Tuesday 30 July 2019

Movie Review: Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973)

A languid pursuit western, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid celebrates the end of the wild west through the eloquent story of former friends clashing from opposite sides of the law.

In 1909, ex-lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is gunned down in an ambush. In his final moments he flashes back to his quest from years earlier to capture Billy The Kid (Kris Kristofferson).

Back in 1881, Garrett is elected Sheriff of Lincoln County and mandated by powerful cattlemen and business interests to bring his old friend William "Billy The Kid" Bonney to justice. Billy refuses to leave the territory and is soon captured by Garrett and sentenced to death by hanging. But he escapes by killing deputies Bell (Matt Clark) and Olinger (R.G. Armstrong), then meanders his way to Mexico.

Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) and cattleman John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) apply pressure on Garrett to get the job done. He restarts the pursuit and recruits new deputy Alamosa Bill Kermit (Jack Elam). Garrett also seeks help from Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) and his wife (Katy Jurado) and is joined by lawman John Poe (John Beck). Meanwhile a mysterious knifeman known only as Alias (Bob Dylan) joins Billy's men, and a showdown at the gang's Fort Sumner hideout looms.

A troubled and chaotic production that suffered from Peckinpah's excessive drinking, under-funding and faulty equipment, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid culminated in the studio butchering the released version. In 1988, Peckinpah's rough "Preview" version was released, and in 2005 a restored "Special Edition" (the subject of this review) was prepared under the supervision of editor Paul Seydor. The 2005 version salvages a beautiful mess out of the debacle.

The script by Rudy Wurlitzer is based on true events, but Peckinpah clashed with his writer and conjured up a more lyrical western centred on a friendship and rivalry echoing the classic theme of transformation from wilderness to civilization. And while the violence of the transitioning west is still bloody, Peckinpah avoids excess, sprinkling the action scenes in service of the narrative instead of using gore as a frequent shock device.

Ironically, it is the older Garrett who represents business interests and a future dominated by commerce ahead of individual spirit, while the much younger Billy carries the torch for the fearless and arrogant attitudes of the past. And given most of the film's component parts, it's remarkable that Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid gels as well as it does.

Events are intermittently explained or narrated in song by a warbling Bob Dylan, a device that somehow succeeds in the context of the film's dreamy construct. Dylan wrote Knocking On Heaven's Door for a poignant scene capturing the shock of meaningless death leaving life-long love behind. As evidence of the anarchic production, both the original release version and Peckinpah's own rough Preview left the song out, only for Seydor to rescue it in the Special Edition.

In addition to providing the soundtrack, Dylan wanders through the background of the film visibly and understandably unsure about the poorly defined role of his character Alias. Meanwhile, a perpetually smiling Kristofferson, aged 37, captures Billy's cockiness but otherwise struggles to convince as a 21 year old.

Peckinpah's pacing is sometimes erratic. A few scenes are stretched well beyond any added value, Garrett's smug interrogation of one of Billy's men in a canteena while Alias reads bean can labels a prime example. And the film is littered with numerous secondary characters, most of them contributing a single scene before disappearing.

Despite all the film's peculiarities, Peckinpah does get the overall ambiance right. With James Coburn delivering one of his most grizzled and world-weary performances, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid oozes resignation. Neither Garrett nor Billy are in any hurry to end their chase, both aware the future will arrive soon enough, and once present glories are lost there is no getting them back.

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