A critical favorite whose enviable reputation stems from lingering fascination with director Sam Peckinpah and the mystique that attaches to any serious movie altered by studio interference, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has many virtues that are not immediately apparent—it’s like one of those classic novels that makes more sense after one learns about the context surrounding the novel’s creation. Thus, Pat Garrett on its own merits might seem merely a somewhat pretentious Western drama offering a bleak riff on the last days of a notorious outlaw. Seen through the prism of Peckinpah’s career, however, it becomes something more.
The story is deceptively simple. Graying outlaw-turned-lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn) reunites with his old comrade-in-crime, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney (Kris Kristofferson), in New Mexico. Garret advises Billy to leave the country because authorities are planning to hunt Billy. Appalled at the way corporations and politicians are constricting the frontier, Billy remains at large until he’s captured by lawmen including Bible-thumping deputy Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong). Gunning his way free of his captors, Billy starts a tragic cycle leading to a confrontation with his friend Garrett.
Much has been made of this picture’s metaphorical heft, since the idea of a former robber betraying his lawless friend can be interpreted as a statement on the way greed changed the maverick spirit of the Old West. And, indeed, some dialogue and imagery emphasizes that exact reading, like the bit in which Peckinpah appears onscreen as a coffin maker. (See, he’s burying the Old West.) Taking the metaphor further, the picture can also be viewed as a rumination on individual-vs.-the-establishment themes that were prevalent in the national conversation at the time the film was made.
The problem with over-praising this movie is twofold. First, Peckinpah expressed the same themes, with greater clarity and power, in earlier pictures like The Wild Bunch (1969). Second, Pat Garrett gets mired in lots of distractions, like the pointless scenes with Billy’s young sidekick, Alias (Bob Dylan), or the extended sequence of a female gunslinger (Katy Jurado) mowing down a group of opponents. This being a Peckinpah flick, there are also long vignettes of sweaty men drinking whiskey straight from the bottle and screwing whores in filthy rooms, plus a fair amount of slow-motion bloodletting.
To be fair, the song score by costar Dylan adds a melancholy vibe (Dylan’s great song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was introduced here), and any assessment of Pat Garrett must take into consideration the fact that the picture has been released in several versions. For instance, a so-called “Director’s Cut” was released in 2001, nearly 20 years after Peckinpah died, so it’s anybody’s guess which version of the picture represents Peckinpah’s original intentions. Still, any film must ultimately be appraised based upon its content, and the two hours comprising the currently available “definitive” version of Pat Garrett feature flashes of brilliance in the service of a thoughtful but murky narrative.
Like Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), another counterculture-themed picture written by Rudy Wurlitzer, Pat Garrett is a uniquely ’70s endeavor that makes for a great discussion piece, even if it somehow provokes viewers to invest the material with more meaning than is actually present. But then again, one of Peckinpah’s great gifts, both onscreen and in his private life, was stirring up trouble; therefore, perhaps the secret genius of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is that it smashes signifiers together and lets the audience sort out the chaos.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: GROOVY