Pat Garrett is hired as a lawman on behalf of a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down his old friend Billy the Kid.
Ol' Pat... Sheriff Pat Garrett. Sold out to the Santa Fe ring. How does it feel?
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Rudy Wurlitzer. It stars James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills and Barry Sullivan. Music is scored by Bob Dylan and cinematography by John Coquillon.
One time they were friends, cohorts in crime, but now Pat Garrett is the law and his objective is to bring down Billy the Kid.
It seems to be an absolute when writing about a Sam Peckinpah film that it was plagued by studio interference. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is no exception, the back story to which tells of behind the scenes clashes, bizarre cuts and a disownment of the film by cast and crew. Thankfully through the advent of time and technological advancements, it's one of the Peckinpah movies that can now be seen in a true light. A good job, too, since it's one of Bloody Sam's finest movies. My personal preference is for the TCM Preview version, and that is what is reviewed here.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid finds Peckinpah at his lyrical and elegiacal best, the old west is dying and as it is told through the eyes of aging Pat Garrett (Coburn), it's meticulously played out via an unhurried narrative structure. Time is afforded the key players, helping the story unfold its bitter take on the frontier changes as greed begets violence, Peckinpah wryly observing that the newly appeared good guys are no better than the bad guys, hence The Kid's (Kristofferson) reputation as a dandy likable outlaw becomes assured in spite of his less than honourable traits as a human being, but he at least is honourable to his codes.
Film contains many memorable scenes, scenes fit to grace any Western. A shoot-out and aftermath involving Pickens and Jurado has poignancy in abundance, Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door tenderly filtered over the top of it. A duel featuring Jack Elam is another that resonates highly, great character moments are plentiful, performed by a roll call of Western movie legends, Peckinpah knew how to pick a cast and then some. Moments of violence are dotted throughout, Bloody Sam's trademark, as is cross-cuts, sepia tones and slow-mo. The great director even makes a Christ allegory not come off as cheap, and a self loathing mirror sequence strikes a significant chord.
This is a film big on characterisations, it's not just a film of visual touches, be it the dual psychological conflict between Pat and Billy, or the ream of peripheral players, everything they do is detailed and designed to capture the period and atmosphere of the changing times, the environment that folk inhabit, on either side of the law, is a big issue. No frame is wasted, MGM and their head honcho James Aubrey in their ignorance failed to see this fact. While the cast turn in damn fine work and Coquillon's burnished photography is striking and perfect for the director's vision.
It's undeniably downbeat, and the slow pace isn't to everyone's liking, but this is up with the other Peckinpah Western greats, The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country. A truly great Western crafted by a truly great director. 9/10
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Sam Peckinpah, Rudy Wurlitzer.
Stars: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel.
Genres: Biography, Drama, Western
Keywords: sheriff aging billy the kid lawlessness gun battle gore breast old friends flogging pat garrett manhunt
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