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PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, 1973
Movie Review

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PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID MOVIE POSTER
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, 1973
Movie Reviews

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson
Review by Matthew Gunn



SYNOPSIS:

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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REVIEW:

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 basis of the film is the historical telling of Pat Garrett (James Coburn) tracking down and killing his once best friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) for the Santa Fe ring, the landowners and city governors, who had grown tired of both ‘The Kids’ trouble making and killing but also of his notoriety and fame amongst the public, that is stopping their progress. These representatives of Power and Big Business who have sent Pat Garrett on his mission are the real villains of the piece: corrupt, vicious and tainted by greed. The film starts with Garrett himself being shot many years later by these very men who hired him before the opening credits, and then takes us back to 1881 and Garrett informing his best friend that he is now sheriff, giving him two days to leave the territory or he’ll bring him in. And this is the essence of the story that both Billy and Garrett realize the west is changing, but Billy refuses to change with it and awaits his capture and death at the hands of his best friend, whilst Garrett tries to change with the times believing the lawman’s badge and money will let him do so. But the journey he takes tracking down Billy’s gang and finally ‘The Kid’ himself makes Garrett see that he too cannot change, he too is part of the dying west only fitting in with his fellow outlaws who he has now betrayed for ‘blood money’ in essence. The Kid is the man that Garrett could never, ever be. The Kid will die, still young and beautiful, his legend enshrined forever. Garrett, on the other hand, will grow old and miserable, eventually being brutally murdered by the same men who hired him to kill the Kid. Power destroys lives and friendships. Indeed it is on killing Billy that Garrett then shoots his own reflection in the mirror, by killing Billy he has in essence killed himself and the true man he once was. Rumour has it the idea for this shot came from Coburn and Peckinpah drunk shooting up an empty bar one day and looking at there distorted reflections in the mirror, only in the world of Peckinpah can such stories be true.

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.

The supporting cast has Peckinpah regulars such as LQ Jones, Slim Pickens and Richard Bright but also none other than Bob Dylan with a character written especially for him called Alias, he doesn’t say much but his character acts as the audience for the film, watching events unfold with us, the man who saw it all happen, the man who is going to take it away and write it all down so that future generations will never forget. The casting of the great singer could’ve misfired massively but it works on many levels, not least with his use of music throughout. The soundtrack written specifically for the film works in coherence with the narrative like the perfect twin a major character in itself commenting on the action like a Greek chorus. Typified when Garrett finally tracks Billy down in the dark of the night and walks through the Mexican village with the music a haunting tranquillity to the assassination which itself has haunted Garrett and he can longer put off.

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’.

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