Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Dir. Sam Peckinpah
Starring: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Richard Jaeckel

It would be untrue to say that cinematic maverick Sam Peckinpah invented blood. He did not even invent it in the cinema. But he made his fame from buying it in bulk and making sure that it got liberally sprayed around in his action movies. These days it seems strange to see a film with A-Team violence where the bad guys get hit and fall bloodlessly to the ground. Today bullets hurt and wounds bleed. And that is the legacy of Sam Peckinpah. 

His legacy is also the re-writing of the West. The old story, as seen in Gunfight of the O.K. Corral, is of noble sheriffs and marshals valiantly fighting to bring outlaws to justice. The question often forgotten is what the efibition of ‘justice’ is. In Peckinpah’s eyes the West was a war-zone where whoever had the most guns won. The ‘outlaws’ were hired men with guns. So were the lawmen. 

Pat Garrett (James Coburn) and Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) are two of those hired guns. They had ridden alongside each other as outlaws. But now Garrett has recognised which way the wind is blowing. He accepts that the West is getting old and wishes to grow old with it. If this means him taking the shilling of the cattle barons, he’ll do so.  He has taken up the post of Sheriff of Lincoln County. And his first task is to bring in Billy. Garrett warns his old friend that “the electorate” want him dead. That ‘electorate’ in reality is comprised of the wealthy ranchers who won the cattle wars and now want the territory to settle down. They used outlaws themselves to climb to the top; now they are there they wish to cement the position and eliminate threats to their control of the state. 

Garrett tells the Kid that “Times have changed.” Billy replies “Times, maybe. Not me.” He wants to live his life exactly the way he always has done. He doesn’t accept that the wild times are over and business and political interests want New Mexico to settle down. Mind you, it’s hard to recognise that fact when the hired men of the landowners act with impunity, shooting up passers-by for sport, killing Billy’s Mexican pal Paco (Emilio Fern├índez) and raping his wife. He attracts hash-house cook Alias (Bob Dylan) who is sick of following orders. On the soundtrack Dylan sings that the men of property hated Billy for being “so free”. 

People laughed at Bob's idea to replace
pistols at dawn with Rock-Paper-Scissors
Yes, like High Noon, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has a unified soundtrack too. This time, it is composed by Bob Dylan and it fits the mood of the film perfectly. Perhaps the most famous moment is when Garrett meets up with elderly Sheriff Colin Baker (Western legend Slim Pickens) and his Mexican wife (High Noon’s Katy Jurado). Baker recognises the West as corrupt; he wants to build a boat and get out of New Mexico. “I’d rather be outside of the law than packin’ a badge for that town of Lincoln and them that’s a-runnin’ it” he tells Garrett. Nevertheless he accompanies Pat to apprehend some of Billy’s old band. It costs him his life. As his life seeps from him, his wife looking on in agony, the unmistakeable strains of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door hum out: “Mother, take this badge off of me – I can’t use it any more. It’s getting dark, too dark to see. Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door…” I didn’t even know this song had originated on a film soundtrack. Its meaning is clear in context. 

The film is an elegy, a farewell to a vanishing way of life. The forces of order – including Garrett – are vanquishing the forces of freedom. There is no place for the way of life Billy and his gang represents in the ‘new’ West. The trail of bodies is part of the plan of the cattle barons. Notably the film is shown in flashback. The very first death seen, albeit some 28 years after the main story, is that of Garrett himself, killed by those self-same interests that once hired him to bring Billy to justice. The Old West has gone. And the cast is filled out by veteran actors from the great days of Western movies, a last hurrah. Slim Pickens (Dr. Strangelove, Stagecoach, One-Eyed Jacks, Blazing Saddles and Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue), Katy Jurado (High Noon, Broken Lance, One-Eyed Jacks), Chill Wills (Rio Grande, Cattle Drive, The Alamo) and Jack Elam (who had a small part as the jailed drunk in High Noon before going on to make Kansas City Confidential, Rancho Notorious, The Far Country, Rio Lobo) all appeared as casualties of the West. 

The thing is, Garrett doesn’t much enjoy his part in it either. It is James Coburn’s grizzled performance as a man torn between two worlds that really makes the film. He is a character from the Old West having to adapt himself to the realities of the new one. He is the Vicar of Bray’s bastard offspring. He is violent, maleveolent, hard-drinking, hard-whoring. He is torn by his former friendship to the Kid. He warns him to get out to Mexico before he takes up his new position. When he finally shoots Billy dead he then shoots the mirror that reflected his deed in a state of anguish. He then angrily prevents Poe (John Beck) from cutting off Billy’s trigger finger. While Kris Kristofferson’s Billy seems decent-ish and has a roguish grin there isn’t that much to his character. The other characters get a couple of minutes of screen-time before, in general, being killed. There are moments of the film that mystify me: the entire sub-plot with Paco for example, or the scene where Garrett watches the boat sailing down-river. But Coburn and Peckinpah’s famous action scenes are enough to keep the audience interested. 

What have I learnt about New Mexico?
The Westerns lied! They said it was all about good guys and bad guys; in actual fact, the ‘good guys’ were some of the nastiest around. The film might not be 100% historically accurate but it makes reference to real-life events like the Lincoln County Cattle War and real-life characters like John Chisum. It was clear that hired guns were used by all sides, and then disposed of when no longer useful. 

Reference is made to raiding by Mescalero Indians. Mexicans provide a large proportion of the population and Spanish is widely-spoken. The landscapes are dry, dusty and arid. Men are handy with guns, drink heavily and whore about. Women don’t have much of a life – they are neglected wives, rape victims or prostitutes. 

Mexico itself is referred to as ‘Old Mexico’. Over the border freedom beckons – but also boredom. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in old New Mexico, so it makes sense that it was filmed in ‘old’ Mexico – Mexico. The entire caboodle relocated to the arid landscapes of Durango for filming. 

But many of the places mentioned in the film still dot the New Mexico landscape. Fort Sumner, where the film starts and ends, is still famous for being the location of Billy the Kid’s grave and the Billy the Kid Museum. Billy broke out of gaol in Lincoln. That gaol can still be seen today in the Lincoln State Monument. Garrett travels up to Santa Fe to meet Governor Lew Wallace (the man who – I shit you not – wrote Ben Hur). The Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the U.S. can be visited. And in 1909 Garrett finally gets what’s coming to him on his ranch near Las Cruces. Garrett’s grave can be found in the Masonic Cemetery in Las Cruces; a concrete marker on East Mesa south of Route 70 between Las Cruces and the San Augustin Pass marks where he was killed. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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