Review: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid vies with The Ballad of Cable Hogue as Sam Peckinpah’s most personal film. Not that Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, or even that compromised early project The Deadly Companions could have been made by any other man. But those films at least flirt with conventional notions of how movies are built, notions derived from viewing other men’s work. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is thoroughly perverse in conception and realization—and in its refusal (several people have remarked it independently) to get out of one’s skull the day after one has seen it, and the day after that. It is not my intention, here, to do much more than to record my astonishment, admiration, and awe, and (since it has been graced by a particularly contemptible, willfully misrepresentative review in the local evening paper) to urge anyone who cares for movies to see the picture at the earliest opportunity. M-G-M hasn’t so much released the film as set it outside the company vault and wait to see whether some passerby notices; it opened locally at two drive-ins and a plaza twin in Bellevue. Impatient moviegoers are warned: aside from the generally known fact that Sheriff Pat Garrett was somehow involved in the death of William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, the viewer has nothing to go on but his faith in the eventual emergence of a narrative; characters appear, seem to be known to the other characters, are not pointedly introduced or given time to develop the sort of identity we normally expect from a motion picture inhabitant, and may in fact die before we’re clear on who they were or why they appeared in the first place (though often we learn much more about them later, from the effect their absence has). Violence-baiters are also admonished: this is possibly Peckinpah’s bloodiest film, certainly the most carcass-strewn since The Wild Bunch; virtually every sequence is built around a killing, usually more than one.

These two factors taken together the strange flux of memorable but not clearly designated personages, the rondelay of carnage—render Pat Garrett less like any western we’ve seen and more like one of those rituals of political reaction celebrated by Miklos Jancso. Not the least disturbing aspect of the production is the director’s encouragement of Kris Kristofferson (Billy) and Bob Dylan (a nearly wordless figure known only as Alias) to contemplate and comment on their own living analogies in a film about the bitter sustaining of myth. The writer and the director themselves make brief appearances in the movie, Wurlitzer (whose Two Lane Blacktop Peckinpah admires another very free-form exercise in self-realization) near the beginning, Peckinpah giving a reluctant okay to the inevitable conclusion. Considered remarks should follow. For now, go. It will not leave you unchanged.

RTJ

Since writing the preceding effusion, I have learned that once again Peckinpah has run afoul of producer interference and that M-G-M’s Jim Aubrey has scrambled the director’s own “final cut” of the film. The particulars of Aubrey/M-G-M’s alterations are not a matter of public record at this time. Just supposing, I should think that the studio has tended to drop sequences entirely rather than rearrange existing sequences, so distinctively, er, Peckinpavian is the construction of the various scenes. My enthusiastic recommendation stands.
RTJ

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Rudolph Wurlitzer (and Sam Peckinpah). Cinematography: John Coquillon. Music: Bob Dylan.
The Players: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Rita Coolidge, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Matt Clark, Jack Elam, Jason Robards, Richard Bright, Chill Wills, Luke Askew, Emilio Fernandez, Gene Evans, Paul Fix, John Davis Chandler, Charles Martin Smith, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Sam Peckinpah.

© 1974 Richard T. Jameson


One Comments

  • theresa severson

    May 27, 2010

    Although he had a small role in the film,John Davis Chandler had a memorable scene as Norris. He played many bad guys during his 40 year career. John Davis Chandler was born on 1/28/35 and died on 2/16/10. Chandler was one of Sam Peckinpaw’s boys and will be remembered for it. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is one of my favorite films.Another memorable scene that draws tears is when after being shot,Slim Pickens’ character,goes out to die and Dylan’s song plays.Sad,Sad,Sad.

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