During the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, no one explored the issue of violence and its social effects more effectively than director Sam Peckinpah. Between his 1969 Western “The Wild Bunch” and urban crime film “The Killer Elite” (1975) Peckinpah made one of the finest revisionist Westerns that was completely overlooked by filmgoers, partly because the studio took the final cut out of Peckinpah’s hands and sliced over fifteen minutes out of it. The unique 1973 film was “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” and starred James Coburn as Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. It contained an original score by pop songwriter Bob Dylan.
The film’s controversial history involved MGM using six editors to construct a release print that tried to make sense of the film’s seemingly complex narrative, which essentially removed key parts of Peckinpah’s preferred preview print of 122 minutes. And like Warner Brothers hacking of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” several years later, it would be over a decade before the public saw a director’s intended cut of the film. Peckinpah sadly passed in 1984 before Turner Home Entertainment released his final cut on video. Neil Fulwood describes the director’s cut in his 2002 book “The Films of Sam Peckinpah”—“a film that was unromantic as it was mythical.”
Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer crafted this tale recalling the unique friendship between the pair who once rode together as outlaws and how Garrett is later hired by a group of wealthy cattle barons to hunt down the Kid. It’s an always interesting film of subtle images and nuances, with actually a simple chase plot. The film begins in New Mexico in 1909 and loops back to 1881. The beginning credit sequence is very reminiscent of “The Wild Bunch” with the violent images of a half dozen more cruel gunslingers shooting chickens shown while cast credits are periodically frozen in still shots.
In 1881 Garrett is given a badge to act as a lawman to find the Kid. Then after an initial capture of the Kid in a shootout by a small New Mexico cabin, the Kid manages a violent escape from a small town lockup. Later in a meeting with Governor of the New Mexico territory, Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) and two prominent cattlemen, Garrett is offered a reward of $1,000 and firmly requested to rid their land of the Kid. They remind Garrett of the important political and business interests of a lawful New Mexico.
Although both Coburn and Kristofferson were much older than their real counterparts– 31-year-old Garrett and 21-year-old Billy the Kid–, both deliver heartfelt performances. In his black hat, vest and jacket, smoking a thin cigar the soft-spoken tough Coburn is a cool menacing presence. Kristofferson, in only his third film, plays the cocky, smart-ass convincingly.
The film’s rich supporting cast includes many unique faces of Westerns past: Richard Jaeckel as Sheriff Kip McKinney, Slim Pickens as Sheriff Baker, Jack Elam as Alamosa Bill, Harry Dean Stanton as Luke and newcomers like, singers Rita Coolidge as Maria (Kristofferson’s future bride) and Bob Dylan, as the eccentric soft-spoken, knife slinging, Alias.
Cinematographer John Coquillon’s expressive photography, especially the use of lighting makes the rugged terrain of the Mexican locales seem almost like Western artwork. In several distinct scenes, a silhouetted cowboy is viewed on horseback against a dark desert horizon, while moments later the reflections of the same figures are slowly seen in a nearby pond. Or, just before Garrett shoots the Kid he quietly sits in the dark outside a boarding house room, while the Kid makes love to his Mexican sweetheart. The elegance of such shots contrasts with the more brutal bloody, slow-motion gun battles that are earlier shown.
The critical opinions of the time of the initial release were very mixed. Roger Ebert begins his May 1973 review of the film, giving it a meager 2-star rating and noting, ”Sam Peckinpah attempted to have his name removed from “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” I sympathize with him.” Aljean Harmetz, the New York Times critic, stated in her review, “There are a half dozen things wrong with Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”…yet, it may well be Peckinpah’s best film.” …In my humble opinion, that honor goes to “The Wild Bunch.”
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” was Peckinpah’s last Western. In Garner Simmons’ biography “Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage” he concludes the chapter on “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” sadly lamenting, “Far too few people went to see what must be considered one of Peckinpah’s most memorable Westerns.”