“The best film I ever made,” is how Sam Peckinpah described his retelling of the story of the killing of outlaw Billy the Kid by Sheriff Pat Garrett on the night of July 13, 1881. No fewer than six editors worked to re-cut Peckinpah’s original, but – as Time remarked in reference to the brutal (and highly controversial) re-editing of the picture by an insensitive MGM: “the whole film has a parched, eerie splendour that no one could really destroy”.
Sheriff Pat Garrett (JAMES COBURN), friend and former outlaw, issues Billy the Kid (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON) with a warning to leave New Mexico and head south of the border. Billy disobeys and after a furious gun battle, Garrett is compelled to take him into custody, awaiting execution. Never one to capitulate, the Kid escapes by shooting deputies R G ARMSTRONG and MATT CLARK, and returns to his gang where he is joined by mysterious new recruit BOB DYLAN. In the struggle to placate powerful landowners and cattlemen, and to bring The Kid to justice, Garrett appoints ageing outlaw JACK ELAM as his deputy; while Governor JASON ROBARDS JR assigns his own deputy, JOHN BECK. In the ensuing hunt, The Kid reluctantly kills the deputy while Garrett guns down Billy’s friend L Q JONES. As the Kid continues to flee, he discovers that his friends are being killed one by one. But when he finally finds the body of fellow fugitive, EMILIO FERNANDEZ, tortured and murdered while attempting to flee to his home south of the border, Billy the Kid finally realises, with depressing clarity, the futility of his escape.
If the traditional themes and morality of the Western are distorted, the overall effect brings new life and vitality to the almost ritualistic central story line. Garrett is an old time survivor now willing to compromise, and his corruption by the land barons and willingness to kill his old comrade, is comparable to the character played by Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch. Said the New York Times: “It is not on an intellectual level that the picture works but on an emotional one. In the confrontation between a man who will compromise and a man who can not, at a time when adaption offers the only chance of survival, lies the film’s enormous and disturbing power.”
Brilliantly using ideally chosen locations in and around Durango, Peckinpah’s compositions showed him to be the pictorial successor to John Ford. The director’s handling of his mise en scéne is masterly and his treatment of the key actors is equally impressive. The Observer noted: “to my mind, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Peckinpah’s best film to date, packed for good measure with old friends – CHILL WILLS, Jack Elam, KATY JURADO, Emilio Fernandez, Jason Robards, R G Armstrong – and a welcome new one in Bob Dylan.”
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, echoed The New York Times, acknowledging the controversial re-editing, “may very well be Peckinpah’s best film. The classic Peckinpah themes of sadness at the death of the West and anger at the confined and mechanistic civilisation that replaced it have been deepened into something approaching Greek mythology… beneath a somewhat shallow intellectualisation is an emotional power that sweeps one along with it.”
US / MGM / 106 minutes / 1973 in Metrocolour
Writer: Rudolph Wurlitzer / Cinematography: John Coquillon / Music: Bob Dylan / Producer: Gordon Carroll / Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Jason Robards Jr, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens, Chill Wills