An aging Pat Garrett is hired as a lawman on behalf of a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons--his sole purpose being to bring down his old friend Billy the Kid.
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Never has a film been seen more as a ballad, a poem to the old passing west, more so than Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 classic ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. The story of two once best friends now on opposing sides of the law has been used many times in films but this perfects it with a beautiful visual backdrop of a changing west and the end of the outlaw era into business and money. It is in essence a goodbye, an ode to a once reckless but free way of life.
The film has a complicated history, stories were abound on set of Peckinpah having had a heart attack and was near death – these ‘stories’ were soon dispelled with a joking published photo of Peckinpah surrounded by the cast and crew with a drip hanging off him, and of course a bottle of whiskey. Then came the studio interference in the edit suite, so often a problem Peckinpah faced, coupled with time constraints and not liking or understanding his version of the film, the studio decided to force the great director out of the edit suite and do their own cut, releasing a version that made little narrative sense to the film we all know now resulting in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid being released in a truncated version largely disowned by cast and crew members. This version was a box-office failure and was panned by most major critics. But Peckinpah himself was in possession of his own director's cut, which he often showed to friends as his own definitive vision of the film. In1988 the film was shown in Peckinpah’s uncut version when Turner Home Entertainment and MGM released it on video to the applauds of both audience and critics alike making it the definitive release, proof of the rumoured lost masterpiece, now seen as a modern classic by critics.
The acting is superb from both leads, Coburn as always never gives a bad performance and is the epitome of a torn soul - haunted, embittered and full of self-loathing - a masterpiece of understated acting. Whilst Kristofferson has never been better, cutting a wonderfully romantic figure as The Kid, a wild, untameable spirit of the True West playing the wild eyed immaturity of ‘the kid’ mixed with a personal knowing that his time is up and wanting to live his last days true to the notorious outlaw he has become famed for combing warmth, innocence and fearlessness. The only drawback is that its obvious Kristofferson wasn’t a 21year old kid at the time of filming but was actually 35, though within the first few frames of his opening conversation with Coburn this is easily forgotten as he ‘becomes’ The Kid.
Peckinpah’s direction is immaculate, it has the typical Peckinpah moments so loved in previous films like the Wild Bunch – the slow motion killings, bullets and blood – but the pace at times feels so tranquil like a ballad slowing telling us a beautiful ode to the passing of these violent times. It’s Peckinpah’s amazing visualisation of the west and the friendship of Garrett and Billy allowing the actors to pause sombrely within takes as time catches up with them, that is such a strong point for the film. This narrative and visual style of Peckinpah’s is summed up best half-way through when a dying Slim Pickens slowly walks to a river where a beautiful blue sky is above him and he turns back knowingly to Garrett as Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven Door’ plays… If there has ever been a better moment of the ‘passing of life’ and the ‘passing of a different time’ in cinema history I have yet to see it. Peckinpah encompasses a long slow drawn out breath to the end of the west throughout the film creating many memorable vignettes around the central story and paints a dispiriting portrait of the West in the late 19th century: inhospitable, almost third world, and filled with lowlifes who are either waiting to die or get killed.
Opinion to this day amongst critics is still divided, Time Out’s Derek Adams giving it high acclaim saying the film has a ‘mournful quality which places the film very high up in the league of great Westerns,’ whilst Roger Ebert writing for Chicago Sun-Times claims ‘it’s boring’. The definitive 1988 version is mostly held in positive acclaim by critics and audience alike with an average score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sam Peckinpah like his films has always divided opinions, some say he was a genius who told visually striking stories making the violent at times look poetic and making all of us look inside our souls and see the outlaw and violence within… Others say he was a male chauvinistic who filmed violent self absorbed films that became less and less important the more he engrossed himself in the drinking that would eventually kill him. Personnaly speaking, that’s what I love about Peckinpah’s films, its never a dull moment when one is debated amongst friends or colleagues, and none more so than Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – which I believe to be the most beautiful story told of all westerns. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen when the NFT recently did a Peckinpah week of films and at the end I honestly felt drained from this most savage and lyrical of Western directors, like an entire way of life had washed over me and been taken away, and that is the brutal honesty Peckinpah conveys in his personal masterpiece ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’.