Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
Momentous anniversaries and milestones often are a cause for reflection or something special. I’d love to say that I have something special planned for this; as it turns out, this is the 1,000th review to be posted on this site. I’ve (after this) written 952 from The List and put up another 48 of one type or another. But there’s no retrospective here, nor a film that I love especially much. Instead, it’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which just happened to be what came in from NetFlix today. Nothing particularly meaningful to me. I guess the momentous thing will happen when I hit this number from The List or 1,000 posts. Or maybe not.
This film was directed by Sam Peckinpah, and that means a few things. It means slow-motion violence for one thing. It means that when someone gets shot (and someone gets shot a lot in this film), the bullet tends to go through the person and out the other side. It means a lot of blood spray. It’s what made Peckinpah who he was, and especially with Westerns, it’s not that easy to step away from what made you a great director in the eyes of the viewing public.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is a former outlaw, now a sheriff. He’s been tasked with tracking down Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) and bringing him to justice. But the two used to ride together and they know each other well. There’s no real animosity between them. Garrett is doing the job he’s been paid to do and Billy wants to stay out of the law’s way and stay alive. The whole film is essentially a long chase punctuated with bits of gunplay.
Peckinpah, love him or hate him, does gunplay extremely well. He also does it far more realistically than the typical director of older Westerns. No one gets shot in the hand and shakes it off or shot in the shoulder and acts like it was just a bee sting. No, people really get hurt here, and a gunshot wound is a serious thing that usually proves fatal to the victim. Peckinpah might be said to be reveling in the carnage, and he might be, but it’s more than that. There seems to be a desire for a kind of brutal poetry, a ballet of death when someone is shot and we see that trailing stream of blood shooting out his back.
What strikes me as strange about this film is the comparison between the cast it sports and how that cast is used. There are some pretty big names here as well as a good number of character actors, and many of them get only a scene or two before they end up on the business end of a bullet. Harry Dean Stanton—a personal favorite character actor—doesn’t have nearly enough to do. Cock-eyed Jack Elam has basically two scenes. The great Slim Pickens shows up, rides out, and dies. Jason Robards has a scene or two. And yet completely inexperienced as an actor Bob Dylan is in damn near the whole film as an outlaw named Alias. He probably has more lines than Stanton, Elam, Pickens, and Robards combined. Don’t get me wrong; I like Bob Dylan and I appreciated the Dylan soundtrack through the bulk of the film. It just doesn’t seem right somehow. On the other hand, the cast list of good actors in bit roles is pretty impressive.
There’s a very strange feel and tone to the film. As just mentioned, characters tend to show up, say a line or two, and get a belly full of lead. The film feels almost episodic because of this, and while the story is very simple, it can be difficult to follow at times because of the large number of characters. It’s difficult to find a place of firm footing here because everyone dies so quickly and so violently that it’s really easy to lose track. This may be in part due to the controversy that surrounded the film on its release. Peckinpah edited the film down to 124 minutes, but the studio slashed 18 minutes out of it. The version I watched tonight falls square in the middle of those two versions at 115 minutes. So what got lost? Would the missing footage give me a little more depth on the various small character roles?
What makes the biggest difference here, what really elevates the film, is the story. It would be disturbingly easy to turn this into a standard Western revenge drama. I’m certain this was tempting. Billy is captured by Garrett early on, but Billy escapes, killing two of Garrett’s deputies, one by shooting him in the back. But Garrett isn’t looking for revenge. Instead, he’s just doing the job that he was paid to do. That’s sort of the point here. His duty is paramount, and supersedes his friendship with Billy. It’s business, no different from anything else.
I enjoyed this film fairly well, but it’s a strange one to recommend. It’s not a Western, but a Peckinpah Western, and that means certain things. The Wild Bunch is a better introduction to the man’s work, but this is a worthy one for sometime later.
Why to watch Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: For as great as his many films are, it may well be his best.
Why not to watch: So many characters show up, look important, and then die that it’s difficult to keep track.