Ol' Pat... Sheriff Pat Garrett. Sold out to the Santa Fe ring. How does it feel? Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It stars James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills and Barry Sullivan. Music is scored by Bob Dylan and cinematography by John Coquillon. One time they were friends, cohorts in crime, but now Pat Garrett is the law and his objective is to bring down Billy the Kid. It seems to be an absolute when writing about a Sam Peckinpah film that it was plagued by studio interference. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is no exception, the back story to which tells of behind the scenes clashes, bizarre cuts and a disownment of the film by cast and crew. Thankfully through the advent of time and technological advancements, it's one of the Peckinpah movies that can now be seen in a true light. A good job, too, since it's one of Bloody Sam's finest movies. My personal preference is for the TCM Preview version, and that is what is reviewed here. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid finds Peckinpah at his lyrical and elegiacal best, the old west is dying and as it is told through the eyes of aging Pat Garrett (Coburn), it's meticulously played out via an unhurried narrative structure. Time is afforded the key players, helping the story unfold its bitter take on the frontier changes as greed begets violence, Peckinpah wryly observing that the newly appeared good guys are no better than the bad guys, hence The Kid's (Kristofferson) reputation as a dandy likable outlaw becomes assured in spite of his less than honourable traits as a human being, but he at least is honourable to his codes. Film contains many memorable scenes, scenes fit to grace any Western. A shoot-out and aftermath involving Pickens and Jurado has poignancy in abundance, Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door tenderly filtered over the top of it. A duel featuring Jack Elam is another that resonates highly, great character moments are plentiful, performed by a roll call of Western movie legends, Peckinpah knew how to pick a cast and then some. Moments of violence are dotted throughout, Bloody Sam's trademark, as is cross-cuts, sepia tones and slow-mo. The great director even makes a Christ allegory not come off as cheap, and a self loathing mirror sequence strikes a significant chord. This is a film big on characterisations, it's not just a film of visual touches, be it the dual psychological conflict between Pat and Billy, or the ream of peripheral players, everything they do is detailed and designed to capture the period and atmosphere of the changing times, the environment that folk inhabit, on either side of the law, is a big issue. No frame is wasted, MGM and their head honcho James Aubrey in their ignorance failed to see this fact. While the cast turn in damn fine work and Coquillon's burnished photography is striking and perfect for the director's vision. It's undeniably downbeat, and the slow pace isn't to everyone's liking, but this is up with the other Peckinpah Western greats, The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country. A truly great Western crafted by a truly great director. 9/10
_**Peckinpah’s lyrical (dull) Western with a great cast and Dylan’s music**_ In 1881 New Mexico, Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is now a lawman working for ranch barons who want Garrett to take out his former wild friend, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Everything leads to the final showdown at Fort Sumner. Bob Dylan is on hand as a stranger who assists Billy while notable actors show up for bit parts, usually just to get shot to death (R.G. Armstrong, Matt Clark, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Jack Elam, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, Jason Robards, Richard Jaeckel, etc.). “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) was a project that director Sam Peckinpah wanted to fulfill a dozen years earlier with his script for what he called “the definitive Billy the Kid movie” based on Charles Neider’s 1956 novel “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones,” a fictional treatment of the story, with Stanley Kubrick set to direct. Marlon Brando eventually took over that production to create his outstanding “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961) with Peckinpah not given any writing credit. In any case, this was a troubled production with the turbulent director struggling with serious alcoholism and only coherent for about four hours a day. Kristofferson got Dylan involved, who was initially enlisted to compose the title song, but eventually wrote the score/soundtrack for the entire film, most notably "Knockin' on Heaven's Door.” The soundtrack album was released seven weeks after the movie’s debut. It’s very similar in tone and theme to Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) with Coburn’s role being almost identical to that of Robert Ryan in that more famous Western. It’s also reminiscent of contemporaneous films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “The Missouri Breaks.” But it’s the least of these because the story is both uninvolving and tedious despite the gory gun slayings every 10 minutes. Like “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” from the year prior, it makes the Old West ugly. Meanwhile Dylan’s one-dimensional folk ditties don’t help in making it compelling, but rather drag it down. I mean no disrespect to the musical icon. His music is fine for what it is; it’s just too static to carry a film like this IMHO. Peckinpah complained that 15 minutes were cut from his preview version while six editors are credited with the final product. Maybe this is why there’s no drive to the picture. Too many cooks spoil the broth. On a positive note, Dylan does fine in his acting debut and looks more like the real-life Billy the Kid than Kristofferson, who resembles Jim Morrison. Plus there are some great sequences, like Billy’s 10-step duel with Elam’s character. And you can’t beat the cast, which also includes Rita Coolidge, who was Kristofferson’s girlfriend during shooting and would become his wife for the next seven years. To see Peckinpah at his Western best I recommend the outstanding “Ride the High Country” (1962) and the unique “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970). There are a few cuts of the film: The theatrical version runs 1 hr 46 min, the 1988 restored cut runs 2 hr 2 min and the 2005 Special Edition runs 1 hr 55 min (which is the version I saw). The movie was shot in Durango Mexico, roughly 500 miles due south of the historical locations in New Mexico. GRADE: C
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