The year was 1973, and it was Sam Peckinpah’s last chance in Hollywood. Peckinpah had followed up his massively successful western epic The Wild Bunch with a series of films that, while all of quality, were marred by turmoil as a result of both Peckinpah’s increasingly severe alcoholism and his adversarial relationship with studio executives. His never-before-seen depiction of gritty violence was often the source of controversy, with many critics feeling that Peckinpah’s fiery brand of mayhem bordered on the nihilistic. While Bloody Sam loved to let the bullets fly on screen, his time behind the cameras also proved to be similarly combative, as he became notorious for his clashes with studios over budget constraints and shooting schedules.
It should be said that Peckinpah did have legitimate beef with these film studios, as many of his films were re-edited liberally against his will by the studio during post production. His 1965 film Major Dundee is perhaps the foremost example, with nearly a half an hour of footage removed from Peckinpah’s proposed cut. But still, MGM believed it still had in Peckinpah a viable talent that was capable of turning in a profit and a quality film.
As such, the studio greenlit Rudy Wurlitzer’s new-wave Hollywood rendition of one the American West’s most enduring myths, the manhunt for Billy the Kid in 1890s New Mexico. Peckinpah was chosen to direct. It was to be his final Western and his defining statement on the genre.
The problems that dogged Peckinpah’s previous films would come to a head during the production of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and it would ultimately spell the beginning of the end of his controversial career in Hollywood. The film that eventually made it into the theaters was a heavily truncated version, once again slashed by the studio. Fortunately, nearly two decades later, a version edited by Peckinpah himself was discovered, and the film was finally able to be appreciated by fans and critics. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid reveals itself to be not just a great Peckinpah film, but perhaps Hollywood’s last great classic Western, a film of tremendous self-reflection and deep sadness.
One needs to look no further than the casting of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to realize that the film was essentially designed by Peckinpah as a funeral march for the American Western. Legendary Western character actors appear here in spades, with Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Emilio Fernandez and Jack Elam showing their advancing age as they wander wearily throughout the film. The two leads are cast with stark and purposeful differences: the veteran James Coburn, who was on the exit from his time as a ‘60s icon, plays Sheriff Pat Garrett, and newcomer Kris Kristofferson plays outlaw Billy the Kid. They both turn in what are arguably the best performances of their careers.
Peckinpah made several changes in Wurlitzer’s script, trading the bitter and political nature of Wurlitzer’s tone for a forlorn and exceedingly melancholy meditation on the destruction of the myth of the American West. Peckinpah, no doubt inspired by weary new-wave Western McCabe and Ms. Miller’s score by Leonard Cohen, chose none other than Bob Dylan to score the film. Dylan does a masterful job at capturing the triumphant sadness present throughout the film, as well as delivering his first acting role as Billy’s eccentric and nameless sidekick.
As much of a departure the tone of Billy the Kid was for Peckinpah, his typical technical wizardry is on full display here, with plenty of his signature slow-motion death sequences and dazzling cross-cuts. But the chaotic and sometimes gleeful violence seen in The Wild Bunch is notably subdued here. Peckinpah doesn’t overload the viewer with bloodshed; instead, he places sudden eruptions of violence sporadically and deliberately throughout, giving them maximum impact.
Peckinpah doesn’t forget to have some fun, either. Even amid the film’s somber tone, Billy the Kid delivers what may be the greatest one liner ever, after he fires a shotgun-shell filled with dimes through a deputy: “Keep the change, Bob.” He smirks as the deputy recoils from the force of the blast, bright orange fake blood erupting from the squibs. It’s one of those classic movie moments that would make even the most ardent pacifist “oooh” in delight.
But it is the aforementioned sadness and melancholy that is pervasive throughout the film where this movie’s true beauty lies. Dylan’s wistful score and the most beautiful photography Peckinpah ever shot provide a perfect backdrop as two old friends Pat and Billy reluctantly hunt one another down. The dynamic between the two characters, another change Peckinpah made to Wurlitzer’s original draft of the script, mirrors almost exactly that of the two leads in Wild Bunch, where Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton are old friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the law.
In another shift in tone from Wild Bunch, Pat and Billy don’t long to get the old gang back together to rob trains and shoot sheriffs. They just want to put this whole manhunt thing behind them and get a drink. Coburn and Kristofferson do an excellent job of looking wearier and wearier each time their respective characters must gun another man down in defense of their freedom. What we’re seeing in these scenes is a glimpse into the psyche of Peckinpah who, for a moment, seems to be reflecting on his own feelings of the violence he is so fascinated with. It’s easy to imagine him thinking that the enthusiasm with which his previous films embraced violence was misguided, and that the Old West wasn’t filled with hardened gunfighters but rather with flawed and lonely travelers struggling to find identity.
The film’s symbolism doesn’t get much more pronounced, or more meta, than during Peckinpah’s own cameo as a coffin-maker near the end of the film, greeting Pat just as he zeroes in on Billy’s hideout. “So you finally figured it out eh?” says Peckinpah, slouched over an unfinished coffin as Garrett reluctantly accepts his fate. “Go on, get it over with,” Peckinpah says, nodding towards the hideout. As Garrett fires a round from his revolver at Billy, Peckinpah fires a bullet through the heart of the Western. America’s love affair with the Old West as mythologized in fiction had come to an unceremonious end.
The film’s set was once again plagued with difficulties, as Peckinpah’s drinking binges continued. His fights with the studio over budgets escalated to new levels of hostility. James Coburn once commented in an interview that MGM president James Aubrey was even reluctant to pay for a technician to go down to Mexico to fix malfunctioning camera lenses. Much of the cast and crew were struck by bouts of influenza during the shooting. Producer Gordon Carroll described the set as a “battleground”. Shooting on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid finished three weeks late. The final product that hit theaters was once again cut by the studios, removing over 15 minutes of footage from Peckinpah’s proposed version. Peckinpah was devastated that his work had yet again been tampered with.
The theatrical cut is largely incoherent due to the removal of crucial scenes to the film’s narrative, and critical response was largely negative. The film managed to earn its meager budget back at the box office, but it was still considered a flop, grossing just under ten million USD. However, the rediscovered Preview Cut, now available on video along with a reconstructed “Special Edition”, is a revelation, and is a testament to Peckinpah’s skill as a filmmaker. Although primarily known in the public consciousness for violent carnage, he was able under the circumstances to create one of the most sad, beautiful and captivating Westerns ever made.