PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
Here’s another installment featuring Joe Dante’s reviews from his stint as a critic for Film Bulletin circa 1969-1974. Our thanks to Video Watchdog and Tim Lucas for his editorial embellishments!
Post-production tampering mitigates against this Western by Sam Peckinpah finding its deserved reception from better-class audiences. Shortened release version is vague, confusing, and is being sold as routine action entry in saturation breaks where it should perform routinely, no more. Kris Kristofferson and acting debut of Bob Dylan provide youth lures. Rating: R.
“It feels like times have changed,” says Pat Garrett. “Times, maybe—not me,” says Billy the Kid. A classical Sam Peckinpah exchange, reflecting one of the numerous obsessive themes that run through his latest Western. But times certainly haven’t changed for Peckinpah—for, despite the overdue success of his last venture, THE GETAWAY, the embattled and iconoclastic director who revolutionized the Western with THE WILD BUNCH has run afoul of the same problem that plagued several of his previous efforts. Enough footage has been hastily edited out of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID to transform what seems to have had the makings of a first-rate film into a confusing, skeletal jumble of indifferent boxoffice value.
It boasts intriguing marquee factors in James Coburn, rock star Kris Kristofferson and, in his movie debut, pop culture mystery idol Bob Dylan. But MGM has obviously elected to bypass discriminating audiences and aim strictly for the routine action trade via saturation bookings; the cutting (a reported three reels) was obviously executed with that audience in mind. In its present form, PAT GARRETT will probably satisfy no one. The tone is still far too measured and elegiac for the action crowd, while discerning viewers will find the story values in this truncated version seriously impaired. Peckinpah and writer Rudy Wurlitzer seem to have created a distinctive Western with elements of greatness, one which might well have performed impressively in better-class markets, had it not been truncated to fit double-bill playing time. The New Mexican political background, important to the story, is very muddled, as are the character relations. Indeed, the central relationship between Coburn (Garrett) and Kristofferson (Billy), former friends turned deadly adversaries, comes through with far less impact than it should. The heart of the conflict is missing, leaving an uneven succession of often strikingly beautiful sequences clustered around a vague plot that plays slowly because so much of it is unexplained. Dialogue has obviously been deleted from the midst of conversations and at least one death scene entirely re-dubbed with a voice that does not match the actor’s.
The strong supporting cast features more leathery oldtimers than even A.C. Lyles could corral into one picture, but most are limited to two scenes each—the one in which they’re introduced, and the one in which they’re killed. Even so, there are some moving moments, notably from Jack Elam and Slim Pickens as luckless lawmen recruited by Coburn to help capture Kristofferson. The latter, a living legend of romantic lawlessness, has become an embarrassment to New Mexican officials, including governor Jason Robards. Coburn, father figure and former crony of Kristofferson who has since hired himself out to hated land-grabbing interests, brings the outlaw in, but he escapes, killing deputies R.C. Armstrong and Matt Clark. Coburn goes after him, enlisting various old friends to help, most of whom are killed in encounters with Kristofferson’s gang. Finally, Coburn closes in on Kristofferson while he’s making love to girlfriend Rita Coolidge. Coburn waits on a porch swing for the lovers to finish before shooting Kristofferson, and rides away a pariah for having destroyed the legend.
Coburn is superb as the archetypical Peckinpah hero—world-weary, disillusioned and compromised. Kristofferson is well-cast and only newcomer Dylan, in a minor role that looks hyped up in the editing, betrays his discomfort with the new medium. Sharply-etched vignettes are provided by Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, L.Q. Jones, Gene Evans, Richard Jaeckel, Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix and Peckinpah himself. Barry Sullivan (still billed in the TV spots), Elisha Cook and Dub Taylor didn’t make it into the final print. John Coquillon’s cinematography is very fine, but Dylan’s score (a selling point—though there is, amazingly, no soundtrack album) would have been more effective without the vocals.
1973. MGM. Metrocolor, Panavision. 106 minutes. James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan. Produced by Gordon Carroll. Directed by Sam Peckinpah.