director Sam Peckinpah
Much like the populist Old West outlaw Jesse James, Billy the Kid’s short life became the thing of legend, popular folklore, with many, many versions of his story told and retold and told yet again. Director Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid from 1973 would certainly fall into the revisionist category. It’s a fascinating assessment of the Old West, quite particular to Peckinpah’s interpretation, gritty, bloody and cynical.
James Coburn plays Pat Garrett, the outlaw turned lawman, who goes after the bounty on his old pal Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) when hired by the land barons of Arizona to put an end to the Kid and his gang. Again, like Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) and also his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), these are Westerns interested with the end of the Old West. The film opens with Garrett’s death in 1908, shot down at the hands of men who had paid him to track Billy the Kid. Though most of the story takes place in the 1880’s.
Bob Dylan appears as a quirky character called “Alias,” a clerk turned outlaw when he sees how cool Billy the Kid is escaping the law. More effective than his performance is his great soundtrack for the film. I’m by no means a particular Dylan fan, but the soundtrack is excellent, an interesting stylistic choice for Peckinpah, something of the old-style “folk music” and guitar and the modern, the unique Dylan interpretation of the style that was very much of the time of the film.
It seems that the film is about the outlaw lifestyle, embodied in the ennobled Kid. He’s never seen doing anything truly nefarious. He’s fighting against the law and the rich who run everything. We’re not given some hardscrabble backstory of how the rich men ruined the poor but these characters certainly had analogues in the early 1970’s, of which Dylan and Kristofferson no doubt embodied modern archetypes, if not Peckinpah himself.
It’s Garrett who is the ambivalent villain. He doesn’t really want to kill Billy. He’d rather Billy ran off to “Old” Mexico where he’d be out of his jurisdiction, but he is also quite resigned that he must kill his old compadre. And he knows that he is doing it for his own wealth and entitlement. He has no illusions about right and wrong.
I’d last seen this film in England about 20 years ago, around the time that I was first getting interested in the Western as a genre. I think I’m appreciating it much more today than I did then, though I recall liking it. I’d just watched Ride the High Country a couple of nights before and had also recently watched Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and frankly, I am currently totally digging Peckinpah of late.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The Western is one of the great genres of cinema. One who doesn’t appreciate the genre is missing out on some of the best films ever made.