Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) Revisited


Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)I first watched Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) when I discovered Sam Peckinpah properly at art-school, like most of the western films I have reviewed. Another which I had not fully understood apart from Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is given the badge of sheriff with one main objective in mind, to bring in Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Along with a very quiet and aloof Bob Dylan as aspiring bandit Alias who also provided the melancholic soundtrack which really struck a chord in a few scenes. Which has really made sense this time around as a cast of new and old actors, two generations of men and women are in the old west, a west that is fading in the 1880’s which reflects the state of the western genre, as actors from the golden age are retiring or dying, making way for fresh talent to make it’s own mark.

The older generation lead by James Coburn who wasn’t really that old at the time of film, in his mid forties, it was only a matter of hair and make-up, along with his years of experience that allowed him to take on this iconic role of America’s gunfighter past. Whilst Kristofferson a young country singer turned actor represented the new blood that was ready to take over the reigns. It was for Peckinpah to see the baton was passed on with a real sense of loss, the passage of time marked between one generation, a new way of thinking, a generation outmoded and outdated. Having to only think about surviving and trying not to die.

At the heart of this however is a friendship between two men who once rode together, building up a reputation of fear, death and gunfire, creating legends wherever they went. Part of the fabric of the west before it was tamed, fenced off and regulated to ensure its prosperity as a nation. These two men were a dying breed. Throughout we see friends of both men fall before the gun, in timely Peckinpah violence, allowing us to see how dangerous it really was, not quite glorified, using fake blood that wasn’t far off tomato ketchup, the action is more real than the blood that leaves the dying man.

My focus was on the older members of the cast from Slim Pickens, Jack Elam and Katy Jurado who had all made their mark on the genre as character actors creating more depth around the leads they supported for years before. All meeting horrible ends, each having their moment. I still get a little choked up when Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) goes off to the river to die, joined by his wife Mrs Baker (Jurado) who watched him drift off to the next world. Two very different figures who have met age head on, accepting their mortality, accompanied by Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door that only plays for a moment, being both an obvious choice and spiritual, paying respect to the dying who made their mark on the land.

Whilst the younger men are showing their age, the skill with the gun, is something to show off, cocky to an extent that they don’t respect the older gunfighter who have the upper hand still whilst they are still around. Brought down by Garrett who reluctantly sees the job through, his duty to the men who elected him during the age of the cattle baron. He may have the upper hand which ultimately costs him more than his life, a friend who he rode with for years. To ask anyone to kill a friend is a terrible and impossible thing to ask of anyone. Made hard still by the pressure of responsibility and age which bears down on him. A conflicted man, unlike the less complicated Billy (William H. Bonneythe Kid who as much as he respects his friend still has a confidence only the young can carry.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a landmark film in that is marks the beginning of the end really of the classic genre, the older man are hanging up their gun belts and seeking the easier life. Whilst the younger more violent driven genre which is rewriting the past, becoming more honest. Peckinpah as I have said before loves this genre, coming into it at a point when it’s worn out, needing to be regenerated to carry on, making the end of something that was once glorious. Which all his westerns deal with, never positive, full of death and despair. Violence a trademark of the director is very much their, with an absence more so of the slow-motion which is held restrained for stable scenes, to mark the passage of time, something that is growing ever more between the past and the present for him.

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