Billy the Kid Week 2010: Review of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Billy the Kid Week

Welcome to day 3 of Billy the Kid Week 2010. I’ll be reviewing Billy the Kid movies all week. Day 1 I reviewed Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw starring Jane Russell. Day 2 I reviewed The Left Handed Gun starring Paul Newman. Today I look back at a classic Billy the Kid western from the early ’70s directed by one of the last great directors of the genre, Sam Peckinpah, who also directed the wonderful The Wild Bunch. The movie is 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Directed by legendary director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and starring James Coburn as Pat Garrett and Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. This movie also contains the motion picture debut of Bob Dylan in the small role of Alias.  Dylan would also score the soundtrack (his first music score) and created “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for this movie.  This particular movie is legendary for the “behind the scenes” battles between Peckinpah and MGM studio head James Aubrey.  Aubrey did everything he could to undermine Peckinpah who, to be fair, was battling a severe bout of alcoholism which would plague him for the rest of his life.

Aubrey constantly questioned Peckinpah’s camera setups, time to shoot scenes and would continually tell Peckinpah to remove certain scenes he felt were unnecessary.  Peckinpah convinced the cast and crew to work covertly on lunch breaks and weekends to complete all the scenes he wanted shot.  When principal photography was finished, the picture was 21 days late and over $1 million over budget.  Peckinpah’s final cut of the film was 124 minutes.  However, the studio was so unhappy they took the film away from him and re-cut it to 102 minutes and released it.  The film was a box office failure.  Peckinpah’s 124 minute director’s cut was restored in the early ’80s on home video and laserdisc.  Eventually public opinion on the movie was turned and people began considering the movie to be an overlooked masterpiece, on par with The Wild Bunch.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid DVD

Before a few days ago, I’d never watched this movie.  I was aware of it, I planned on watching it many years ago during my Billy the Kid movie marathons, but I just never got around to it.  I was glad that I now had the chance to see it.  Honestly, this movie is better than the previous two movies I reviewed, but it’s still not one of my favorites.

This movie has a very particular pacing that fans of ’60s-’70s westerns will be aware of.  It’s very deliberate and slow.  This works for some movies (Outlaw Josey Wales, Fistful of Dollars) but, for me, doesn’t work here. You have a great shootout in the beginning then a long, slow story build until the end. I found myself checking the clock several times wondering if anything was going to happen soon.  I was interested whenever Coburn’s Garrett was onscreen, but not as much whenever Kristofferson or Dylan were onscreen.

Coburn and Kristofferson

James Coburn is fantastic as Pat Garrett (he’s usually fantastic in everything).  He plays the former friend/hunter of Billy the Kid with great nuance and personality.  Kris Kristofferson, however, is not as memorable as Billy the Kid.  Kristofferson was in his 30s when he played Billy (the same as Newman in Left Handed Gun) but Kristofferson actually looks the part with his baby face more than Newman.  I felt he actually resembled the famous tintype picture of Billy the Kid everyone remembers.  However his performance of The Kid was a bit boring.  I didn’t find him charismatic enough of a personality to keep me interested.  Garrett, yes.  Billy, no.  Maybe that’s how Peckinpah designed this movie to work, I don’t know, but that’s what happened.  As for Dylan, well, he’s there.  That’s pretty much all I’ll say about that.

Kristofferson and Dylan

Something I did find interesting in this movie was how much it was homaged in Young Guns II.  I don’t know if it was intentional (but probably was because Coburn is in both movies) but there were several scenes in this movie that looked very similar to Young Guns II.  The main scene being when Jason Robards’ Governor Lew Wallace is trying to hire Garrett as the Sheriff to hunt down Billy.  The setting and dialogue are all homaged very nicely in Young Guns II.  Even the suit Garrett wears after he takes the Sheriff job is similar to what William Peterson as Garrett would wear in the same scenes after being hired as Sheriff.  It was a nice touch.  Scott Wilson’s Lew Wallace in Young Guns II even looks like Robards’ Wallace here.  The shootout at Stinking Springs in the beginning of this movie also looks very similar to the same scene in the middle of Young Guns II.  These things were very interesting to pick out and I was probably able to pick them out so easily because I know the Young Guns movies like the back of my hand.  And, Young Guns couldn’t have picked a better director to homage.

Kristofferson as Billy

Story aside, this movie is filmed very theatrically.  Nice wide panoramas of the New Mexico desert and wonderful location sets make this movie look fantastic.  It really does feel like an epic western.  I can definitely recommend this as technically this movie is heads and above everything I’ve seen so far, but story-wise, it’s a little weak.  For me.  I enjoyed watching for the most part to see Coburn really go for it as Garrett, but I was underwhelmed by Kristofferson as the titular Billy.  Of course, I may be colored by my love of Emilio Estevez’s over the top portrayal of Billy.  Kristofferson went the exact opposite of Estevez and really plays Billy more understated and quiet (probably closer to the true Billy the Kid).  But that really is a personal preference colored by my nostalgia glasses that I look through for Young Guns.

This movie gets a recommend, but be aware of the nice and slow ’70s pacing and you’ll be fine.

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One Response to “Billy the Kid Week 2010: Review of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)”

  1. Brian Hessling Says:

    Ok, so I applaud you for watching the movie. BUT P.G.& B.K. is by far the best B.K. film EVER! So, here’s why: Peckinpah understood the western, rescued the western, re-created the western. The movie is more like Shakespeare than any “traditional” western. It is the end of an arc before impact: from here it is the debris that is history. This is not an action movie, it is a “tragedy”, it is the “buddy movie” turned on its head, it quite possibly is, within the frame of the image, perfect.

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