Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Peckinpah. 1973)

"Comes an age in a man's life when he don't wanna spend time figuring what comes next."


If you are at all familiar with the history of the American old West then you at least know the ending to one of Sam Peckinpah’s forgotten classics. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a movie that had to deal with a significant amount of battles behind the scenes. MGM wanted it to look a certain way; Peckinpah did not agree with their vision. It had a total of six credited, and Lord knows how many un-credited, editors who were hired by both the studio and the director before anyone could agree on an actual final cut. Peckinpah famously tried to cut all ties to the movie, but I think he would recant that desire if anyone were to ask him today.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid does not feel like your typical western film. It features a score written by the music icon Robert Zimmerman. If you do not know already – that is Bob Dylan. I tend to like anything that Dylan touches. I even own one of his least successful albums, “Self Portrait” on vinyl. But sadly, the music in the film is awkward and off-putting. The title song is void of any tangible musical maturity and Dylan’s vocals are probably the worst that I have ever heard from him. I wish that this was not the case, but it sticks out pretty vividly throughout the movie.

With that being said, Dylan was able to garner a hit from the soundtrack. Now considered a classic tune, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is decently used in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It is featured in the death scene of Sherriff Baker (Slim Pickens) while his wife (Katy Jurado) watches and cries. It is nice to see Pickens in something that is more dramatic than Blazing Saddles. Do not get me wrong, I love that movie. But his voice, appearance and ability practically call out to be used in a dramatic role. Jurado is also nice to see, though it is interesting that the title characters are the exact opposite of the protagonist in her most famous movie – Will Kane in High Noon.

On the other hand, we have the almost unwatchable acting of Bob Dylan as Alias. Simply put, Dylan has no screen presence whatsoever. Because I thought that the music in the movie was silly I wanted to like his acting, but he looks to be shell-shocked when he is on camera. I highly doubt that the great Bob Dylan was camera shy during filming. Maybe, and I know that this may be a shocker, Dylan was pushed on Peckinpah by the studio and actually had no business being in a major motion picture.

But even with his extremely noticeable flaws in music and acting, Bob Dylan does not ruin Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In fact, the movie is still rather good. It follows the story of an outlaw turned lawman, Garrett, who was given a badge by the governor for one reason; it is Garrett’s job to rid his territory of Billy the Kid.

James Coburn is perfectly cast in this role. There is wisdom in his voice that immediately tells the audience that this man has been around the block a few times. In his first scene he warns Billy to leave the country. He does not want to kill the Kid. They used to run together as outlaws. But Garrett needs this job to stay relevant. “This country’s gettin’ old and I intend on gettin’ old with it”. He uses that line multiple times in the movie to explain his actions, but the audience knows he is not happy as a lawman. He regrets hunting the Kid, who may be the younger embodiment of what Garrett wishes he still was…

The highlight of the movie is the witty, charming and unobtrusive performance by singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. The audience knows that the Kid is a bad dude, but goodness is he charming. His banter with Garrett is wickedly sarcastic and Kristofferson delivers each line with a perfect combination of timing and believable wryness. In one of the more bloody scenes in the movie, the Kid shoots a shot gun filled with coins at one of his initial captors. As the coins rip through flesh and leave the victim dead in a pool of cheesy-looking blood, Kristofferson delivers a line that could have ruined his character’s mythos. He says “Keep the change, Bob!”, and the corny jokes keep coming when a he offers to pay a man for providing him with a horse: "There's a buck-sixty in old Bob if you can dig it out."

But those lines do not hurt the Kid’s bad-ass-er-y because they are delivered with a masterful sense of irony and jest. Kristofferson is not a great actor, but he is able to make himself into Billy the Kid. He initially decides to run from Garrett and escape over the border to Mexico, but after he sees how violent the manhunt has become he rides back into town intent on killing Garrett himself. Again, he is the opposite of the hero I am used to seeing in western movies, Billy the Kid is NOT Will Kane. Technically, Pat Garrett is the good guy in all of this, but the Kid had charisma. Give charisma to a villain and he turns into an anti-hero. That seems to be the American way.

My favorite scene in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid happens right before the final showdown between the two main characters. Garrett has found the kid, who is busy making love to a scarcely-developed love interest. He knows that he has finally found his outlaw and is about to make a major name for himself. The problem is that he will have to kill his friend in order to accomplish it. Torn, distraught and full of pain – Garrett sits on the porch swing and holds his head. It is impossible to know what he is thinking at the moment, but the audience can see that this is not an easy thing for him to do. He allows Billy to finish his love-making and then proceeds to the final gunfight.

I will not spoil the movie by telling you who wins at the end, but like I said before, if you are familiar with American history you should already know how it all turns out. Peckinpah tells a thin version of the actual story, but he does get the ending right. My biggest issue with the final fight is that there is absolutely no blood. Leading up to this point, gunshot wounds were accompanied with a virtual fountain of red, but the final gunshot is a major letdown. I am not saying that I need to see blood to be entertained, but a bloody ending would have fit the feel of the movie in a better way than what is actually shown.

Even with its flaws, I found Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to be an extremely pleasant viewing experience. Dylan was all-around awful, but it is still fun to see the legend as a young man who is obviously goofing off. Kristofferson has written some of my favorite songs including “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, but I think I will remember him more now as an incredible Billy the Kid. I cannot see why Sam Peckinpah would want to take his name off of a film this entertaining. I may lose my already small audience, but I liked his work on this far more than I like him on Straw Dogs. There, I said it…..

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: B+

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