Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Note: This review is about the 1988 Turner Preview Version, which was the Director’s rough assembly cut.

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Forgotten American masterpiece. Along with The Wild Bunch, the great American Western.

Without any doubt, Pat Garrett is one of the saddest American films ever made. Every single frame of this film conveys such a deep emptiness that you can’t help but feel some of the characters’ erosion of the soul. Butchered by a vengeful  studio head, antagonized at every turn, besieged by technical problems, Peckinpah turned to drinking even more heavily.

It is a marvel that a film even came out of this mess. But it did, and it is a highly personalized reflection of Peckinpah’s own self-loathing.

In the opening, we are shown the death of an older Pat Garrett inter-cut with the younger Billy the Kid blowing the heads off of some chickens. So in five minutes we’ve already been hit over the head with a bag of rocks and are sent reeling into the rest of this supreme exercise in melancholy.

Pat Garrett continues many of the themes and methods of The Wild Bunch, but is incredibly internal. There is never any vocalization of inner thoughts, only long reaction shots of slow-burning internal fires. Chief amongst these is James Coburn’s mesmerizing portrayal of Garrett, a former outlaw who has sold out both himself and his kind by becoming a lawman. His assignment: get his best friend out of town. By force if necessary. Preferably the latter. The so-called reputable society members want the outlaw gone form their universe. Of course these are primarily greedy rich land barons who will stop at nothing simply to amass more wealth and property. Garrett goes to his friend and warns him to leave or he will come after him. Unfortunately, Pat’s old friend is Billy the Kid. (Kris Kristofferson)

Billy is this immediately likeable roguish son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t really give a damn who or what stands in his way. As soon as he and Pat lay eyes on each other, the game is up. Even without knowing a thing about the real life story of these two figures, you know 5 minutes into the film that Pat will be forced to shoot Billy down. They both know that, and because they refuse to directly acknowledge it the film becomes something else entirely. Metaphoric? Possibly. Elegiac? Definitely. How can we live with ourselves when all of our humanity has been eradicated in the name of advancement? You can’t. To quote The Wild Bunch: “We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stay with him. And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal – you’re finished! We’re finished! All of us!

The rest of the film revolves around Pat’s dogged pursuit of Billy. He captures him at one point, and while in jail Billy escapes with the entire town looking on in bewilderment. In the crowd we see a lowly newspaperman who is spurred on by this to go off and join Billy’s gang. Known only as Alias, and featuring virtually almost no dialogue the character is portrayed by Bob Dylan.

Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Dylan is the symbol of the film’s beyond-weary poetics. His score for the film is a combination of elegy and simple underscore. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” came out of this film and perfectly realizes the film’s ultimate message.

The film is a workout of your depression endurance threshold. It is not a “revisionist Western” but a plunge into the emptied soul of an aging man and how he comes to realize there’s none of himself left to do anything. The moment where Slim Pickens’ mortally wounded sheriff sits down by a river at dusk and comes to the realization of his death is done without comment directly in front of the viewer with no quarter. There’s another moment where Garrett is resting on a tree by the river and a family on a boat is passing by. The father is shooting at a bottle in the water. Garrett shoots at it and the father aims at Garrett in surprise. Garrett aims back and the two hold this bead in silence until the boat passes out of range. Both of these just reiterate how we as a people have become so completely deadened by our societal constraints that we simply waste away each and every day.

These moments appear as little parables almost along the long journey that Garrett takes to Billy. Finally, he reached the Kid and stalks him throughout the town, closing in on him in a small house where Billy is spending the night with his favorite companion. Outside the house he encounters a coffin maker, played by Peckinpah himself. The director berates Garrett and tells him  to “go on, get it over with.” Garrett does, but cannot face himself and shoots the full mirror bearing his own reflection. Looking at himself in the mirror’s shards, his own destruction is complete with the killing of the Kid. The fact that he lives on for years is unimportant. Garrett effectively dies right there in that room.

Upon finally finishing the lengthy troubled production and somehow avoiding slipping into an even deeper black hole, Peckinpah returned to California to begin the editing process. The studio head of MGM, James Aubrey, had had it in for both Peckinpah and the entire production since before filming had even begun. Demanding a completely unreasonable and impossible completion date, Aubrey attempted to salvage a commercial product to market out of the film where there was none to begin with. Peckinpah and his editors completed a rough Director’s cut which is what is being reviewed here. Commonly known as the 1988 Turner Preview version, this edit is not so rough, and more of a strong 1st assembly. It is hard to say what Sam would have tweaked or changed had he been given the opportunity, but as it stands this version is an American masterpiece. (Much the same case with Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999))

Aubrey forced Peckinpah out and had him barred from the studio grounds. He then had the film cut down to 106 minutes for a bastardized theatrical release. the reception was one of confusion and disgust for such a messy film, but word soon began to leak out that it was not authorized or made by Peckinpah. Sam had tried to have his name removed, but this was never achieved. Pat Garrett died a slow death at the box office and was quickly forgotten. Jump ahead to 1988 when the personal copy of the rough assembly that had been held for years by Peckinpah himself was  rediscovered and released to TV and home video. As with the rediscovery of many of his other films, finally people were able to see just what Sam had been getting at.

EDITIONS: The 2005 DVD features two versions of the film: the 1988 Preview version as a secondary disc, and a new re-cut “Special Edition”. This “Special Edition” is a hack-job meant to make things more “fluid and correct”. It was done by Peckinpah scholar Paul Seydor who is a feature editor in his own right. But the only benefit is the addition of a missing scene between Pat and his wife. Otherwise, it messes with everything Sam did on the first assembly cut, adds in extraneous music, cuts scenes to pieces because “this is the common way of doing things”. When did Sam ever do anything normal or by the book? This is just atrociously stupid. Thankfully the masterful original assembly cut is maintained. This copy of  Preview version may not look as good at first, but it has not been manipulated or processed.The SE cut has image manipulation, edge enhancement, color tweaking and boosting and a new soundmix which isn’t very good. The Preview version has print damage and reel change markers but works just fine. The mono has some occasional defects but also plays fine. Why Warner didn’t include the theatrical version is strange as it includes scenes that are different to these two versions. Maybe on an eventual Blu-ray this can be rectified alongside the restored Preview version in it’s rightful place on Disc 1 with a clean lossless rendering of the mono. It deserves as much. The DVD is available separately or in the economical Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Directors, Film Review, Immortal Films, Sam Peckinpah

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