Peckinpah’s Elegy: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid at 50

Every Western is essentially an elegy. 

Even within the most cynical of 70’s titles—many of which were considered not simply revisionist Westerns, but Anti-Westerns—there is the recognition that for whatever hypocrisies and atrocities were committed in the name of westward expansion, there at least existed the ideal of freedom, camaraderie, and honor, and that the death of those virtues in the name of modernity and progress (read: corporate capitalism) was something to be raged at and mourned over.

Of the artists working in the period known as New Hollywood (roughly 1968 – 1980), none raged nor mourned as hard as Sam Peckinpah, and never more so than in 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, his final Western (unless we count the following year’s neo-western-noir, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), which he considered his definitive statement on the subject.

But that film, which turns 50 years old this month, is more than just an artist’s elegy for the genre with which he’s most closely associated. Nor is it merely an elegy for the American West (in myth or truth). It is, ultimately, Peckinpah’s elegy for himself. Death haunts every frame of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and it’s no mere exercise in existentialism; we are watching Peckinpah deal with the reality of his own fast-encroaching mortality. 

By the mid-’70s, Peckinpah had already helped reshape the Western a couple of times over, first in 1962 with his sophomore feature, Ride the High Country, often considered the last true “classic” Western, and then more explosively with his 1969 opus The Wild Bunch. That latter film remains one of the most controversial ever made, thanks to the sheer scale and intensity of its violence, the likes of which had never before been seen by audiences.

The notoriety of The Wild Bunch, combined with the personal notoriety that followed “Bloody” Sam everywhere he went (thanks to his volatile temper and penchant for booze, coke, guns, and women), established him as one of the era’s many posterboys for troubled genius, bringing with it the usual mix of celebration and trouble. The period between The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett was one of hills and valleys for Peckinpah: his slowburn domestic thriller Straw Dogs (1972) sparked off a fresh round of outrage and controversy, keeping him in the center of the cinematic zeitgeist, while his high-octane adaptation of Jim Thompson’s crime thriller The Getaway (1972) scored him a much-needed commercial hit. However, the films he made before and between—The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Junior Bonner (1972)—both of which showed a quieter and indeed gentler side of his artistic temperament, failed at the box office, leading him to grouse that all anybody wanted from him was blood and guts.

Enter Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, originally penned by Rudolph Wurlitzer as a project for his Two-Lane Blacktop director Monte Hellman, which would, in Peckinpah’s hands, combine both facets of his work, the quiet and the violent, the gentle and the brutal. 

Filmed in Durango, Mexico, and set along the border towns of Old and New Mexico in the year 1881 (minus a bloody bookend framing device added by Peckinpah), the story picks up in media res, after the events of the famous Lincoln County War—which turned 17-year-old cattle rustler and gunslinger William H. Bonney (née Henry McCarty) into the fugitive and folk hero known as Billy the Kid—have already taken place. 

Now 21, The Kid (Kris Kristofferson, aged 36 and looking it) is hanging out in La Cruces with what remains of his gang, trying to figure out his next move when his old friend and former posse member Pat Garrett (James Couburn) shows up as the new Sheriff of Lincoln County. He gives Billy a few days to clear out of the territory and escape to Mexico (knowing that he won’t), before setting off on a manhunt for his old compadre. Along the way, both Garrett and Billy encounter several former allies who, like each of them, have switched sides—Billy having once been a lawman and Garrett the outlaw—leading to a number of showdowns which all sides are unhappily obliged to carry to their mortal limit. (Loyalty and betrayal is one of the defining themes of Peckinpah’s Westerns, and here it finds its apotheosis.) 

Peckinpah has zero interest in explicating his characters’ history through exposition, expecting his audience to already be familiar with the broader story of Garrett and Billy, or else trusting them to catch up and follow along without them. This gives his film a real lived-in quality (one greatly bolstered by the sparse but impeccable set design), as well as a sense of weariness that distinguishes it from other similar deconstructions of our national myths. By the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the viewer feels like they’ve wandered into an epic at the start of its third act, yet rather than subtract from the story’s power, this feeling enhances it.

Mostly, this is a result of Peckinpah’s mastery of tone. While its detractors–of which there are a fair share—charge the film as ponderous and languid, Pat Garrett is by no means an unwieldy work. It is a slow-burn of a movie made up of mostly quiet scenes, although many erupt in bursts of action. It does not quite fall into the category of transcendental (or, alternatively, “slow”) cinema as originally defined by Paul Schrader (and subsequently adopted by future generations of critics and artists), but it does take on the rhythms of the European and Asian arthouse directors, such as Dryer, Antonioni, and Ozu, who served as the foundation for that school of cinema, even as it anticipates the style of Terrence Malick (whose own debut, Badlands, which also tells the story of an infamous American manhunt, would debut a few months later) and his acolytes (amongst which number 21st century Westerns Meek’s Cutoff and particularly The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). 

All of Peckinpah’s movies are big on killing, but Pat Garrett is truly death-haunted. Death, Peckinpah seems to be saying in his definitive statement on America’s Wild West, is that epoch’s defining feature. Everything in the film reminds of death—a half finished boat and a kitchen door are both stand ins for coffins, while Peckinpah himself shows up in a cameo towards the end as a weary coffin maker.  

The people who populate this land, meanwhile, are as inured to death as can be. Children are seen playing on a hangman’s scaffold (giant American flag flying proud behind them) and watch blank-eyed as two men who just shared a meal at the family dinner table step outside and turn their guns on one another. Most of the individuals who meet their end over the course of the story—including Charles A. Smith’s young bandit, R. G. Armstrong’s brutal Jesus-freak jailer, Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones’s seasoned outlaw, character actor great Jack Elam’s newly-minted deputy, and(in the film’s most moving and famous scene, a lakeside goodbye set to Bob Dylan’s instantly iconic “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”) genre staple Slim Picken’s gutshot sheriff—do so with a somber stoicism that conveys exhaustion more than acceptance, while still affording them dignity.

The title characters, meanwhile, take opposite tacks as they head towards their appointments with death. Peckinpah’s movie comes laden with religious symbolism, and it’s clear from early on that we’re watching an Americanized version of the story of Jesus and Judas. Billy the Kid is the Christ figure (in case this wasn’t already obvious, Kristofferson strikes a crucifix pose at one point), attempting to deny his fate before ultimately returning from his wanderings in the desert to accept it, while Garrett is the former apostle betraying his friend for his thirty pieces of silver (“This country’s getting old,” he says at one point, “and I aim to get old with it”). Like Judas did when he fingered Jesus to the Romans, Garrett’s actions are not merely murderous, but ultimately suicidal. Immediately upon bushwacking Billy in the dark, Garrett fires a bullet into his own reflection in a nearby mirror, and, as seen in the aforementioned framing device, we watch as Garrett himself is eventually assassinated by the same cabal that hired him to kill Billy.

Heady stuff, even for the ‘70s, so it should come as no surprise that—as with pretty much every movie he would make subsequently—Peckinpah found himself fighting MGM over final cut (Kristofferson tells a story of watching studio-edited dailies alongside co-star Dylan, when Peckinpah suddenly stood up, pulled out his pecker, and started pissing on the screen). Ultimately, the studio won out, releasing a truncated version that was met with bafflement by the critics and ignored by audiences (even as Dylan’s beautiful motion picture soundtrack went on to become a hit record).  

This truly marked the beginning of the end for Peckinpah. While Pat Garrett was neither his last personal film nor his last masterpiece—Alfredo Garcia came out the very next year, while the similarly trouble-plagued WWII epic Cross of Iron was released three years after that—the handful of other films he made, for however interesting they are, betray a marked decline in his skills as an artist. His drinking got worse, and his health continued to abate, until finally he passed away from complications of heart failure at the age of 59, only 11 years after making Garrett.

Not long after his passing, a new cut of the film much closer to his preview version, dubbed The Turner Cut, was produced for television airings. Like several other notable examples, it got play on the infamous Z-Channel, which helped restore its reputation as a lost masterwork. In 2005, a new edition combining both the theatrical and the Turner Cut was released on home video and today stands as the definitive version of the film (it’s also the one you can find on streaming). 

Fitting that Peckinpah’s bloody Christ allegory should end with an act of resurrection.

“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is available for digital rental or purchase.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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