Lost in the Movies: Western Countdown - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

Western Countdown - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

This review, my first in over six months (the longest gap since Lost in the Movies began in 2008), is an entry in the Wonders in the Dark western countdown, where the 1973 Sam Peckinpah picture was voted #30. The piece has been cross-posted on Wonders, and you can visit that site for more comments and discussion.

Movies are motifs and moments as well as stories - individual, isolated campfires flickering in the desert dusk and not just landscapes strung together by a stretch of lonesome road. Perhaps Westerns more than most other narrative films rely on this identification with details rather than plot development. Indeed, often the plots exist as clotheslines over which to string the details: the kids playing in the dirt staring up in awe at the outlaws riding nonchalantly through town, the bedroom sequence in which a lonely drifter becomes loquacious with a local whore, the banter over whisky at the bar (nobody drinks beer in saloons, it seems). Audiences go to Westerns - or went to Westerns when they were more popular - less to experience surprise twists and turns in a novelistic story than to gaze with affection and curiosity at a portrait of a time and place both familiar and foreign.

"Revisionist" directors like Sam Peckinpah may have upset and upturned conventions, but they also honored and expanded upon those conventions in the first place. Watching films like The Wild Bunch today, their once-groundbreaking violence no longer shocks; one is struck instead by the ways in which they feel nostalgic or old-fashioned. They exude a sense of affectionate camaraderie which one seldom finds outside of buddy comedies (albeit sans stoicism) in 2013. Perhaps no Western more acutely captures the passage from warm if rough camaraderie into brooding, suspicious isolation than Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). Even stylistically, the film - particularly when comparing its various incarnations (three have been released over the years) - is torn between a sense of long, lingering (perhaps excessive) attention to detail and a relentless march toward an inevitable outcome.

That inevitable outcome is not just outlaw Billy the Kid's (Kris Kristofferson's) demise at the end of his old friend Sheriff Pat Garret's (James Coburn's) pistol (described in the opening scene before we even flash back to meet Billy); it's also Garrett's own death, shown in that same opening (and bookending the movie in the mostly widely-acclaimed cut of the film). Indeed, the film is essentially a grim march of death scenes; it isn't as bloody as The Wild Bunch, and I doubt its body count is as high; however, the shootouts are spread out across the entire length of the film rather than clustered into certain intense sequences, and virtually all the characters killed are personally introduced to us before they die. The result reads less as grisly-but-gorgeous slo-mo carnage and more as morbid emotionally-charged fatalism: to put it another way, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is less about violence than death. Not only the death of individuals, but of the lifestyle and sensibility they represent - a land of the mind and not just physical space, in which men (and the occasional woman who isn't a meek hanger-on, like Sheriff Baker's (Slim Pickens') wife Mama) write the rules by instinct and mutual understanding rather than codified power hypocritically masked as "law" and "justice."

All versions of the film follow the same general storyline: after paying a friendly yet threatening visit to his old chums, Pat Garrett follows through on his early warning by arresting Billy when he refuses to leave the county that Garrett (a former member of Billy's gang) was elected to protect. Billy then escapes captivity and avoids a hanging by killing Garret's deputies (one of whom was once a member of his gang; the other is a fanatical Christian whose most famous line, "I'll take you for a walk across Hell on a spiderweb!" was cut in the most recent revision). The rest of the movie cuts between Garrett's quest to fulfill his duty and Billy's half-hearted evasion. In fact, rather than pursuing and fleeing, the men are engaged in a kind of dance of death - Garrett seems ambivalent about actually tracking down his old pal, while Billy's wounded sense of loyalty demands an ultimate confrontation rather than a safe escape. Along the way, both men see how the West around them is changing, how it's being "fenced in" as Billy the Kid puts it resentfully, by the very people whom Garrett essentially works for - personified by the ruthless Chisholm, the offscreen wealthy landowner. Increasingly it seems that whoever wins this long-distance duel, both men will be losers as the frontier fades (a sentiment confirmed by the latter-day assassination framing the film).

The role of "the law" in all this is ambiguous. Not that the legitimacy of law itself is treated ambivalently; clearly Peckinpah and his characters, except for those explicitly painted as contemptuous, have no respect for official authority, viewing it as a flimsy facade concealing the power of certain men to squeeze others. This of course romanticizes frontier justice, which was often just another, more rugged form of exploitation and brutality, but then Pat Garrett is nothing if not romantic. Yet the ambiguity exists because regardless of Peckinpah's (and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer's) hatred of law enforcement hypocrisy, the central question isn't "the letter of the law" but a deeper-cutting existential question: how long can a man exist on the edge, how far along it can he go? And when he's chosen a different path, for whatever reason, how far must he go in rejecting his former life? The same question exists for Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) in The Wild Bunch, who accepts that as a professional duty he must hunt down and destroy former comrades but resists internalizing the conception that sees them as outlaws and his own course as any more justified (or even equally justified) than theirs.

Garrett doesn't get off as easily as Thornton, and so the film is his tragedy, not Billy's - since Billy is lucky to be a martyr for a myth, a myth which Peckinpah seems to embrace. (Indeed, there's something a bit merciless in how purely and unashamedly Billy plows down everyone less cocksure than himself; take Jack Elam's Alamosa Bill Kermit, placed against his will in an untenable situation and still made to feel ignoble when Billy shoots him down.) By the end of the film, Pat Garrett must not only do his duty, he must lose his dignity in the process; this makes him both more sympathetic than the charismatic but almost inhumanly unfettered Billy, and sometimes more contemptible. Take the scene in which Garrett ruthlessly baits and then kills one of Billy's crew: this may be the moment in which he quits dithering between being a half-hearted agent of authority and the brutalizing arrogant enforcer - finally he accepts that he must be the bad guy (at least in a world where the lawman rather than the outlaw is seen as such).

Every Garrett scene pushes toward this point, including the one in which his wife castigates him for selling his soul and warns that she may not be there anymore when he returns home after killing Billy. We begin to get the sense that Garrett made a miscalculation from which he can't withdraw; offered a trade-off between the freedom of his youth and the security of middle age, he was in fact trading honest camaraderie for lonely power. Not for nothing does Peckinpah show Garrett swinging alone on a porch bench in the climactic scene, while Billy gets to frolic with a lover inside. The movie is filled with card-playing and Garrett only slowly realizes the cards he has put down and picked up were not worth what he thought. His final line, barking at a government toady, is "What you want and what you get are two different things!"; tellingly this is both an assertion of his power and a lament for his futility.

That line, along with the wife scene and many other notable moments, is not in all available versions of the movie. In 1973, MGM hacked up Peckinpah's film so mercilessly that the result (almost universally panned, and disowned by the filmmaker himself) has been rarely shown since (I haven't seen it). The 1988 "preview cut" of Pat Garret & Billy the Kid (more or less the version Sam Peckinpah himself screened for friends before his death) honors that first conception and is decisively "termitic" to use critic Manny Farber's coinage: it is a film that focuses on sustaining & developing moments over momentum. Meanwhile, the 2005 "definitive edition" is accepted as definitive by few; editor and Peckinpah devotee Paul Seydor emphasizes the drive of the story, cutting down and repositioning scenes to streamline the storytelling. There are numerous differences, large and small, between the two later versions which I won't describe here (this Listology post does a good job detailing them) but there are some very notable and telling contrasts.

The first and most remarked upon is Seydor's strange decision to remove Peckinpah's favored approach to the opening credits with Wild Bunch-esque freeze frames crosscutting between Garrett getting mowed down in 1908 and Billy and his pals shooting the heads off chickens in 1881. Peckinpah's opening is arresting, grisly, and woundingly poetic, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the film with its heightened sense of doom and destruction. On the other hand, many approve of Seydor's decision to include the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", excluded in favor of a quieter instrumental version in the "preview cut" (Dylan also appears in the film itself as the oddball, enigmatic observer Alias, a mostly irrelevant if occasionally amusing supporting character).

At the moment, I have to say I'm one of those who prefers Seydor's aesthetic choice. As Slim Pickens' character, shot in the belly, stumbles off into the sunset and his wife weeps by his side, the words of Dylan hit us like bullets to our own gut and the effect is overwhelming. This may not be as subtle as the earlier incarnation, but damnit, I don't think it's the time to be subtle. I suppose I'm partial because I saw the 2005 version first, and was absolutely blown away by the frisson between Dylan's parched vocals and Pickens' absolutely heartbreaking expression, a mixture of pride, pain, and perplexity - since I didn't see the "preview cut" until tonight, it was the lyric-accompanied scene I had in mind when I named this one of my favorite scenes of all time in a recent poll. On the other hand, Seydor cut the "Paris, France" line (one of Billy's sidekicks sarcastically explaining where Billy has gone), and it's missed.

Elsewhere, Seydor cuts out what he sees as the fat of various scenes, and truthfully his cut flows much better than the "preview" version that Peckinpah clung to. That edition, with its longueurs, has a shaggy dog feel at times. I don't think too many sequences were rearranged and yet the shape of the film feels quite different, more immediately satisfying - one is reminded of Dede Allen's advice that cutting what comes before a given moment can change that given moment more than cutting anything within it. Watching the "preview cut" tonight for the first time, after falling in love with the '05 version several years ago (not even realizing how controversial it was until later) I began to suspect that some of the complaints against Seydor resulted from fans' overattachment to the version they'd seen first. And yet...

What is lost, left on the cutting room floor by Seydor's overactive scissors, includes many moments of jagged insight or poetic emphasis. There's that strange "spiderweb" line already mentioned, but also the almost naively "tough" way a surrounded gang of bandits tries to play cards while one of them is dying, the goofy yet singular scene in which Garrett's humorless accomplice Poe (John Beck) extracts a confession some fey old men (turn your head sideways and you'll note that's Elisha Cook, Jr. lying on the bed, in a brief cameo), and especially the brief, gruff, almost startling sneak appearance by Peckinpah himself near the end - partially included in the '05 recut but without his stinging send-off: "When are you gonna learn, Garrett? You can't trust anyone...not even yourself, you chickenshit badge-wearing son of a bitch." The director appears to be counseling not just the character onscreen, but himself in light of the upcoming battles with studio authorities.

While I'm glad the Seydor version exists for points of contrast - and also perhaps as a point of introduction (it worked as such for me) - ultimately it's hard not to see a certain sad coincidence with the theme of the film. Just as Garrett tries to fit in, only to find that in doing so he loses his soul, so by cleaning up the movie much of its ragged yet deep-cutting power is diluted (as Neil Fulwood notes, "the ideal cut of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' would be a mixture of the 1988 and 2005 incarnations" but again we turn to Garrett's closing line in response). Granted, the dilemma is not nearly so pronounced here - the '05 edition is still strong, in some sense even superior, and it's the only version I knew when ranking the film in my personal top 50. And yet the ways in which it falls short are worth noting, bringing to mind the doubtlessly far more ravaged studio cut of '73. One imagines that version as something like Billy's and Garrett's nightmare of the West to come: all that open space, with its roughness and tedium but also its soul-piercing clarity and emotional freedom, settled and "civilized" and neutered of what made it so special. Peckinpah didn't live to share his vision of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid with the wider world but between the two versions available now, at least what he wanted and what we get can come a little bit closer together.

Paul Seydor, the editor of the '05 version, responded to this essay at Wonders in the Dark where he clarified his approach (less subjective than I had assumed). His comment is definitely worth reading.

This was my fifth time contributing to a Wonders in the Dark genre countdown. Two years ago, I created a picture-prose visual essay for The Gay Divorcee, a video essay and prose piece for 42nd Street, and a prose essay on An American in Paris for the musical countdown. Last year, I created a video essay on Modern Times for the comedy countdown. Wonders in the Dark has also held horror, animation, and noir countdowns in which the contributors were more limited, in some cases down to a single person. All are worth checking out.

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