Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

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14 Replies to “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)”

  1. Thanks so much for the great review of a masterpiece film. I’ll definitely watch the uncut version tonight. When it was first released, we were all huge fans of Dylan’s music, and that was our primary reason for wanting to see the film.

    But we got way more than just the excellent Dylan songs. The film was stunning, from start to finish. At a time when all of us freaks (AKA hippies) considered almost all mainstream Hollywood productions as sellout junk, this film was the brilliant exception. Peckinpah mirrored the hypocrisy of those Nixon years perfectly, without preaching.

    Liked by 2 people

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