The studios seem to be releasing Peckinpah’s back catalogue now, although it has to be said that this particular item seems to have taken an awfully long time. Peckinpah is one of those directors whose career was plagued by studio interference and a media determined to demonise him; he was clearly a difficult character but despite having a whole saddlebag full of neuroses, that he tried to work out up on the screen, he was a creative artist with an interest in the human condition, which is more than can be said for the money-men who made his life so difficult.
Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid was a production fraught with problems; filming in Durango was disrupted as both cast and crew fell sick, Peckinpah was under pressure to deliver another The Wild Bunch (1969) and was forced to work under a rushed schedule and pretty soon went over both time and budget. Given more time and a free hand Peckinpah might have produced a masterpiece, then again he might not; what he produced is never less than entertaining, beautiful to look at, with uniformly excellent performances among which the late great James Coburn stands out. Not much happens it has to be said but it happens in an epic way befitting one of the great western myths, and the story adheres pretty closely to what is known about the final arc of the gunslinger’s career.
The story starts with Billy (Kris Kristofferson) being reunited with his old friend Pat Garrett (James Coburn) who has turned his back on his ‘outlaw’ past and been elected sheriff of Lincoln County by the ranchers and vested interests looking to clean up the state for its eventual exploitation. The notions of ‘outlaws’ and ‘lawmen’ are of course interchangeable, historically while working for cattle ranchers John Tunstall and John Chisum Billy was a ‘regulator’, protecting herds from rustlers and roughnecks hired by the rival town merchants in the Lincoln County war. Billy has not been able to adapt to peace on the frontier and continues to live wild, Garrett pragmatically has aligned himself with the new order of money and investment and must bring his friend in for trial. Garrett makes his intentions clear to Billy and the film episodically follows Billy’s half-hearted attempts to escape to Mexico, and Garrett’s Hamlet-like hesitation and distraction before their final showdown.
Garrett captures Billy in the first third of the film and perhaps the strongest sequence in the movie is the latter’s escape from Lincoln County jail following his gunning down of Garrett’s deputies. During his escape Billy is observed by Alias (Bob Dylan), who later joins Billy’s gang. Although Dylan accounts for himself pretty well in the film, and of course delivers a brilliant soundtrack, the character of Alias, who some have seen as a sort of muse or ‘familiar’ to Billy, seems given an importance that the character doesn’t merit, but perhaps that’s just a problem with celebrity cameos.
Like Orson Welles, Peckinpah is famous for complaining that the theatrical versions of his films suffered from unsympathetic editing by the studio; Major Dundee (1965) apparently owes its incoherence to a blend of this kind of interference and ‘lost’ footage, and thus far has defied reassembling for critical reappraisal. This new edition of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid offers a re-edited version from 2005 and the Turner preview version as originally released in 1988, both versions differ from the theatrical release and there is a fine set of commentaries on both discs discussing the finer points of editing. It is interesting to pick up a couple of sequences just to highlight the creative difficulties involved.
Both film versions open with footage of Billy and his gang’s leisure activity of shooting the heads off chickens (animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture), inter-cut with the ‘present day’ assassination of the ageing Garrett in black and white, presumably arranged by those self-same parties who we will see hire him to arrest Billy. I have heard that the killing of Garrett was excised from one cinematic release of the film, preventing the story from coming full-circle and making it crystal clear that this was about the squashing of the outlaw spirit we associate with the old west. In the preview version, Garrett’s killing, the chicken slaughter and the credit sequence, in Wild Bunch style freeze-frame, are all cut together; in the 2005 version Garrett dies as chickens are blasted to bits, then Pat and Billy have their little chat, then one of Billy’s gang asks “Why don’t you just kill him?” and Billy replies “Why? He’s my friend,” followed by a cut for a credit sequence independent of the action.
In the Turner version, Garrett goes to a brothel and we see him enjoying the attention of five of the girls before being interrupted by his deputy Poe (John Beck) who tells him that Billy is at Fort Sumner; Garrett is in bed with the girls, Poe is embarrassed by the nudity and the camera lingers on two of the girls as they toy with each others nipples. In the 2005 edition, Garret visits the brothel and specifically asks for Ruthie Lee (Rutanya Alda), a favourite of Billy, he asks her where Billy is and hits her when she won’t tell him, she says that he will have to give her another one first, he strikes her and she tells him that Billy is at Fort Sumner. Garrett is about to rape Ruthie, his violence can’t be described any other way, when the rest of the girls arrive and the scene proceeds as in the Turner version, up to the point where the girls play with their nipples which has been cut. The inclusion in the 2005 edition of a scene in Lincoln, where Garrett goes home to his wife and the coldness between them is revealed, has been cited as a counterpoint to Garrett’s preferred intimacy with the whores; his violence with Ruthie Lee shows what he has become, Billy’s intimate moments are portrayed with great sensitivity and tenderness; but this sequence highlights some editing difficulties about ‘guessing’ Peckinpah’s intentions. The disc commentators are clearly as embarrassed about the brothel sequence as deputy Poe, and seem to consider it some aberrant feature of the director’s character, hence the missing nipples perhaps? However the inclusion of Garrett’s violence to Ruthie Lee seems out of place; Garrett never shows much urgency to apprehend Billy, preferring to pick off the gang who never liked him; also when Poe reports that Billy is in Fort Sumner Garrett already has that information from Ruthie Lee, did Peckinpah drop this sequence for that reason? The commentaries are fascinating but it would be interesting to know more about some of the decisions behind the restructuring of the film, where two versions contain apparently arbitrary differences.
It is a measure of the quality of this package that I feel obliged to make quibbles like the above; if the film and the extras weren’t so enthralling they could have been dismissed in short order.
DVD extras: the 2005 special edition includes commentary by Peckinpah’s biographers and documentarians. Disc two: 1988 Turner preview version (shown to studio heads prior to ‘fine cut’ hence different to eventual theatrical release) with commentary as above, but tailored to this version, plus featurettes – One Foot In The Groove: Remembering Sam Peckinpah And Other Things and One For The Money: Sam’s Song are little interviews with Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts about their own careers, the music business and their time with Peckinpah; Deconstructing Pat And Billy is an insightful interview with Katy Haber, Peckinpah’s one time partner and production assistant on Pat Garrett.