Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

Out here there is nothing. A landscape that will soon enough be dotted with Stuckey’s restaurants, ski resorts and neo-hippie art klatches is still a vast and arid tract of land, fit breeding ground for outsized mythologies to be born and passed down a hundred years or more. The wind whips across a rough circular track winding through the mesas and yuccas and the goddamn gypsum seas, and from high above we can see two men moving along it on horseback. As one moves, so moves the other, their paths carrying them through a cluster of crumbling adobe towns with names like White Pines, Tularosa, Three Rivers, Old Fort Sumner. They cover their crescent-shaped routes at an even pace, and the care they take to swing roundabout each other suggests they have their reasons for maintaining their polarized positions, like the opposite ends of a compass needle or the full stops in a pendulum’s arc. Only when one of them refuses to move any farther will the other be able to close in, and the two will breathe life into the irony that sustains their legends to this day: one will have to die but live forevermore; the other will survive but only as a living ghost.

More than one critic has noted the self-lacerating quality of Sam Peckinpah’s work — it was Pauline Kael who said that his films make you feel he’s tearing himself apart on the screen — and the strongest evidence of this tendency might be found in his cinematic dirge Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The very title suggests a brace of opposing forces, an either/or that needs sorting out, but it’s a riddle that Peckinpah, even had he been sober and left to his own devices, had no intention of solving because he knew it couldn’t be done.

As problematic Westerns go, it makes The Searchers look like a cakewalk.
Despite a highly talkative (and rustically profane) script by Rudolph Wurlitzer, it’s a nearly plotless movie that — at its best — communicates its points indirectly, in shadowy bits of irony that constantly redouble on each other. It’s a film almost baroque in its unevenness, with the warring blood between Peckinpah and Wurlitzer, his producers and himself leading to sundry lapses of judgment and care: a main character who’s more Rorschach test than flesh and blood; a woozy, anxious turn by an untrained leading actor; pages of overripe dialogue; downright toxic performances from a cadre of supporting players; and a Bob Dylan score that often works against the grain of what’s happening up on the screen. To cap it all off Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was never authoritatively “finished,” with the optimal available version — the so-called “director’s cut” — still falling miserably short of a fine cut and missing a key scene to boot. As problematic Westerns go, it makes The Searchers look like a cakewalk.

Yet you can see what Peckinpah was driving at, and his superb sense for staging and composition is stamped all over the picture. The bad performances are ballasted by some deft handiwork from Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, Chill Wills, and Richard Bright, and in the role of Pat Garrett, James Coburn shook off the grinning, jiving conman’s persona that he paid the bills with for 40 years and showed what a man can do when he feels a personal stake in a project. The movie’s heart is threaded with oppositions that are primal in the American consciousness — roads taken and not taken, youth and aging, fulfillment and regret, a West caught on the cusp between a lawless frontier and a domesticated hellhole — each of them accented with all the tenderness and bitter rue that Peckinpah could manage. In reputation Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid has been relegated to the backwaters of Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns films, but even more than the legendary Major Dundee it could’ve — should’ve — been his third or fourth masterpiece (that depends on who’s doing the counting), and the movie he’d been building towards his entire career.

Rudolph Wurlitzer built his screenplay around the happily elastic fact that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid knew each other in some capacity before Garrett became a lawman,* but it would take a major assist from Peckinpah for a story whose foregone conclusion is its very point to take on dramatic shape, and thus solve a problem that’s led so many directors of Christ-figure epics around by the nose. The Stations of the Cross here are splayed out across a lunar New Mexican landscape, and consist of vignettes, most of them formed as parables or mood-poems, that often end in an act of violence that redirects the principals in some way, with each reorientation bringing the two men that much closer to their final meeting. If not for its bloodletting the movie might play more like opera bouffe than existential drama: Garrett spends his time resolutely avoiding Billy’s hideout, choosing instead to share a few words with seemingly every man, woman and child in Lincoln County before he’s finally moved to finish the job. In Pat Garrett’s world character is often revealed through inaction, leading to a movie about, in producer Gordon Carroll’s unbeatable description, “a man who doesn’t want to run … being pursued by a man who doesn’t want to catch him.”

Wurlitzer had sold the screenplay on the strength of his script for Two-Lane Blacktop, another existential scarecrow, but while his new Western was much admired, its two main characters didn’t come together until the climax. Recognizing that a more clearly defined conflict was needed, Peckinpah added the scene at the beginning in which Garrett visits the Kid at Fort Sumner and gives him five days to leave the territory. It’s a beautifully modulated exchange, rife with the undercurrents of a nettled friendship, as Garrett — mindful of the ear-shot proximity of Billy’s gang — tersely delivers his message to Billy, who, tenderly, and at times almost pathetically, tosses up reminders of their shared past. Peckinpah also added the movie’s most inspired stroke, the stark black-and-white prologue set some 30 years in the future that shows Garrett being bushwhacked for reasons rooted in his dealings with the Kid. The sequence, completed in the editing room, is a marvel of implication, as first Billy and his gang, and then Garrett himself, are seen in 1881 firing a fusillade of bullets into the Garrett of 1909, bringing home how tightly woven the deterministic web is that binds the two men. The sequence’s visceral power comes from the interplay between the gang’s unwittingly callous by-play — “Damn near perfect” one of them opines as a slug tears out yet another chunk of the old man’s body — with the off-kilter angles and oddly-timed freeze-frames depriving Garrett of any of the majesty that graced Joel McCrea in his descent to the bottom of the frame in Ride the High Country. This brutal opening, one of Peckinpah’s finest set pieces outside of The Wild Bunch, puts its audience on instant notice that nothing pretty is coming its way.

The equation of memory and identity had been a dominant theme in Peckinpah’s pictures as far back as Ride the High Country, but it became a common leitmotif in the films of the early 1970s.
The critic Jon Tuska isn’t worth a nickel as a thinker or a writer, but at least he was on hand to report actor Dub Taylor’s comments during the making of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: “After Sam gets through nobody will ever make a pitchur about Billy the Kid. This is it! They’ll never touch Billy again.” It’s not hard to see why Taylor thought so. The hardcases in motley taking target practice with one boot heel hitched on a watering trough, the barnyard bon mots, the veteran troupers’ weathered faces, the authentic feeling of outdoors life — all these things give Pat Garrett its own dusty, sun-struck flavor. Moreover, Peckinpah pulled off the uncanny trick of getting onto the screen something like the exact atmosphere emanating from the Kid’s history, so that even when the details are wrong (and they usually are), the emotional tone of the events being rendered is pitch-perfect — definitive. The sepia-tinted views of R.G. Armstrong’s sadistic deputy cradling a shotgun in his arms, the wincing POV shots of Garrett’s posse pouring rifle-fire directly into our faces, Garrett’s chiaroscuro nighttime prowl through Fort Sumner just before the final showdown — these imaginative flourishes give the movie an invisible grounding in reported fact that few historical dramas even think to achieve.

The equation of memory and identity had been a dominant theme in Peckinpah’s pictures as far back as Ride the High Country, but it became a common leitmotif in the films of the early 1970s. Picture after picture from that period ends in an emotional trauma that fragments their protagonists, leaving them estranged from themselves or their values in a fate that’s like a living death. These psychic shocks, bruising to characters and audiences alike, can be seen in — at least — Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, Night Moves, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Blow Out, The Conversation, Badlands, Thieves Like Us, Days of Heaven, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In some of these films the characters respond to the guilt or violence that scars them by distancing themselves from their experiences, taking refuge in a self-inflicted amnesia that severs them from their personal history in a pointed miniaturization of Americans’ broad historical indifference. Yet others, far from fleeing the past, instead become hypnotized by it, replaying the course of their lives on an endless loop until their communion with the dead overwhelms their living present. As it turns out the body of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is only a shutter-quick memory of events relived in the time it takes a dying man to hit the ground: at the moment of his assassination, Garrett’s mind rewinds 27 years until he’s faced with his own culpability in his own murder. It’s the climax of a long process linking him to such other great backwards-looking brooders as Jake Gittes and Michael Corleone, and — before them — to Charles Foster Kane, Scottie Ferguson and Pike Bishop.

But even for Peckinpah, even for the times, memory is an unusually insistent and forlorn quality in Pat Garrett, with its central relationship hinging on the remembrances of some suspiciously undelineated “good times.” Its characters express themselves through a panoply of yarns about loco horses, whores cheated out of their wages, and cold-blooded killings — so many yarns, in fact, that half the movie seems to take place in some out-of-sight universe. The prelude to a duel is timed to Billy’s oral recollection of an earlier gunfight, with the present-day participants taking their cues from the older engagement as Billy recounts each step of its development, and only when the ghosts have drawn their guns in the past do the living open fire in the flesh. Before the movie is over we ourselves become equipped as storytellers, as Billy’s murder of a deputy — an event we witness early in the film — is mentioned much later on in the same long-ago tones as all the other stories we’ve been made privy to.

Of the two title characters, Garrett is the one we’re truly with in the movie. All we can really do with Billy is watch him.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’s biggest liability is the black hole at its center, with the idea of Billy the Kid so torn between Wurlitzer’s, Peckinpah’s and Kris Kristofferson’s conceptions of him that he resembles a hologram baseball card whose image changes at every different angle. Billy’s good looks and refusal to buckle under may be the trademarks of a hero, but Kristofferson is most expressive in displaying the Kid’s satisfaction with his own facility for violence, a fact that invalidates Billy’s standing as a romantic rebel. The only value Billy clearly believes in is his own mythic stature, but his trump card — that he hasn’t sold out — isn’t so impressive once one notices how he spends his freedom: blowing the heads off buried chickens (as homely a metaphor for masturbation as the mind can muster), boozing, whoring and showboating over his victims’ bodies. Never once does he press for social change or make any demands — it’s even left to Garrett to mention the $500 that the cattleman John Chisum owes the Kid. In any other movie the murder of Paco, the sheepherder who falls prey to Chisum’s gunmen on the road to Mexico, would serve to forge a social conscience for the hero, but Billy can only go through the motions. “That ties it,” he says over Paco’s shredded body, in the movie’s most wretchedly staged scene. Seemingly galvanized, he mounts his horse and returns to Fort Sumner, only to show upon his arrival there that he has no intention of avenging his friend. His followers beg him for direction — “Just give us the word” — but the best he can do is sit in a beautifully photographed dust-storm, swilling whiskey and waiting for Garrett to come kill him. Of the two title characters, Garrett is the one we’re truly with in the movie. All we can really do with Billy is watch him.

With its famous rock stars and all its talk of “selling out,” Pat Garrett reads like a political comment on the times it was made in, and it’s an appealing idea if only because we want to understand why Bob Dylan, of all people, is standing there reading the labels off a shelf of canned beans. Yet if a hundred-year old battle between a Rebel and The Man touches a contemporary nerve in us, that’s because the war between the individual and society is the great theme of our republic — it’s always been there. (And for as long as they’ve existed, both Westerns and rock songs have proven tailor-made forums for exploring the conflict.) Yet only in their roughest outlines do the movie’s events hold up as a parallel for the contest between the Establishment and the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. (For one thing, with their proud nonconformity, infatuation with recasting the past in words and almost religiously purposeless lifestyles, Billy’s gang acts more like Beats than hippies.) As a man who publicly damned the Vietnam War and blessed its protestors, and who one film later (in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) would explicitly identify Richard Nixon with a band of killers-for-profit, Peckinpah was as counterculture as they come. The thinker if not the loyalist in him should have recognized that the Old West’s gunmen and the longhairs of the ’60s had about as much in common as rye whiskey and windowpane acid, and resisted the temptation to analogize peaceniks with a band of shiftless, murderous drunks. The equation lends the movie undeniable emotional coloring, but only at the expense of emotional truth. If mere opposition to social norms can sustain such metaphorical bridges, then the extermination of the Dillinger gang should help us to understand the Sex Pistols, and the late ’20s diaspora of great Modernist writers should illuminate the mind of Tim McVeigh.

The clash between the film’s poetic and political slants reaches its highest pitch in Dylan’s “Alias.” Everything about the character — his mysterious origins, his calibrated remove from the action, and above all our knowledge of who it is that’s playing him — distinguishes him from Billy’s shabbier acquaintances. An integral part of the outlaw myth is the journalist or dime-novelist whose reports to the outer world serve to elevate the gunman to legendary status, and Dylan’s real-life reputation as a troubadour would make him an apt choice to play the molder of Billy the Kid’s image. Alias first appears in a newspaper typesetter’s apron that he pointedly casts off to get closer to the action, but instead of morphing into a chronicler of Billy’s adventures, Alias is next seen participating in them as he dispatches a bounty-hunter with an expertly-thrown knife. It’s the last significant thing he does in the movie, with half of its running-time still to come. Did Peckinpah mean to subvert the journalistic role in the process of mythmaking? If so, why then does Alias revert not just to killer, but then to groupie and finally to irrelevant bystander?

What does come through is the era’s extreme paranoia of being co-opted. After more than 30 years it’s hard to remember the absolute contempt people felt for the powers that gave us Vietnam, Chicago and Attica, or how unforgiving the resulting codes of conduct were. Some sense of the time’s polarities can be gained by listening to “Lather,” “Almost Cut My Hair,” or “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” by watching Zabriskie Point, Easy Rider or any of another hundred movies, or by glancing at the underground comics of the day. It was unthinkable then that someday the ad-men would plunder the musicians’ catalogues for soundtracks to their commercials (with Dylan himself shilling for Victoria’s Secret), or that members of the SLA would reappear as dowdy and graying ex-rebels pleading for their middle-class lives. Too much money and too many years have eroded our memory of the bitterness of the times, and its concomitant fear that any compromise with the straight world would make one complicit in its worst actions. It makes perfect sense that Sam Peckinpah would get caught in this web. Integrity had been his central theme for more than a decade, and now he was surrounded by an ethos in which trimming one’s hair might create tribal agonies, with all the producers who’d ever fucked him over providing living examples of what it means to lose your soul. (While Billy maintains his shaggy do, Garrett gets a haircut as soon as he pins his badge on.) If the counterculture offers only a half-assed backdrop to Billy’s situation, it provides a perfect one to Garrett’s — that is to say, to Peckinpah’s. His previous movie had been The Getaway, the shallow, stylish shoot-’em-up he’d made to prove that he could bring in a box-office hit. He’d accomplished his mission, but it was around this time that he began calling himself a “whore who goes where he’s kicked” — an eye-opening admission coming from the man who’d once breathed life into Steven Judd.

Peckinpah isn’t usually thought of as a Catholic director, but taken together this babel of voices sounds like the litany of recriminations a self-loathing drunk might serve to himself for breakfast.
In November 1870, the marshal of Abilene, Kansas, got involved in a fracas while attempting to arrest a murderer outside of town. The marshal’s deputy, one James H. McDonald, fled the field when things went awry, abandoning his boss to be shot and then nearly decapitated with an axe. Safely back in Abilene, McDonald made his way to a saloon where, according to onlooker Charles F. Gross, “leaning against the bar, with a drink of whiskey in his hand, he blubbered out his yarn. There being nobody to dispute him, his story had to go. But I can still recall the looks that passed between men who had been raised from birth to eat six-shooters. It was so rank that no one could say a word.” A little of Mr. Gross’ tongue-biting would’ve served Pat Garrett well. The movie’s rank blubbering reaches one kind of nadir when Charles Martin Smith — looking less like a man raised to eat six-shooters than American Graffiti’s “Terry the Toad” stuffed inside a cowboy hat — desecrates The Wild Bunch by echoing one of its most hallowed lines. More seriously, the film deadens our response to it through sheer repetition of a sentiment that’s already over-explicit the first time we hear it. With only a couple of noble exceptions, the film’s distinguished co-stars exist to berate Garrett, again and again, for selling out, for “getting fat,” for betraying the man who’s alternately described as his friend, brother and son. One can’t help but be thankful for those times when the theme is sounded covertly, as in the rhyming shots of Garrett opening the gates of two white picket fences — the first leading to his own home, the second to the house in which he’ll kill the Kid — and hesitating with a nearly metaphysical disdain before each portal like a condemned man about to step onto the gallows.

Peckinpah isn’t usually thought of as a Catholic director, but taken together this babel of voices sounds like the litany of recriminations a self-loathing drunk might serve to himself for breakfast. Despite his abhorrence of moneymen and selling out, despite the nominal fealty he paid to outlaws and rebels in his interviews, by 1973 Peckinpah’s emotional pulse was clearly keeping time with the older, compromised Garrett’s. The whole film has a suicide’s reek, and the sight of Garrett shooting a bullet across time into his own body, or blasting his mirror image with a handgun, only adds to the feeling that the director is punishing his own flesh for sacrificing some younger, better side of himself. In Alfredo Garcia Warren Oates would play a surrogate for Peckinpah (and stealing a trick from Ward Bond in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles he’d borrow his director’s sunglasses to accomplish the task), but in Pat Garrett Peckinpah inserts himself directly into the action. Just as Garrett is moving in for the kill, he appears as an undertaker who takes a break from building a child’s coffin to yell at the lawman, “When are you going to learn you can’t trust anybody, not even yourself?” — a line less convincing as dialogue than as something spoken between two corners of the director’s mind. Beginning with Ride the High Country, Peckinpah’s filmography grew into a widening study of disillusionment, with each betrayal and letdown given an increasingly personal spin, until “selling out” was the only theme he had left.

The fundamental fact about Garrett’s existence — that he holds himself in withering contempt for the choices he’s made — seems to be staring us in the face the entire time although it’s never once articulated. That’s all Jim Coburn’s doing. His giraffe’s-length legs and angular horse’s face made him a happy physical match for the real sheriff, but he made the part his by shedding grades of regret through flickering adjustments of his carriage and eyes, as if he were trying to not disturb some dreaded inner space. As Garrett, Coburn showed a depth found nowhere else in his career, and his sarcastic rattlesnake’s drawl of a voice was never put to better use. Listen to its sardonic musicality when Garrett warns Alias that a bullet is “likely to tickle your private parts,” or how tidily he packs all the implications of a bad situation into the line “He escaped from my jail.” The Best Supporting Actor Oscar that he won not long before he died carried the strong odor of a good-guy appreciation award, mainly because the monstrous patriarch he played in Paul Schrader’s Affliction didn’t call for much of a range. Coburn’s chastened, lethal Pat Garrett is the best proof there is that there was more to the man than a smart-ass mixture of flint and vermouth.

If the kinesthetic violence in The Wild Bunch sparks an ambivalent exhilaration in its viewers, the blunt and muted killings in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid only hit varying notes of sorrow. More than all the talk about shared pasts and camaraderie, Peckinpah conveys the poignancy of his old-timers’ deaths through a string of forlorn details: the shaving cream smeared across Black Harris’ face as he utters his alien dying words “Paris, France”; Holly’s antagonized tugging at a couple of stray hairs on his head just before Garrett guns him down; Silva’s longing glances towards the creekbed where the friends who might save him are resting. The movie’s wounded, wound-down quality doesn’t allow for the thrills we felt after The Wild Bunch’s train robbery when Pike Bishop cried out to his gang “Let’s go!” Jerry Fielding’s music kicked in, and we knew, by God, that this was some kind of movie we were watching. Fatigue lies heavy over Pat Garrett, with even an unsettled Nature looking depleted: the frame is held low on the rocky horizon, and what little sky we can see has a lowering depressant buzz. In these conditions the movie’s characters reflexively turn to violence, as when Garrett and a passing raftsman turn their rifles on each other simply because that’s the lingua franca of their lives. The movie’s emotional center of gravity resides in the eyes of Slim Pickens’ mortally wounded sheriff, widening in fear at their first glimpse of the abyss.

If Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid stands out among Peckinpah’s Westerns for its bleak melancholy, its closest cousin remains John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film with which it shares so many concerns, attitudes and plot particulars that the two might’ve sprung from the same mind. Yet at the end of Liberty Valance Vera Miles watches the countryside rolling past her train window and murmurs, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden,” acknowledging that for all of its tradeoffs Ford’s West would at least wind up with its high schools and church bells, its irrigation bills and blossoming cactus roses. At the end of Pat Garrett our vision of what society will become — what all that blood was spilled over — is limited to another squalid dispute over another parcel of barren land. Peckinpah’s earlier Westerns had always left us with something, but by 1973 something had happened to his vision of the West, and perhaps of human nature itself. Well … why shouldn’t he have been filled with despair? What is a rational response to raped landscapes, institutionalized corruption and ceaseless power-grabs? One doesn’t have to be a cynic to think his reaction a reasonable one, not for any thinking, caring man, yet that’s not a response we look for in our movies. Even had Pat Garrett been an artistic success, it still wouldn’t have captured the popular imagination simply because its pessimism is so thorough and unalloyed — like Sheriff Pat Garrett in his black frock coat, it remains separated from ordinary life by its own funereal mien. Out here there is nothing.