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aka - Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid
USA 1973
Directed by
Sam Peckinpah
122 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (Director's Cut)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was originally intended to be directed by Monte Hellman, who had just directed the cult hit, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Peckinpah who became involved through James Coburn, who wanted to play the legendary Sheriff, saw the film as his opportunity to complete his reworking of the Western that he had begun with Ride the High Country (1962) and then completed to great acclaim with The Wild Bunch (1969). Matters were not so to pan out however.

Peckinpah rewrote Rudy Wurlitzer's original script, added a prologue and epilogue depicting Garrett's murder and gave the two protagonists various encounters through the film (in the original script they do not meet onscreen until the end of the story). More significantly the film was dogged by production difficulties, MGM eventually sacking Peckinpah during the editing stage, releasing the film in 1973 in a bowdlerised 106 minute version which bombed commercially and critically and which Peckinpah rightly disowned. Peckinpah however smuggled his own version of the film out of the studio before being sacked and this was released by MGM in 1988 on video and laser disc.

In 2005, a DVD of the film (distributed this time by Warner Bros.) was released with a new special edition which combined elements of the theatrical release version, the director's cut, and several scenes which were left out of both versions. This version, which runs 115m is generally regarded as inferior to the director's cut .

Released after Peckinpah's death in 1984, the director's cut, although editorially an uneven film, was characterized overall by a fatalistic, even nihilistic, tone and an ambivalent portrait of William Bonney aka Billy The Kid as on the one hand a romanticised anti-establishmentarianist outlaw and on the other a ruthless killer, but in either respect an abstract, mythic figure. The opening sequence, which Wurlitzer vehemently opposed, shows the murder of Pat Garrett (James Coburn) at the hand of those who originally hired him to kill Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and foretells that murder, the film being essentially a loosely-related telling of how the inevitable deed comes to pass.

With justice the film is regularly be read as a self-portrait of Peckinpah's profound and self-destructive alienation from himself (a duality represented by the fight-to-the-death of Billy and Pat) and society (represented by Chisum and the railroad company men). It is this intensely personal take on the Western genre that makes the film such an interesting and rewarding work despite the fact that it lacks the elegiac coherence of The Wild Bunch, probably due to the casting of the too old (the real Billy died aged 21) too presentable Kristofferson, fresh from his role in his role in Cisco Pike (1972) in the lead, not to mention Kristofferson's then-wife Rita Coolidge and Bob Dylan, casting which nevertheless gives the film great zeitgeist credentials (and in the case of Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door, a classic song) but robbing it somewhat of the authenticity that is provided by a great roster of character actors, some salty dialogue, a fine performance by Coburn and impressive visuals by cinematographer John Coquillon.

FYI: the director appears in a small role towards the end of the film as Will, the undertaker who tells the about-to-kill-his-prey Garrett: "When are you going to learn you can't trust anybody, not even yourself Garrett."




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