Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (#48)

The Favorites - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (#48)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973/USA/dir. Sam Peckinpah) appeared at #48 on my original list.

What it is • Pat Garrett (James Coburn), an old friend of robber and gunslinger Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), has taken a job as sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. His first visit to Billy is cheerful but foreboding, filled with a mutual understanding that their interests are slowly being pulled apart. Warm feelings aside, they will inevitably become enemies. Over the rest of the film, that understanding is borne out by events, as Garrett attacks and arrests Billy, then pursues him once he dodges the hangman. The dance of death is a game in this movie, in the classic fashion of westerns where lawmen and outlaws can fluidly switch sides, where each side knows the rules, and where all parties abide by a certain code of honor and respect...at least initially (in one version of Pat Garrett, the director himself pops up in a cameo near the end, to call the film's "hero" a "chickenshit badge-wearing sonofabitch"). Against such a backdrop, the violence could seem arbitrary, like a gladiatorial contest to prove who's the toughest, cleverest, and/or fastest draw. But this dance of death is also determined by larger, more powerful forces - in this case, Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) and the Santa Fe Ring, a cabal of wealthy, corrupt individuals who will eventually target Garrett as well. In real life, near as I can tell, Gov. Wallace (who incidentally wrote Ben-Hur, itself about a friendship falling prey to political power) actually fought against the notorious Ring. Within the film, however, we are given a sense of power operating without any moral considerations. The outlaws are certainly no worse than the politicians, and may be more honest: certainly Garrett does not come off well with his pitiless pursuit of old friends and adherence to a well-paying cause he doesn't believe in. To observe that the violence onscreen is meaningless is not to suggest it lacks gravity. This is most evident in the scene where Sheriff Colin Baker (Slim Pickens) is wounded in a shootout. He crawls off to stare at the dusk while his wife (Katy Jurado) drops to a knee at his side, tears streaming down her face. Depending which version of the film you see (and hear) "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" emerges on the soundtrack either with Bob Dylan's voice crackling in our ears or simply as a poignant instrumental (save for that spooky humming). Pickens turns to look past the camera with a haunted expression that speaks just as loudly as the iconic music. This overwhelming realization of mortality is among the most moving sequences I've ever witnessed in a work of art.

Why I like it •
When I crafted this list at the tail end of 2011, many of its entries were quite familiar to me. Some, like The Wizard of Oz, I'd seen for the first time more than two decades earlier. Others were more recent discoveries. No film, however, was newer to me than Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which I'd first rented a few weeks before placing it in my top fifty. Sometimes it takes me a while to conclude that a film is a favorite. I may not even like it much initially, until - through memory or repeat viewings - the film insinuates itself deeply into my consciousness. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whose checkered history began with its critical panning in 1973, wasn't like that: I was captured right away. I responded to the energy of the film's editing and Dylan's pathos-drenched score, but I especially responded to its themes and values, near-existential concepts about the fragility of life, fluidity of purpose, and the desperate loneliness of - pardon the expression - sticking to your guns. Neither half of the film's titular duo are particularly well-served by their choices, and their goals are often at complete cross-purposes. To describe the characters and plot doesn't really do them justice; as I type this, I find myself asking, "Why didn't Garrett refuse to do his job? Why didn't Billy just leave New Mexico when he was already asked?" But those questions aren't what linger after watching the film, not simply because it offers semi-plausible motivations or uses the caprice of art to escape logic, but because it exposes a deeper, exhausting truth about life itself, something intellectual analysis usually misses. The choices we make, and the fate we meet, feel as if they are at once out of our control and our own responsibility.

Appropriately, the movie itself (or should I say "movies"?) embodies this phenomenon. There are at least three different versions of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - please note that I selected the film for my Favorites based solely on the controversial 2005 Paul Seydor cut. Since then, I've watched the 1988 preview cut (I've still never seen the theatrical version), and find it has its own particular qualities to recommend. Both incarnations are flawed and powerful, each offering sharp evidence why Peckinpah's maligned masterpiece is one of the great late westerns. For more on the two cuts...

More from me • ...read my extended review of both editions for the Wonders in the Dark western countdown. Paul Seydor himself responded underneath my piece on Wonders in the Dark, offering some more perspective on why he made the decisions he did - it's a comment well worth reading for anyone who has even passing interest in Peckinpah and the film.

How you can see it • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is available for DVD rental from Netflix, which includes both the 2005 version and the 1988 version (on a bonus disc). It is available for digital rental or purchase from these sites.

What do you think? • Which version of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid do you prefer - and is there anything you prefer about the version you like less? How does Pat Garrett align with Peckinpah's other films - do you see a consistency, or a progression? When you watch the film, do you sympathize more with Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, or do your sympathies shift scene to scene?

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