Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

What was the most important American film of the ’70s? In terms of what was to come in the decades that followed, the answer would probably be Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). For sheer artistic achievement and innovation I would nominate John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970). But for its place in the ongoing history of Hollywood filmmaking with respect to what came before rather than what was to follow, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973) is definitely the most interesting film of its time. Sam Peckinpah occupies a unique, transitional position in the history of the American cinema. He was probably the only director of genius to emerge from the Hollywood system during the ’60s, the most insecure period of its history since the coming of sound. While the fearlessly independent Cassavetes was creating the most important and revolutionary body of work in American cinema since Griffith, and the Underground was flourishing in New York, Hollywood saw its old formulas dying at the box office and rogue projects like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) stealing their thunder. Within the context of the Western, where Peckinpah did his best work, he is probably the last great creative force. He brought this most flexible of Hollywood genres into the era of Vietnam during a decade in which the Hollywood Western seemed to be drying up. Indeed, Peckinpah started making films just as the greatest decade for the Western genre, the ’50s, drew to a close.

In 1961, Peckinpah graduated from an exceptional career in television to direct his first feature, The Deadly Companions. One year later, he established both his greatness and his most characteristic themes with the dignified Ride the High Country, a moving Western elegy that has quite rightly become an established classic. If he arrived just too early to be part of the new generation (i.e. Hopper, Penn), he was also too young to be classed with the Old Masters of the Western such as Ford and Walsh. Peckinpah was responsible for the most influential American Western of the ’60s, The Wild Bunch (1969). Due to its spectacular reinvention of screen violence, it understandably remains Peckinpah’s most popular film. Equally understandably, if regrettably, it typecast him, making his name synonymous with the graphic depiction of violence to the frequent neglect of his more subtle virtues as a director. For better or worse, this cathartic vision of flawed heroism changed the face of genre filmmaking. As an actor’s director, Peckinpah invested his best films with an extraordinary depth of characterisation. He was as tender as he was tough, his evident love for his bruised, often brutal anti-heroes setting him apart from most storytellers. His finest works are permeated with an intensely haunting atmosphere of melancholy, loss, and displacement. His heroes are exiles, men out of step with their dehumanised times, alienated from love or domesticity, yearning for a redemption that they seem able to find only in self-destruction. It is a dark but intensely romantic vision. If for nothing else, Peckinpah admires his heroes for their staunch individualism in the face of a world that is changing for the worse, eroding under the blindly ruthless power of money. This overriding sense of poetic despair achieved its fullest expression in the early ’70s with Peckinpah’s two greatest and bleakest films: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

The classic Western was the bedrock of American narrative filmmaking since The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903). A drama born out of a myth of conquest, of the victory of civilisation over the wilderness, the Western began as a clear-cut vehicle for a simple morality. A fundamentally optimistic vision that praises positive, purposeful action, narratively it is centred around the act of violence. Speaking generally, violent acts mark the major decisive points in a Western, moving things forward to their conclusion. Plots are robust, forceful and action packed. The amazing versatility of this form is perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon in Hollywood history. In the decades between Porter and Peckinpah, the Western genre had been twisted into a dizzying variety of forms, embracing every imaginable theme, and it had survived. As time went on, it had begun to question itself and had grown somewhat sadder. But the vitality of its underlying principles, especially the decisiveness of violence, remained intact. The Wild Bunch was a major development in this respect. Rather than the suspense of the outcome of the violence, the power of the action scenes comes from a visceral immersion in the confusion of the moment of violence, an almost abstract sensory experience. Yet in spite of this raising of the stakes, violence was still a decisive if somewhat messier factor, and cathartic as never before.

Revisionism was the order of the day in the early ’70s Western and numerous directors were having a go at debunking the myth of the West, with movies such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Soldier Blue (Ralph Nelson, 1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) The Culpepper Cattle Co. (Dick Richards, 1972), Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (Robert Altman, 1976). With an arsenal that ran from sarcasm to visceral bombast, these younger directors attempted to use the mythology of the most purely American art form to criticise modern American society. Ironically, none of these films, which seem to be striving so hard to be up to date in their thinking, have aged well, often appearing much less powerful than many of the sort of films they set out to attack. One movie obviously made with a different set of intentions was Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Whereas the revisionist directors gleefully attacked the genre from outside with often glibly political ideas, Peckinpah used this film to deconstruct not the famous figures of the Western nor its landscape, but its narrative form. Peckinpah allows the oft-filmed characters of Pat and Billy to retain their mythological status unlike, say, Altman’s Buffalo Bill or Penn’s Wild Bill Hickock or General Custer in Little Big Man.

Far more radical than The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett deconstructs the Western in a number of ways. If it is a genre celebrating progress, in Pat Garrett (as, admittedly, in several others Westerns and almost all those by Peckinpah) progress equals the dehumanising take over of an open country, and the end of a way of life, by the ruthless forces of big business and civilisation. If it is an optimistic genre looking to a more civilised future, Pat Garrett presents us with a country full of men without a future, whose way of life is being replaced by the evil forces of eastern business interests. If the Western is fundamentally about a struggle for survival in the face of a hostile wilderness and its forces, Pat Garrett is about people just waiting around to die. If the West is a wide-open country, Peckinpah’s sees it as a prison from which almost every decent person is trying to escape, without success. If violence is the key element around which the Western revolves, in Pat Garrett it is shown to be a pointless, inconclusive (with the notable exception of the Kid’s death), comparatively unspectacular act carried out almost from a force of habit. Perhaps most startlingly of all, if a tight, dynamic plot is essential to the Western, this film is practically plotless. Instead, Peckinpah presents us with a loose series of poetic vignettes pointing towards the moment when Garrett shoots the Kid and then his own reflection in a mirror. Rather than leading up to this action, the film seems simply to wait for it. The historical and even legendary basis of the story, the outcome of which is well known, adds to the sense of inevitability in this wait. This morbid inevitability is further heightened by the opening of the film which shows the murder of Garrett in 1909, some three decades after the main body of the film takes place. What Peckinpah does is to impressionistically present a protracted state of grace from the Kid’s escape from jail early on in the film all the way through to his literal death, Garrett’s spiritual death and the death of entire way of life – all inevitable and interconnected. This takes the form of a sort of existential and geographical vacuum through which his characters move purposelessly.

Unlike the revisionists, Peckinpah displayed a deep and genuine love for the West and its macho values to which he subscribed in life. But he also had a first hand knowledge of their shortcomings which only intimacy and affection can provide. Even if David Weddle’s fine biography If They Move. Kill ’em indicates that Peckinpah’s famous rough and ready frontier upbringing was later exaggerated by the director, he fully lived up to the myth. By all accounts as larger than life as any of his heroes, Peckinpah was a hard living, hard drinking, womanising, knife throwing self-destructive with a prominent streak of genuine artistic sensitivity. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Peckinpah laid these shortcomings bare in a way no director before or since has been able to. Unlike the revisionists, his best films were at least partially self-portraits as opposed to ‘issue’ movies. He exposed the emptiness at the heart of the myth from the inside with the same anguish that he might feel in disclosing a fatal disease from which he was suffering. It is this depth of feeling that really sets this film apart from its contemporaries and has ensured its survival in the face of time.

By removing each and every underpinning of the genre (as opposed to just one or two, as many directors had already done), Peckinpah collapses it from within. We see a genre crumple up and collapse in the dust before our eyes in the ecstatic slow motion the director had made his trademark. What remains has as much in common with the European art cinema as the Western. Hellman had already presented the West in starkly existential terms to considerable effect in his two 1966 Westerns, Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting. But the jarringly implacable barrenness of his vision differs from Peckinpah’s strong sense of sadness and loss. All three of his great Westerns – Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – are elegies for an increasingly obsolete way of life, but nowhere is this melancholy as all-pervading as in Pat Garrett.

Although The Wild Bunch gave Peckinpah the reputation of being a flamboyant visual stylist, his approach to the look of Pat Garrett was much more muted. Director of photography John Coquillon’s formally composed images are suffused with an appropriately dusky magnificence that has led Pat Garrett to be called Peckinpah’s most visually beautiful film. The aggressive editing patterns he often employed are also minimised, coming into play in some imaginative inter-cutting at the start and close of the movie.

* * *

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a film about betrayal, about the extent to which people can remain true to themselves in the face of changing times. At its centre is Pat Garrett, played by James Coburn with an understated intensity. He gives up his old life and companions to become Sheriff and ends up having to hunt down and kill his best friend, Billy the Kid. It is a process of self-betrayal as the Kid represents everything Garrett has to sacrifice in order to integrate himself into the new order. The conflict between the two is made explicit in a dialogue exchange in the opening scene. When Billy asks him how his selling out feels, the newly elected Sheriff replies “it feels like times have changed.” “Times, maybe. Not me” is the Kid’s answer. The Kid, played by Kris Kristofferson, is a rather enigmatic character, an easygoing free spirit who is never fleshed out but left as almost a symbol. His laid back inscrutability is a brilliant, subtly taunting contrast to Garrett’s increasing grimness.

While Garrett allies himself with the ruthless forces of big business (“every goddamn landowner trying to put a fence ’round this country”), Billy is close to the poor. This is brought home in the jailbreak scene when a Mexican peasant helps him in his escape. The expression on the Mexican’s face speaks volumes. As the film progresses we see Garrett become increasingly alienated and sadistic in his pursuit of the Kid. This reaches its highpoint in a saloon scene in which he comes across a number of members of Billy’s gang, whom he terrorises and humiliates before killing one of them. He then proceeds to a brothel where all the girls working there service him. It is at this point that he is informed of the Kid’s whereabouts.

Chronologically, the last we see of Garrett is in a flash-forward to 1909 when he has become a landowner himself, the transformation from what he was during his days with Billy now complete. Yet for all this, Peckinpah never quite puts him at the level of the forces of big business. When offered a bribe to bring the Kid in, he tells some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the state what they can do with their money in graphic detail. As a sharp contrast to even Garrett and as a sort of ambassador of the new order, there is the businessmen’s own bounty hunter, John Poe (John Beck), sent to ‘help’ Garrett. A thoroughly evil man, who thinks nothing of beating up old people, he even wants to cut the dead Kid’s finger off for a trophy. Although he is treated with contempt, his viciousness is seen to prevail: he is still around in the 1909 flash-forward, participating in Pat Garrett’s murder.

If Garrett and the Kid are the opposite poles of reaction to the changes occurring around them, their extremes are put into contrast by a number of other characters’ reactions. Some, like Billy’s sympathetic jailer, J. W. Bell (Matt Clark) who claims that “the only belief I have. is knowing I’m a little man with a job to do”, are resigned to blowing with the prevailing winds. Many are so sickened with the way things have gone that they just want to leave, to ‘drift’ (to ‘drift’, seemingly the only form of movement available to characters in this film) out of the territory: the disgruntled lawman played by Slim Pickens who dies in a gunfight; Billy’s friend Paco (Emilio Fernandez) who tries to take his family back to Mexico but is tortured to death en route by men in the employ of big rancher John Chisum; or the character played by Peckinpah himself at the end of the movie. There is no way out. Even when Billy himself tries to go to Mexico, he comes upon the dying Paco and turns back to avenge his murder, only to be killed by Garrett that night. Paco’s last words movingly express a yearning for a future to believe in. He describes a house he would have built for them in Mexico and the ordered, idyllic existence they would have there: “I will have three chairs and I will sit in the middle one and anyone who doesn’t do right according to nature and my mother, I will blow his head off”. (A good example of the unusually rich dialogue writer Rudy Wurlitzer filled his screenplay with.) But when Billy sets out for Mexico he gets a rather more realistic view of his possible future from one of his gang, played by Harry Dean Stanton: “Hell, in Old Mex you ain’t gonna be nothing but another drunken gringo shitting out chilli peppers and waiting for. nothing.”

Or waiting for death? Almost certainly. Few films can be as saturated with death as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The tone is set from the inspired opening scene, which inter-cuts Billy and his gang shooting chickens with the murder of Pat Garrett years later. There are one or two action scenes in the traditional sense, but the vast majority of the killings are dealt with in a perfunctory style. Regret, rather than excitement is the key emotion of these scenes. Unlike the traditional action scene – or, for that matter, the very untraditional ones in The Wild Bunch – the emphasis is on dying, not killing, and more often than not the killing is reluctant. One of the best examples is the showdown between Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) and Kristofferson. The Kid arrives at the house of a family he knows, looking for a meal only to discover a deputised Elam already eating there. Like almost everyone else chasing him, Elam used to be a friend or acquaintance. They eat and then, full of regret, go out to count the ten paces. Death in this film is almost always accompanied by wistful anecdote. Here the father of the house poignantly complains about the fact that they are now going to have to use their new door upon which to bury the loser. The previous door was used to bury his son who died in a gunfight some time before. The duellists stand back to back and begin the count to ten. Both men cheat. When they reach three the Kid turns around and points his gun at Elam, who turns at the count of eight and is fatally shot. The latent cynicism in this scene is completely ignored by Peckinpah, who instead opts for a tone of gentle regret. Neither man is angry at his opponent’s cheating. “That wasn’t ten, hoss” Kristofferson remarks. “I never could count”, the dying Elam mutters resignedly.

Music is of key importance in this film and Bob Dylan’s brilliant score contributes enormously to the atmosphere. (In fact, Dylan appears on screen, playing a rather ambiguous, ill-defined character called Alias [“Alias what?” “Alias whatever you please.”], drifting around the wonderfully rough edges of the film.) It also subtly highlights the distance between Garrett and the Kid and our perception of them. While we achieve a certain closeness to Garrett and his psychology, the near mythical status of the distant, slightly enigmatic Kid is highlighted by the fact that he is frequently being sung about on the ballad-like soundtrack rather than being fleshed out as a character. Music plays a big part in the nature of the violent scenes as well. Whereas most scores (including those of Peckinpah’s usual composer, Jerry Fielding, who loathed Dylan’s work on this movie) would tend in one way or another to play up the violence, to heighten the drama, here the music plays against it, softening it. It diminishes the excitement and adds instead to the prevalent mournful, contemplative feel. Killing in this film is unheroic, an empty and almost banal ritual.

It might be an exaggeration to call Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid a series of death scenes, but not much of one. Even children play on the gallows, in a scene reminiscent of the children torturing scorpions in a red ant’s nest in the famous opening of The Wild Bunch. The scene that perhaps best encapsulates the mood is one that is blatantly ‘unnecessary’ in terms of traditional narrative construction, but one of the most haunting and evocative Peckinpah ever shot. Garrett sits under a tree overlooking a river. A houseboat carrying a family drifts by. The father is shooting at a bottle drifting in front of the boat. Garrett raises his gun and takes a shot. Startled the father turns and points his gun at Garrett, who aims at him in turn. For a long tense moment, the two men stand poised for violence. Then the boat drifts out of sight.

All of this death foreshadows and culminates in one of the most eerily beautiful pieces of filmmaking in the history of the cinema: Billy’s death. This fifteen-minute scene inter-cuts Billy’s arrival at the house of his friend, rancher Pete Maxwell (Paul Fix) and his final tryst with his girl with Garrett’s (and Poe’s) final search for him. Much credit for its atmosphere must go to Dylan’s unforgettably haunting music. Not since history remorselessly engulfed the heroes and sometimes whole casts of films such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), They Were Expendable (1945) and Fort Apache (1948), has the inevitable closing in of destiny been so movingly evoked. Pat Garrett captures a potentially Fordian moment of myth taking over from life. But in place of the bittersweet self-sacrifice of Ford’s heroes, defined by Peter Bogdanovich as ‘glory in defeat’ (1), Peckinpah presents us with a vision of remorseless, numbed out despair.

As Billy arrives at the ranch, old Pete launches into the last of the melancholy anecdotes that so often accompany killing in this film, telling about a murder performed by putting a rattlesnake into a man’s bedroll. But his reminiscences are addressed to the empty room as Billy and the girl have retired to a bedroom. Their lovemaking is tender and gentle, a contrast to Garrett’s whorehouse exploits in the previous scene. Meanwhile, the hunters close in. The dusty, nocturnal landscape through which the lawmen prowl is shot by Coquillon to almost resemble an alien planet from a science fiction film. Immediately prior to locating Billy, Garrett is accosted by Peckinpah playing a self-referential cameo role, giving voice to the Sheriff’s conscience. Peckinpah’s character claims that he will bury all his possessions and leave the territory, decisively elevating Garrett’s betrayal from a personal or legal matter to one that affects the whole country. Then he taunts him “When are you going to learn you can’t trust anybody, not even yourself Garrett.”

After killing the Kid, Garrett shoots his reflection in a mirror, before examining his face in the remaining shards. His spiritual death is complete. All he has to do is wait some thirty years for his actual death to catch up with him. The West is not only dead, it is death itself. So much for the optimistic myth of the traditional Western. In the two hours it took him to tell the story of Pat Garrett killing Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah killed the Western. There has been a handful of great Westerns since – The Shootist (Siegel, 1976), Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992), Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1993), – but none of them have significantly developed the genre or taken it anywhere near as far as the heart of darkness Peckinpah reaches in this, his last Western.


  1. Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (University of California Press, 1978)

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.

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