Starring: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Mood: If you really love James Coburn and want to watch him crush it as a famous Western lawman while Bob Dylan is a shockingly good sidekick.
Me: “I’m going to stop reviewing so many niche and Revisionist Westerns.”
Also me: *throws on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid*
But it’s JAMES COBURN, people! You have to make a special exception for James freaking Coburn. And I’m glad I did, because this movie is bursting with Coburn awesomeness.
It’s also overflowing with Western icons:
- Katy Jurado
- Chill Wills
- Barry Sullivan
- Jason Robards
- R.G. Armstrong
- Luke Askew
- Jack Elam
- Slim Pickens
- Harry Dean Stanton
- L.Q. Jones
- Emilio Fernández
If you can handle an entire Western set to a Bob Dylan soundtrack – which was a HUGE challenge for me, personally – this one is definitely worth a watch. It’s a well-made movie, and James Coburn’s performance is fantastic. Just be 100% sure you get the special edition and not the original release – I’ll explain why later.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid opens on a dusty New Mexico desert road in 1909 – which is technically the year after Garrett died at the hand of a still-unknown shooter. Gunfire explodes across the screen, and in some brilliant camera work and editing, Garrett (James Coburn) is ambushed.
Then we flash back to 1889. Garrett rides into Old Fort Sumner, and warns his pal Billy (Kris Kristofferson) that he’s about to become sheriff and is tasked with eliminating The Kid.
Billy and his gang mock Garrett, but a few days later the lawman and his new posse have them surrounded for that famous capture.
From there it’s the familiar cat-and-mouse game that we all know. Garrett hunts Billy from town to town, but becomes increasingly conflicted about actually killing him. Billy remains overly confident to the bitter end.
The early scenes in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are so incredibly action-packed, you think this movie is going to keep blowing your mind from start to finish. But it kind of settles into a pace where there’s 10-15 minutes of storytelling then a shootout or gunfight, repeat.
There’s still plenty of action that’s shot and performed really well, other than the painfully obvious fake blood. Director Sam Peckinpah was known for making realistically violent films, and this is no exception. There are tense shootouts, duels, ambushes, and of course Billy’s escape from jail that involves a gun stowed in an outhouse and ends with him emptying a shotgun loaded with dimes into a self-righteous deputy sheriff (R.G. Armstrong).
Peckinpah also loved to explore conflicting values in his nihilistic view of the Western genre, so you get a raw take on what’s normally a heavily romanticized legend. Supporting figures from all walks of life get caught in the perpetual crossfire of Pat and Billy. Like when Mexican screen icon Katy Jurado appears mid-movie as a badass pioneer wife with a shotgun, delivers a heart-wrenching scene by a river, and is gone.
But toward the end of the film, especially the last half hour it REALLY starts to feel like you’ve been on this manhunt for as long as the characters. Maybe that was intentional, to tire the audience out so we feel sympathetic. Or maybe Peckinpah was just so mad at his own film that he was punishing everyone (see the trivia at the end of this review).
All I know is that my butt was sore from sitting for so long and I wanted it to end.
Part of the problem with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’s pacing isn’t the actual pacing, but the folksy tunes by Bob Dylan. They make gripping scenes like Garrett’s final sneak attack on Billy feel too fluffy. It’s the exact opposite of Peckinpah’s goal to present the Old West through a realistic lens.
For example, you have the eagle-eyed but tormented Coburn stalking his prey, about to change his life forever by killing his friend, and it’s set to the acoustic strumming of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’.
The lyrics DO make sense for this story; they ought to, since Dylan wrote his famous song for this soundtrack. But it would have been better suited to what happens AFTER the shooting, or even the end credits. Dylan’s nasally vocals throughout the film just don’t give you a Western vibe.
The other issue is that Kristofferson isn’t right for the part of Billy, and is no match for Coburn in any of his scenes.
This version of Billy the Kid has none of Emilio’s bouncy energy or sociopathic ferocity from Young Guns II. Nor does he have anything in common with Dane Haan’s more subtly unhinged portrayal of Billy in The Kid. And he is NOTHING like the Billy in Old Henry, about whom I will say nothing more.
- Fun Fact: Barry Sullivan (who plays Chisum) appeared as Pat Garrett in The Tall Man, while Coburn (this movie’s Garrett) played John Chisum in Young Guns II.
Kristofferson gives a low-energy 36-year-old playing a 21-year-old gunfighting outlaw. His performance lacks anything that feels legendary, or even special. It just doesn’t work.
Coburn’s Garrett, on the other hand, is a keen and stoic hunter who looks every bit like an outlaw-turned-lawman. Coburn somehow also makes Garrett incredibly human. You see him go through every emotion as slowly comes to terms with his choice, with actually having to kill Billy.
There’s this poignant scene where Pat rides out of town facing the rest of his life after Billy, no fanfare despite him bringing down an outlaw no other lawman could nab. A child hurling rocks at him. It’s just perfection.
He’s just such a damn good Western figure! He looks natural on a horse, in a wagon, drawing a gun…
Speaking of natural, the big surprise here is Bob Dylan as Alias. Dylan radiates the fast, spry energy that should have been present in Billy the Kid. He had no acting experience, but he fit right into the genre. I mean, we get to see him lasso a friggin’ turkey!
And now we get to the goods – the hot gossip about the making of this movie, which was Sam Peckinpah’s last Western.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Fun Facts Hit List:
- Peckinpah was hoping to make this another “definitive statement” on Westerns like his earlier, much-applauded film The Wild Bunch
- But Peckinpah was also constantly at war with his producers and MGM Studios
- His alcoholism was also so severe that Coburn apparently said he was only coherent for a few hours each day
- He also fought constantly with Kristofferson, but always stopped short of taking a swing because of Kristofferson’s background as an Airborne Ranger
- Throughout the film, Peckinpah apparently hated the footage so much (which he blamed on MGM’s lack of budget) that on Bob Dylan’s first day on set he witnessed Peckinpah pissing on the screen while watching the daily reel
- Rumours got out about Peckinpah’s behaviour on set, so he took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter mocking MGM’s execs
- The film wrapped up 21 days behind schedule and a whopping $1.6 million over budget
- MGM execs had just dropped a fortune building the MGM Grand in Vegas, and rushed a bunch of movies including this one to be released, hoping to turn a profit
- They chopped Peckinpah’s original 165-minute opus down to 105 minutes, a move that alienated not only the bitter director (who tried to have his name removed) but also the cast
- Over a decade later, Peckinpah was able to do a limited release of a ‘preview’ version… from which he dropped ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ because he felt the studio had forced Dylan on him
- In 2005 Warner Brothers released a special edition (the one that I watched), which honestly uses that song WAYYYYY too much and Peckinpah is definitely giving it the finger from beyond