Saturday, July 11, 2015

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Rudy Wurlitzer, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the story of an aging Pat Garrett who is hired by wealthy cattle barons to hunt and kill his friend Billy the Kid. The film is an exploration of friendship and betrayal in the Old West as well as the final days of the West as James Coburn plays Pat Garrett and Kris Kristofferson stars as Billy the Kid. Also starring Jason Robards, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Richard Jaeckel, Chill Willis, and Bob Dylan. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a wondrous and evocative film from Sam Peckinpah.

Set in 1881 in New Mexico, the film is about Pat Garrett being asked by forces with political ties to hunt down and kill his friend Billy the Kid. While it is a simple story, the film is more about a sense of change that looms in the American West where Billy the Kid is a representation of someone that doesn’t play by the rules as he spends much of the film trying to live his life and find ways to play under his own rules. Pat Garrett meanwhile is a man that is conflicted about hunting the Kid down as just wants him to go to Mexico or deal with him by himself instead of letting others kill him. Even as he meets with individuals who are part of a secret ring of cattle barons who not only want the Kid dead but want to do things their way to the world that is the West.

Rudy Wurlitzer’s screenplay opens with Garrett’s death as he is gunned down by a group of mysterious men as it adds some ambiguity into why he is killed. It plays into not just the sense of change that Garrett didn’t want to be a part of but a change that already happened as it inter-cuts with a time where Garrett had just become a sheriff where he meets the Kid as they shoot down the heads of chickens. It plays into a moment where things were simple as Garrett and the Kid are friends though Garrett knows he is now the law and he is instructed to capture the Kid. Yet, Garrett tells the Kid on what he has to do where he wants him to be safe and not be killed in the hands of the law. However, the Kid is a freebird that just refuses to do what anyone tells him as there is someone who admits to killing some people whether they were good or bad.

The script also plays into that sense of changing times where Garrett is forced to uphold the law as he struggles to do things his way but finds himself coping with these changes. Especially as he would be forced to work with men who are part of this secret ring as they do things in ways that not only disgusts Garrett but also the Kid who would encounter some of these things on his way to Mexico which would force him to seek refuge in the place in Old Fort Sumner. It is in that moment where both the Garrett and the Kid are forced to realize that the ideas of the Old West is coming to an end where Garrett would have to make a decision to either adapt or die. A decision that the Kid wouldn’t stand for as the inevitable is to come.

Sam Peckinpah’s direction is very entrancing for not just the way he pictures the American West but also into how its sense of mythology and codes are being pushed aside in favor of greed. The film is very stylized in not just the way Peckinpah shoots some of the violence but also in the way people lived in those times. There is a looseness to the direction where Peckinpah puts in some humor over some of the situations the Kid would get into but also play into someone that would kill someone when he didn’t want to but had no choice. With its usage of wide and medium shots along with some close-ups, Peckinpah takes great stock into the world that surrounds these characters but also plays into a sense of change that is looming. Most notably a scene where Garrett and an aging sheriff in Colin Baker (Slim Pickens) try to confront a gang only for things to go wrong as it plays into a world that is changing.

The direction has these tense moments in the drama such as a meeting Garrett would have with New Mexico’s leader in Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) who would introduce Garrett to this group of cattle barons who are part of a secret ring in New Mexico. Most notably as it plays into the sense of change that would emerge that the Kid would later see when he encounters a group of men killing a friend and raping his wife to show an ugliness in a new world that he doesn’t want to be a part of. It would all play to the inevitable as the climax where Garrett would do what has to be done since it plays into a new world that neither he nor the Kid could be a part of. Overall, Peckinpah creates a mesmerizing film about two friends who are both forced to go against each other in an ever-changing world.

Cinematographer John Coquillon does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography from the usage of lights for some of its nighttime interior/exterior scenes along with some gorgeous and naturalistic images for the scenes in the day including a shootout involving Sheriff Baker. Editors Roger Spottiswoode, David Berlatsky, Garth Craven, Tony de Zarraga, Richard Halsey, and Robert L. Wolfe, with additional editing by Paul Seydor for the 2005 special edition, do amazing work with the editing in creating some unique slow-motion cuts for some of the action along with rhythmic cutting for some of the drama and suspense. Art director Ted Haworth and set decorator Ray Moyer do excellent work with the design of the sets from hideout that is Fort Sumner as well as the look of Lincoln where the Kid was supposed to be hanged until his escape.

The sound work of Harry W. Tetrick and Charles M. Wilborn is superb for the naturalistic sound it captures along with some sound effects in the sound of gunfire and knives that are thrown. The film’s music by Bob Dylan is fantastic as the soundtrack album features some country-folk instrumentals and a few songs including one of Dylan’s greatest songs in Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door that is played in one of the film’s most poignant moments.

The casting by Patricia Mock is great as it features notable appearances from such noted Western character actors like L.Q. Jones as a bandit Garrett confronts in a shootout with Sheriff Baker, Jack Elam as Garrett’s ragged deputy Alamosa Bill Kermit, Emilio Fernandez as the Kid’s Mexican friend Paco, Chill Wills as a saloon owner named Lemuel Jones who knows Garrett, screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer as a friend of the Kid in Tom O’Folliard, Luke Askew as a cattle baron that is part of a secret ring in Santa Fe, Richard Bright as a member of the Kid’s gang, Rutanya Alda as a prostitute who lives in Fort Sumner with the Kid and his gang, Charles Martin Smith as an early member of the Kid’s gang who encounters a horrifying shootout, and Aurora Clavel as Garrett’s wife Ida who appears in the film’s 2005 reconstructed special-edition version. Other notable small roles include Harry Dean Stanton as a member of the Kid’s gang in Luke, Matt Clark as a deputy sheriff the Kid befriends, R.G. Armstrong as a sheriff who despises the Kid, and John Beck as a hired gun for the secret Santa Fe ring who is eager to kill the Kid.

Barry Sullivan is terrific as a cattle baron named Chisum that the Kid used to work for as the Kid learns what Chisum’s men would do that would disgust the Kid. Slim Pickens is fantastic as the aging sheriff Colin Baker who aids Garrett in trying to find the Kid while Katy Jurado is wonderful as Baker’s wife who helps them both while being great with a shotgun. Richard Jaeckel is superb as a friend of Garrett in Sheriff McKinney who helps Garrett late in the film to capture the Kid while Jason Robards is amazing in a brief but memorable performance as Governor Lew Wallace who tells Garrett what is at stake in capturing the Kid as he is part of a new world order. Bob Dylan is excellent as a young bandit named Alias who joins the Kid during the film’s second act as he proves to be very handy with a knife.

Finally, there’s the duo of James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in phenomenal performance in their respective roles as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Coburn brings a rugged yet weary role to Garrett as a man who is now part of the law as he deals with the new rules of his role as well as times that are changing which adds to the conflict in capturing the Kid. Kristofferson brings this sense energy and joy into the role of the Kid as someone who is a total free spirit that doesn’t believe in rules as he copes with a world that is very difficult and troubling. Coburn and Kristofferson have great rapport together in how they both share similar views towards the world as they’re both being pulled into different directions.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a remarkable film from Sam Peckinpah that features exhilarating performances from James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. The film is definitely one of Peckinpah’s finest films (whether in its preferred 1988 122-minute preview version or the 115-minute special edition version) as it plays into the myth of the American West and how it would change. Especially as it features an incredible soundtrack from Bob Dylan that plays into the mythological elements of those times. In the end, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a riveting film from Sam Peckinpah.

Sam Peckinpah Films: The Deadly Companions - Ride the High Country - Major Dundee - Noon Wine - The Wild Bunch - The Ballad of Cable Hogue - Straw Dogs - Junior Bonner - The Getaway - Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - The Killer Elite - Cross of Iron - Convoy - The Osterman Weekend - The Auteurs #62: Sam Peckinpah

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