James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)




(director: Sam Peckinpah; screenwriter: Rudolph Wurlitzer; cinematographer: John Coquillon; editors: David Berlatsky/Garth Craven/Tony de Zarraga/Richard Halsey/Roger Spottiswoode/Robert L. Wolfe; music: Bob Dylan; cast: James Coburn (Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy the Kid), Bob Dylan (Alias), Harry Dean Stanton (Luke), Matt Clark (J.W. Bell), Barry Sullivan (Chisum), Dub Taylor (Josh), Rudolph Wurlitzer (Tom O’Folliard), Chill Wills (Lemuel), Jorge Russek (Silva), Don Levy (Sackett), Aurora Clavel (Ida Garrett), Donnie Fritts (Beaver), Emilio Fernandez (Paco), L.Q. Jones (Black Harris), Charles Martin Smith (Bowdre), Sam Peckinpah (Will), Walter Kelley (Rupert), Rutanya Alda (Ruthie Lee), John Beck (Poe), Jack Elam (Alamosa Bill), Slim Pickens (Sheriff Baker), Jason Robards, Jr. (Governor Wallace), R.G. Armstrong (Deputy Sheriff Bob Ollinger), Gene Evans (Mr. Horrell); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Gordon Carroll; Warner Video; 1973)

“Bitter take take on the mythical Old West.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bob Dylan provides the memorable haunting soundtrack and plays a minor character named Alias, an ex-newspaper printer who becomes a groupie hanger-on to the notorious outlaw. Sam Peckinpah’s (“Ride The High Country”/”The Wild Bunch”/ “Straw Dogs”) bitter take on the mythical Old West is given the once over roughhouse treatment in this grim and very violent essay on the changing frontier scene and the re-telling of the death of the playful and affable outlaw Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). The Kid remains true to his old ways (even if he’s a cheat, whore monger, thief and killer) and wants things to remain the same (including his old friendships), while world-weary aging former outlaw Pat Garrett (James Coburn), the Kid’s former mentor, sees that the West is changing and sells his soul to the new leaders of cold-hearted capitalism to get a badge and a fat paycheck as he backs corrupt cattle baron Chisum (Barry Sullivan) enforcing laws that favor the privileged (Pat’s lawman is viewed as nothing short of legalized criminality).

MGM, in their utter stupidity, took a hatchet leveled by their hack president Jim Aubrey, and knocked off 15 minutes which made the film seem incoherent at times (the director disowned this version). When those later scenes were restored in the rereleased version in 1990, the film deserved another look to see how fully realized it was and can now be viewed as right up there with all the better Westerns.

In 1881, in the Fort Sumner territory, Pat’s first job as sheriff is to arrest his old outlaw friend Billy. Pat first gives the Kid a chance to escape to Mexico, but when he doesn’t heed the warning Billy is captured by the large posse that raids his hideout. The Kid is taken to Lincoln, New Mexico to be hanged, while his gang is killed in the shootout. Billy escapes by killing the deputy guards J.W. Bell (Matt Clark) and Deputy Sheriff Bob Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong), a Jesus crazy bent on tormenting the prisoner and getting him to repent, and going on an aimless journey until finally tracked down by the relentless Garrett and his cowardly deputy (John Beck)–forced on him by the corrupt territorial governor (Jason Robards, Jr.). The other deputy, Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam), was killed in a gun duel by the Kid, where both cheated in counting off the ten paces.

Ultimately the film is about betrayal and remaining true to oneself in the face of changing times. Garrett, after gunning down the Kid in the whorehouse, in cold-blood, at close range, shoots in disgust his reflection in the mirror because he’s troubled at his loss of dignity caused by giving in to his wish to live a long and comfortable life.

The film is brilliantly photographed by John Coquillon in the burnished colors of a sunset (shot in Durango, Mexico).

Peckinpah views the film as an allegory for the greed that had corrupted America, and convincingly established that the so-called good guys could be viewed as no better or even worse than the bad guys. This indicates that it’s not the law that matters so much as the men who serve the law, and that a Billy the Kid is worth more than a Pat Garrett.