Movie Review: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

“Best of enemies. Deadliest of friends.”

3 Stars
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)


Director: Sam Peckinpah

Cast: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel

Synopsis: The story of how reformed outlaw Pat Garrett is hired as a lawman by wealthy cattle barons to bring his friend Billy the Kid to justice.

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What kind of movies might the legendary maverick director Sam Peckinpah have produced had his opportunity to work not been so restricted by an attitude of extreme belligerence and a fondness for the booze which killed him 55 days before his sixtieth birthday?   Sadly, we shall never know.   He could, perhaps, have made another dozen movies of the calibre of The Wild Bunch.   It’s doubtful – but he could.  Or maybe whatever it was that made him such a persistent and committed drunk also provided him with the creative spark necessary to make the few classics he did make.   Perhaps, if he had dried out, the talent that could burn so fiercely would have died with his thirst.

By 1973, which was the year that he made Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Peckinpah was so completely in alcohol’s thrall that, according to James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven, The Last of Sheila), he was coherent enough to direct for only four hours a day.   The director had wanted to make a movie about Custer.   He was fascinated by the way the General’s reputation transcended his presiding over a military failure of epic proportions.   But he was equally enthralled by the legend of Billy the Kid, and of his relationship with Pat Garrett, the friend who would take his life.  It’s said that Coburn, who had appeared in Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, was cast as Garrett only after Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum and Paul Newman had turned down the part.   As fourth choices go, he’s pretty good.   Coburn’s reputation is lightweight by comparison, but having seen him in the part, you’ll struggle to picture any of the other three doing better.

Billy was played by country singer Kris Kristofferson (Heaven’s Gate), who, at 36, was criticised by many as being too old to play the 21-year-old outlaw.   For some reason, the fact that Coburn was also considerably older than Garrett didn’t seem to matter.   Compared to other rock stars turned actors, Kristofferson does a good job, although, physically, Bob Dylan, who has a small part as one of Billy’s acolytes, would probably have been a better fit.   Judging from the few lines he’s given to speak, however, Dylan lacks the acting chops for the part – in fact, his reading of the various foodstuffs on a grocery shelf is no less riveting than anything else he has to say in the movie.    Kristofferson might be a rock star version of Billy that bears little resemblance to the actual man, but he does capture the burned-out fatalism of someone who’s grown tired of the dangerous life he’s chosen.

Peckinpah presents us with a typically romanticised version of these characters, even if their surroundings are steeped in the authentic grime of the era.   His admiration for Billy informs every shot, and the screenplay, which is credited to Rudy Wurlitzer, but was extensively revised by the director, portrays him as a regretful killer – except for when a victim has invited his death by taunting him, in which case it becomes a case of justifiable retribution.   While the character of Garrett might not enjoy such an idealised interpretation as Billy, he’s nevertheless portrayed in a mostly sympathetic light as a man who’s seen too much of the dark side of human nature, and who refuses to allow his friendship with Billy to dissuade him from carrying out his duty.

The two leads are supported by a cast of legendary supporting characters from the Western’s golden era such as Chill Wills (The Deadly Companions, McLintock!), Slim Pickens (Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles), Katy Jurado (High Noon, Broken Lance), Barry Sullivan (Bad Men of Tombstone, Cause for Alarm!) and Jack Elam (Vera Cruz, Once Upon a Time in the West).   Their appearances are brief, though – in fact little more than cameos – and, as wonderful as they are to see, feel strangely like solitary drops of water to a thirsty man.

The Wild Bunch remains Peckinpah’s definitive Western, but Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid runs it a close second.   It’s a melancholic elegy to the passing of an era in American history, and as those who appeared in the movie grow old and pass on, it acquires a poignancy which grows stronger with each viewing.

(Reviewed 6th November 2016)





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