Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

When this film first came out in 1973, I despised it. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid came across as a narrative mess of excessive shoot outs virtually playing like a parody of the worst aspects of a bloody Sam Peckinpah epic.

But over the years, several things changed. Several versions of the movie would appear on video approaching Peckinpah's original intentions. It became obvious that the rumors of studio sabotage against the movie was not only true, but they actually butchered the film into nonsensical shreds. All the scenes in which the themes of the movie took place had been cut and only the gunfights remained, reducing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to the level of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

I also found myself reading more of the actual history of the Lincoln County Range War and the events surrounding Billy the Kid. In many regards, this is one of the more factual of the many movies based of these events (with some of the violence actually toned down a bit). Even the mythic embellishments in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are minor additions that suits Peckinpah's themes.

More importantly, I became a middle aged man. Suddenly, the themes of a life betrayed (Garrett's more than Billy's) began to hit hard with a somber sense of poetic irony. For Peckinpah, Billy the Kid was simply an idealized figure of youth (the pure outlaw with his own moral code). The real tragic figure was Pat Garrett, the aging outlaw-turned-sheriff. In the film, he insists that times has changed and that he is simply adapting to the new West. By the end of the film, he has killed and betrayed virtually everyone close to him and has no one left to shoot but his own besotted reflection in the mirror.

OK, in reality Pat Garrett was a pure bred son of a bitch who seemingly had no problems betraying any body at any time at any place. He was also one of the first union-busters of the old West. It was guys like Garrett who succeeded in making Billy the Kid look so damn noble.

As Garrett, James Coburn delivers one of his finest performances as a spiritual deadbeat whose moral hypocrisy is almost as great as his increasingly violent and drunken state of denial. Since the movie bookends the narrative with Garrett's own murder, the futility of Garrett's actions are front and center. The real subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is about all the foolish ways a person can sometimes lie to himself in a vain attempt to make himself look good.

Along with The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is one of Peckinpah's genuine master pieces. But you have to see it in the director's cut (actually, there are several, each one of which is superior to the theatrical release). Aside from engaging in an open war with his producer and studio during the making of the film, Peckinpah was also sinking fast into the booze and drug haze that would plague the rest of his career. The anger and angst that would fuel the violent poetry of The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid would soon turn into the addict delusions and unfocused rages of Cross of Iron (his last interesting movie). The remainder of his films quickly became a load of half-baked gibberish.

Oh yeah, then there is the soundtrack score by Bob Dylan. The music is fantastic. His acting appearance, uhhh, not quite so fantastic.