Sam Peckinpah’s last Western gets a rare 35mm screening at the Somerville Theatre this week. “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is a towering, unfinished masterpiece and one of the saddest movies I have ever seen. A compromised work about how compromise eats the soul, it has a boozy, slouchy grandeur that troubles your dreams for weeks after the closing credits roll. This is Peckinpah’s final word on a genre he helped to define, and what a hopeless, despairing word that is. It’s the greatest movie you almost never got a chance to see.
On paper, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” looked like a slam-dunk proposition. The director of “The Wild Bunch” headed back out west for this oft-filmed tale of two old friends finding themselves on opposite sides of the law when capitalist robber-barons and government stooges started putting fences up all around the high country. Working from an acerbic script by cult novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, this bitterly revisionist take starred James Coburn as outlaw-turned-Sheriff Pat Garrett, assisted here by a posse of veteran old-timey Western character actors such as Jack Elam, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills and Slim Pickens.
For maximum counter-culture kick, Billy the Kid was played by hunky, hugely popular singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, with his gang of rebels filled out by Kristofferson’s touring band, Kris’ wife Rita Coolidge, plus other early 1970s music scene denizens including Harry Dean Stanton and some twitchy little cat named Bob Dylan. (Obsessed with Billy the Kid, Dylan reportedly begged Wurlitzer to write him a small role in the movie and composed the film’s haunting, dirge-like score.) What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters there was too much booze and too many drugs, even by this particular director’s notoriously hedonistic standards. It all escalated rather quickly into a (pretty much literal) pissing contest between Peckinpah and cheapskate MGM executive James Aubrey — who was in charge of transitioning the studio into the hotel industry and thus used their waning movie business as quickie cash infusions for the then-under-construction Grand in Las Vegas.
Known as “The Smiling Cobra” around Hollywood (except to Coburn, who simply called him “That Motherf—er”), Aubrey slashed the film’s budget at the 11th hour, shortened the shooting schedule and even refused to allow a Panavision camera mechanic to join the crew on location in Durango, Mexico. Bob Dylan had never before worked on a major motion picture, and thus didn’t quite know what to make of things when they sat down to watch dailies and everyone discovered the first week or so worth of footage was out of focus due an easily fixable lens malfunction. Then his director stood up on a chair and urinated all over the screen.
Aubrey obstinately refused to allow re-shoots of the unusable scenes, even though insurance would have covered the cost. Peckinpah found sneaky ways to film most of what he needed anyway, which is rather miraculous considering the fact that he was half-naked and blackout drunk most of the time, throwing knives and firing pistols into the air. Reports of the director’s decadence found their way back to Los Angeles, so Sam took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter with a photograph of himself on a stretcher carried by the cast and crew, a bottle of Johnnie Walker being fed intravenously into his arm alongside a lengthy caption addressing the rumors and admitting: “There have been some mornings.” As you might imagine, this didn’t go over so well with the suits.
When they eventually got back to California, after a contractually-obligated public test screening of Peckinpah’s hastily-assembled first cut, the director was informed that he had been fired and the film was already being re-edited for release by MGM, under Aubrey’s supervision. Despite Peckinpah’s attempts to sue and have his name removed from the picture, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” opened in July of 1973 — appallingly truncated and laughably incoherent — to audience indifference and critical disdain. Roger Ebert spent a good portion of his review pointing out actors listed in the credits who did not appear in the movie, while The New York Times’ Vincent Canby noted “there is no real relationship between how a man aims his gun and who he hits.”
“The MGM cut really blew my mind, it was really f—ing terrible,” said Coburn. “It made me sick, after all the anguish of making the f—ing thing.” And the lasting legacy of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” would presumably have remained as such, were it not for a tale hilariously recounted in David Weddle’s essential biography “If They Move… Kill ‘Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah.”
Amid the Sturm und Drang of the director’s firing on the evening of that fateful test screening, the film was left unattended in the projection booth. So Peckinpah's pals Smiley Ortega and Chalo Gonzalez smuggled it out the back door and pedaled away with the reels in the basket of a studio messenger bike. Editor Roger Spottiswoode recalls a mysterious phone call from the venue arriving shortly thereafter: “There’s been an extremely stupid theft. Somebody has stolen the picture but forgotten to steal the sound that went with it. We’re hoping the thief comes back and gets the sound tonight because once the studio finds out it’s going to be very difficult to take. So if the thief has got any smarts at all he’ll move fast.”
“I parked my car close to the editing rooms and left my trunk open and Smiley would come by and drop the [sound] reels in there,” Gonzalez later confessed to Weddle. “We took it all out to Sam’s trailer in Malibu, then later moved it to a film vault.” Over the next 15 years the purloined print bounced around all over the place, screening in secret and stashed sometimes even in people’s refrigerators. The legend of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” began to take hold, much to the consternation of the studio executives who tried to destroy it.
“I thought it was a masterpiece,” Martin Scorsese enthused, calling it “the only other Peckinpah film that came close to ‘The Wild Bunch.’ It came very close.” Finally, in 1988 when Ted Turner took ownership of MGM’s film library he commissioned a full restoration of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” to the now-deceased director’s initial specifications, prompting a massive critical reconsideration and happily consigning Aubrey’s butchered version to the dustbin of history.
It’s still not finished. Peckinpah’s first cut was a rough one, with a couple of go-nowhere subplots and spotty sound problems. But what remains of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is downright astonishing. Maybe the bleakest movie ever made, it’s scene after scene of Coburn’s washed-up gunslinger trying to play nice with the money-men and corrupt officials like Gov. Lew Wallace (a deeply chilling cameo from Jason Robards), assuring them all that he’s going to go kill The Kid soon, dammit. But Garrett keeps putting it off, dithering, circling around and getting drunker and more cruel at every pass, steeling himself for the final moment when he must become a monster, because America told him to.
The Kid ain’t going nowhere, neither. There’s a weird disconnect between Kristofferson’s awe-inspiring charisma — you want to root for this guy — and the fact that Billy mostly just sits around all day bored and drunk, blowing the heads off chickens and then when push comes to shove, he mostly shoots people in the back.
“Christ, Billy don’t you get stale around here?” Coburn asks during their first scene together. Garrett even gives his old pal an out — leaving him time to run off to Mexico and vanish. “I’m asking you, but in five days I’m telling you.”
But Billy won’t budge. As Stanton’s sidekick explains, “in Old Mex you ain’t gonna be anything but another drunken gringo, s—ing out chili peppers and waiting for nothing.” If he stays here at least he still gets to be Billy the Kid. Even if that means his friend has to kill him for it.
Notably missing “The Wild Bunch’s” visceral kick, all of the shootouts in this movie are desperate, futile and sad. One of the most heartbreaking death scenes in the history of cinema occurs after Garrett deputizes a couple of reluctant old pals played by Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado. Pickens is gutshot in a crossfire, and quietly excuses himself from the gunfight to go sit by the water and slowly bleed out. Jurado follows, keeping a respectful distance, gazing at him with great yearning and inconsolable grief while Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” plays on the soundtrack and the sun sets over the river Pecos.
The final half-hour of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” ascends to a mournful, doomy majesty. Having stalled and put off the inevitable for the better part of 122 minutes, Coburn at long last approaches a Fort Sumner house where Kris Kristofferson is having idyllic sex with Rita Coolidge. It’s getting dark, too dark to see, and fog is swirling all around.
A coffin-maker, played by Peckinpah himself — 47 years old and not looking a day under 70 -- is lurking on the sidelines, cussing Garrett and muttering “you can’t trust no one, not even yourself,” as the sheriff steps out of the darkness and into American myth. Pat guns down Billy in cold blood, then he fires at his own reflection in a nearby mirror.
In Peckinpah’s edit, the film is framed by a sepia-toned flash-forward to 1909, during which Garrett is murdered in an ambush by the same people he sold himself out to decades ago. Cross-cut with a scene of Pat and Billy happily target-shooting chickens in 1881, the movie creates a loop. They’re shooting each other, they’re shooting themselves. It’s all a vicious circle and a terrible waste.
Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.