Judge Ryan Keefer continues his appreciation of the recent Sam Peckinpah western films by revisiting a film that some have called one of his underrated works.
Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Westerns, published June 17th, 2010, is also available.
Best of enemies. Deadliest of friends.
Sam Peckinpah had experienced some ups and downs since his role as auteur of 1969s The Wild Bunch. He continued to release polarizing films of violence like Straw Dogs, genuine box office hits like The Getaway, and smaller, personal films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue. In 1973 he went back to wsterns again, directing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. During a production where strange behavior and alcohol abuse was prevalent, is there a coherent film to enjoy?
Facts of the Case
Famed western gunslinger William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson, Heaven's Gate, Lone Star) is surprised to find his old friend Pat Garrett (James Coburn, Affliction, The Magnificent Seven) is now a member of the law, and will soon be dispatched to capture the Kid. The rest of the film is spent showing Garrett's pursuit of the Kid. Along the way, the people that are trying to help Garrett in his search seem to be more corrupt than the Kid themselves, with a "by any means necessary" frame of mind.
The Kid's reputation is by now well known in the 1881 west, as some of those who Garrett enlists for help realize that in death, they may become famous as another victim of Billy the Kid. And Peckinpah uses some of the more recognizable faces in western films as part of this journey. Among those involved are Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens, Major Dundee), Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam, Rio Lobo, Once Upon a Time in the West) and Sheriff McKinney (Richard Jaeckel, The Dirty Dozen). They all know that it may be a suicide mission, but ultimately, the relationship of Pat and Billy and the duality of their personas are similar faces on opposite sides of the coin is the main attraction in the film.
Many people seem to recognize this film for the poignant death scene that Pickens has with his wife, played by actress Katy Jurado (High Noon), but another scene worth revisiting is the duel that the Kid has with Alamosa Bill. Elam portrays Bill as a man that has a lot of respect for the Kid, and is sorry for what he's about to do, but knows that he'll be right for whatever happens.
In terms of performances, Kristofferson and Coburn are both good; there isn't really one that's better than another. During the movie's progression, both characters manage to revert back to what could be construed as their nature. After Billy's friend Paco (Emilio Fernandez, The Wild Bunch) is killed, Billy, who was going to Mexico, heads back to seek retribution for the person(s) responsible. And Pat manages to humiliate one of Billy's friends before killing him.
The cameos are OK, but after awhile, the viewer is almost expecting another good name. Now don't get me wrong, there are a lot of recognizable names and faces in the film. Aside from who I've mentioned, you have John Wayne stock actors Paul Fix (The High and the Mighty) and Chill Wills (McLintock!), along with Peckinpah stock actors L.Q. Jones and Jason Robards, all in brief roles that last a scene or two. But it seems to take you away from what is a pedestrian-paced story. And when Peckinpah himself appears in a scene late in the film, it's like you could see it coming. Bob Dylan is behind the score of the film and appears as a soft-spoken character named Alias, but the only thing of note he seems to do well is reading canned food labels.
David Weddle's magnificent biography If They Move, Kill 'Em helps shed some light on the production. There were a lot of things going on in Peckinpah's life. While his marriage was ending, he found a new love in his assistant during Straw Dogs, and she was resentful of his philandering behavior but still reunited with him during filming. In the script, Peckinpah found things that he identified with, similar to Ride the High Country, but thought it needed some polishing, which eventually turned into a major rewrite. Peckinpah's rebellious nature against the studios was well known by this time, and Coburn eventually questioned whether Peckinpah would want to direct the film, based on the caustic studio head that was running things.
And of course, Peckinpah's drinking was a factor, starting from the word go. His frequent buddies in this pursuit were Coburn and Kristofferson. He urinated on the screen where he watched dailies, and frequently blacked out after a day's shoot, coming in late the following day. During a rushed post-production schedule, he would not show up for various rough cut screenings. Without Peckinpah's consent, a rushed, shorter version of the film appeared in theaters. Thankfully, Warner Brothers has corrected this, placing an extended cut of the film on a second disc in this set. Perhaps either version should be called the "Jerry Harvey cut," as the head of the now-defunct Z-channel in Los Angeles was a champion of any longer version than the blasphemous 90-minute studio version that was released theatrically. The 2005 version is somewhat shortened, and for the most part, the edits were made in an attempt to trim some of the fat from the 1988 version of the film. Some scenes were integrated back into the film, most notably a scene where Pat goes home to his wife before leaving to find Billy. All in all, the 2005 version does help bring even more depth to Garrett's character, and appears to be superior. The picture on the 2005 version is a substantial improvement from the 1988 version as well, but both films contain a Dolby mono track, thus not being as effective as perhaps it could have been.
Weddle, Nick Redman, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor, all of whom are noted experts on Peckinpah, join forces for commentaries on both versions of the film. Redman helps the moderate the discussion, and all of them discuss the production issues and Peckinpah's wars with the studio, and they focus on the changes on the newer version of the film as well. The commentaries are solid supplements to the viewing experience. Aside from the trailers of Peckinpah's westerns, and one featuring the James Dean collection, there's a bunch of stuff here. In Deconstructing Pat and Billy Seydor and Peckinpah assistant Katy Haber recall the troubles on set with the equipment and production. Most of the crew was sick at some point during production (Haber says she "became the B-12 shooter to the stars"). Seydor recalls the conflicts between Peckinpah and the studio, with some other details provided by Haber. Seydor also helps provide the differences between each cut for some scenes in the film. I wouldn't really call this a deconstruction as it's more of a retrospective and appreciation than anything else. One Foot In The Groove: Remembering Sam Peckinpah and Other Things focuses on recollections on the film by Kristofferson and friend (and fellow musician) Donny Fritts, who played Beaver. They spend about a half hour discussing their lives before coming aboard to the film, and working on the set as well. There's something about guys who recall a director throwing knives and pulling guns on them and their laughing about it that's a little…off? Considering the volatile personality, I guess it's understandable. They also perform a couple songs that were inspired by Peckinpah, and it runs for another five minutes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment, but one has to wonder just how abominable the short, studio-edited version was, and maybe seeing that as part of this package, a la the Criterion treatment that Brazil was given, would have been interesting. In a more utopian world, Dylan's score would have been remastered to two-channel glory, or even a 5.1 surround mix, but I'll take what's here.
Fans of Peckinpah and this film will enjoy the film's dual presentation, one of which looks as good as the film ever has. While it's not another Wild Bunch or Ride the High Country, it's still a pretty solid western with an interesting character study in duality.
The court finds for the actors and director, and finds MGM guilty for corrupting the filmmaking process way back in production. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Biographers/Historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle
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