Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

When maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah submitted his 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to MGM for release, the troubled studio was in the midst of a catastrophic shakeup. James Aubrey, a former television executive, had taken the reins and had initiated a policy that caused the studio to turn away from the big-budget vehicles that helped earn its motto, "More stars than there are in the heavens," in favor of undistinguished vehicles populated by lesser names. Many films, including those produced under the previous regime, were severely altered, chopped up beyond recognition by studio lackeys without the cooperation of the directors. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was one film so victimized.

The follow-up to Peckinpah’s biggest box-office hit, the exciting, if conventional, Steve McQueen-Ali Macgraw teaming, The Getaway, Peckinpah’s long awaited western made it to theaters in a version dramatically different from Peckinpah’s vision. Scenes were shifted, other scenes were chopped out completely, and the music score by Bob Dylan, whose role of Alias marked his film acting debut, was played up beyond what Peckinpah originally intended. This mangled version of the story of the west’s most famous outlaw was panned by the majority of critics and ignored by audiences.

The only winner turned out to be Dylan, whose album of the score proved a hit, spawning the top 20 single, "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," one of his most popular compositions.

In the early 90’s, after Peckinpah’s death, the film was restored to compliment his original vision and summarily released on home video. Some twenty minutes longer that the 103 minute edition that played theatrically in 1973, the result still leaves much to be desired.

The film opens with a dialogue between the title characters that seems to have been partly inspired by the presence of Dylan in the cast.

"How does it feel?" Billy asks his former friend Pat Garrett, quoting the famous refrain of "Like a Rolling Stone."

"It feels like times have changed," Garrett replies, paraphrasing the title of another famous Dylan anthem.

Either version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid suggests that, for Peckinpah, the times had indeed changed, and not for the better. He seems to have lost his ability to effectively tell a story. The film meanders from one lifeless scene to another, all too casually following Garrett’s pursuit of his former friend and, now, enemy. The lead performers, James Coburn as Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy, are entirely too low-key to create much interest in their conflict, and though there’s plenty of the director’s trademark violence, most of it just leaves one feeling indifferent, quite a contrast to the outrage that greeted the bloodbaths in Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch or 1971’s Straw Dogs.

Dylan’s mostly instrumental score, obtrusive in the mangled 1973 version, is now so toned down that it is barely noticeable. Worse, the vocal rendition of "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door," very prominent in 1973 and the only consistent point of interest in that version, has been scrapped completely, robbing the film of what little emotional power it had.

If Dylan’s music merits praise, his acting is of little consequence. He hangs around, more often than not in the background, utters a few insignificant lines of dialogue, and looks as charmingly awkward as Elvis Presley did in Love Me Tender. Dylan’s big scene is one in which he is humiliated by Garrett who instructs the "boy" to read the labels off the canned foods in a grocery store. "Pork and beans...beef stew," the legendary songwriter reads, enunciating in a way that makes him sound like one of his imitators. It’s intriguing to watch one of rock and roll’s most literate and intelligent practitioners reduced to such silliness, but little else about his appearance offers much of interest.

No western fan can complain about the rest of the cast, though, which is populated by enough familiar faces to qualify Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as a veritable tribute to the genre: Jack Elam, Paul Fix, Elisha Cook, Jr., R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens (whose death scene provides the film’s only memorable moment), Gene Evans, Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan, L.Q. Jones, and Richard Jaeckal all pop up, and to make the cast all the more interesting there’s Jason Robards as Governor Lew Wallace and singer Rita Coolidge to be glimpsed, as well. In the end, however, nothing can prevent Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid from escaping its reputation as a misfire and a boring one at that. Violent it may be, but unlike previous Peckinpah efforts, it lacks blood from anywhere but the special effects department.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


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