they view his actions as a threat to political stability and commercial investment in the territory. Peckinpah shows these establishment figures as the corrupt, arrogant forces of control and conformity, while Billy represents the relative purity of personal freedom and individuality. Caught between these two opposing sides is Pat Garrett, allowing himself to be used as a cat's paw while repressing any natural sympathy he might once have felt for Billy and his way of life. It's clear which side Peckinpah stands on in this clash of values, and equally clear that he allows this side little chance of prevailing against the juggernaut of power and influence and of changing times.

The film has much going for it in addition to its potent themes and focused examination of characters in conflict. Photographed by John Coquillon, this is a beautiful movie. The iconic landscapes of the American West have always been inseparable from the Western film, and here the clear, warm colors, limpid quality of light and air, and uncluttered widescreen compositions have the feeling of openness and space one associates with the Old West. The music score by Bob Dylan, largely spare arrangements based on simple guitar-and-harmonica harmonies typical of vintage Dylan, adds a lot to the film without sounding overbearing or dated like so many film scores of the time and includes his great song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Then there is that wonderful cast. James Coburn has never been better. Kristofferson is cheerful and likable although perhaps a bit too mature and on the bland side to be ideal for the role. (To be fair, Kristofferson was far from Peckinpah's first choice to play Billy.) I couldn't help wondering if a younger, more dynamic actor like the young Jeff Bridges might have brought a greater sense of impulsiveness to the character. This might also have suggested more of a father-son transference between Garrett and Billy, who was actually in his early twenties. The supporting cast is like a gallery of familiar character faces: R. G. Armstrong, Chill Wills, Jack Elam, Gene Evans, Harry Dean Stanton, an apparently bewigged Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, and for me best of all, Slim Pickens. And Bob Dylan gets his first fictional film role. It's a pretty limited one, requiring him mostly to pose for reaction shots in close-up, but with his benign expressions and almost angelic features, he is quite effective.

Peckinpah's cut has adamant supporters who insist it is superior to Seydor's slightly shorter 2005 version. Coming to the film fresh, I didn't have any particular allegiance to either. Inclined to watch a movie more for its major points than for its minor details, I perceived few differences between the two versions—a few seconds, a line or two here and there, a brief scene shifted to a different place, but nothing that for me derailed the thrust of the film's themes or characterizations or altered the overall mood. To my mind, though, Seydor's Special Edition has two major differences that clearly improve the film.

For one thing, the opening and closing of Seydor's version are better. The opening of both versions consists of sepia-tinted scenes of Pat Garrett nearly thirty years after the main action of the movie, now retired and a rancher, being ambushed and killed, intercut with color scenes of Garrett and Billy's reunion at Ft. Sumner much earlier. But in Peckinpah's cut, this opening proceeds in fits and starts, awkwardly interrupted by freeze frames and shifts of the color shots to sepia to accommodate the credits that, unless a film opened with a "teaser" sequence, were obligatory at the beginning of a movie at the time this one was made. Seydor's version opens with no interruptions for credits, the longer sepia shots intercut with shorter color shots that gradually take over as the past bleeds into the present, sustaining a level of dramatic continuity the 1988 version doesn't have. And rather than returning at the end to this intercutting of the sepia present and color past as the 1988 version does, Seydor's cut simply has Garrett riding away towards the future we already know awaits him, for me a more concise and melancholy finale than that of the 1988 version.

More importantly, Seydor's version has a crucial sequence, entirely missing from the Peckinpah edit, in which Garrett goes home for dinner before setting off on his initial pursuit of Billy. The sequence, beautifully shot and edited, ends with Garrett's Latina wife tearing into him for what he is about to do, telling him, "You are dead inside. I wish you'd never put on that badge." The brief sequence not only further defines Garrett's character, but also broadens the scope of the film with its domestic details and its glimpse of a strong-willed female character in what is an otherwise male-dominated movie. The 1988 version does have one sequence, though, that I wish had been left in the later version. This involves Garrett's chief deputy Poe (John Beck) brutally extracting the fact that Billy is at Ft. Sumner from a group of old cowboys that includes Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook, Jr. What a wonderful addition they make to those other familiar character actors, and the scene does tell us how Garrett learns where to find Billy for the final showdown. (Seydor explains that he didn't include the scene because it contains neither Garrett nor Billy and thus violates the continuity of point of view of the rest of the film.)

The 1970s were not a notable decade for the Western film. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—with its deft balance of kinetic action sequences and quieter, more reflective episodes—is one of only a handful of really good ones from that decade that I've seen. If it doesn't quite attain the stature of Peckinpah's earlier Westerns Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, it still comes close, resembling those masterful films in several important ways: its highly watchable pictorial values, its continued exposition of Peckinpah's recurrent theme of loyalty and betrayal in which onetime friends become adversaries, and especially its lamentation of the changes in the West as older ideals give way to harsher political-economic realities and to a more rigid social structure that leaves little room for individualism.

NOTE: This post was slightly revised in May 2014 after input from Paul Seydor, whose book The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah's Last Western Film will be published by Northwestern University Press in February 2015.


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