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Movie Review: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – Western Ballads and Gunslingers

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Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), directed by Sam Peckinpah, stars James Coburn (Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy the Kid), Richard Jaeckel (Sheriff Kip McKinney), Katy Jurado (Mrs. Baker), Barry Sullivan (Chisum), Jason Robards (Govenor Wallace), Bob Dylan (Alias), and Rita Coolidge (Maria), among sundry others.

Pat Garrett dispatched Billy the Kid back in 1881. Historical accounts claim that Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County and set off with a posse to arrest Billy. The bounty was reportedly for 500 dollars. This movie is a fairly accurate account of the sequence of events, or a pretty accurate account of the way the story is re-told. Who knows what is true?

Peckinpah is one of those directors that you can't really say anything bad about since his status is so cemented in the critical canon. Far be it from me to argue with that, not that I feel any particular need to.

This movie had trouble in production; the studio wanted one thing, the director another, and that usually makes for some serious cutting and arguing. Sometimes time is actually on the director's side; as they gain notoriety they can re-cut and re-edit and make something more like what they actually wanted to begin with.

Watching this movie over 30 years after it was made is actually more interesting for that reason as well. I get the feeling that Peckinpah wanted to make a ballad. There are too many atmospheric scenes and the landscape is as much a character as the interminably slouching figure of Kris Kristofferson. James Coburn is just the right kind of disaffected and worn-down and you can sense the fatigue there as clear as day. Bob Dylan's Alias is the perfect trickster character with his odd ways and strange intonation.

You can probably mine a lot of mythology out of this particular epic and all of it is right there for the taking. It will help you forgive the things that date the movie, like the somewhat sloppy nudity. This is very much a macho world, as it would be, and topics are dealt with in a way that is congruent with that. These are the things you come to expect from a director like Peckinpah and that's all good and fine. It's like reading Hemingway. You just have to go with it.

Standing the test of time is a hard thing to do for anyone in a medium as fast-paced and malleable as the movies. Peckinpah is on the list of great directors, auteurs, that you have to forge a relationship with if you have more than a cursory interest in cinema and there are good reasons why.

This is still more of a ballad than a western movie as you tend to think of them at their most iconic. It has strange and unexpected depths as well as moments of levity. It has horses and landscape and gun fights and whiskey. It has outlaws and sheriffs and cock fights and dust. It also has a lyrical quality and a soundtrack that feels only too familiar. Bob Dylan wrote “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” for this movie, and that about sums it all up.

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