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By the time Sam Peckinpah began filming Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1972, it would be fair to say that the director himself was considered an outlaw. Far more graceful as a filmmaker than as a man, Peckinpah drank, cursed, and punched his way through a career that reached a zenith with The Wild Bunch (1969), an extraordinarily violent meditation on dying Western ideals. From there on, though, Peckinpah's pictures were flawed character studies that still bore the indelible imprint of their creator. To work on a latter-day Peckinpah film was to be immersed in a three-ring circus of antagonism, with the director serving as both the clown and the ringmaster. The best anyone could do was take a deep breath and hang on tight.
Peckinpah bookends his version of the Billy the Kid legend with scenes of the broken lawman, Pat Garrett (James Coburn), reflecting on his own loss of dignity as capitalists shatter the codes of the Old West. The rest of the movie unfolds as a gritty memory, in which Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) escapes from a Lincoln, New Mexico jail and heads to Fort Sumner. There, he confronts his old friend, Garrett, who's been hired by the Governor (Jason Robards, Jr.) to bring the outlaw to justice. A mysterious newspaperman named Alias (Bob Dylan) is so seduced by Billy's mystique, he decides to tag along on the doom-laden journey. Peckinpah is especially pitiless, even by his own standards, as he carefully orchestrates Billy's inevitable demise.
Peckinpah viewed Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid as an allegory for the greed that had corrupted America - the pillage being conducted by its shady politicians. Whether that's readily apparent in the finished film is debatable. Perhaps Peckinpah would have made the picture he intended to make had he not been saddled (no pun intended) with MGM president Jim Aubrey, who was known to openly antagonize filmmakers who didn't toe the corporate line. In David Weddle's Peckinpah biography, If They Move...Kill 'Em, Coburn contended that Aubrey "would hire big-time directors and top writers and stars, and then step in and f**king destroy the film. He was totally irrational." Aubrey and Peckinpah together would prove to be a disastrous combination.
One of the loopier aspects of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is the chin-scratching presence of Dylan, the songwriting visionary who changed the face of popular music back in the Sixties. Dylan was originally recruited by screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer to supply some music for the movie's soundtrack. However, after watching and being awed by The Wild Bunch, Dylan asked if he could also act in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. As a kid, he said, he always wanted to be in a Western, and this seemed like as good a time as any.
It wouldn't be long before Dylan was wondering what he had gotten himself into. In the documentary, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (2003), Wurlitzer recounts Dylan's introduction to Peckinpah: "As we walked up to the house, there was a scream, and (Peckinpah's) maid ran out, terrified, and we heard a gunshot." When Dylan and Wurlitzer entered the house, they found Peckinpah standing in front of a shattered mirror, stark naked, holding a bottle of booze and waving a gun around. To make matters even worse, Peckinpah claimed to have never heard of Dylan (this seems unlikely, at best), and wasn't particularly interested in having him in his movie. Luckily, that all changed when Peckinpah heard a ballad that Dylan had written about Billy. Peckinpah loved the song so much, he wound up listening to it over and over again for inspiration.
The tone of shoot was set after a couple weeks of filming, when everyone gathered to watch the first batch of rushes. The footage had to be shipped to a lab in L.A. to be developed, so, at this point, not even Peckinpah had seen any of it. It became clear after just a few minutes that none of the master shots were usable - a faulty lens caused half the image to fall permanently out of focus, a mistake that wouldn't have occurred had Aubrey sent Peckinpah a camera technician as he requested. Peckinpah, who, along with everybody else, had been drinking tequila while watching the footage, promptly drug his chair in front of the crew, stood on it, and urinated on the screen. For the rest of the shoot, rushes would have to be viewed on a screen with an "S"-shaped stain in the middle of it.
Coburn describes what happened then: "Aubrey didn't know we were reshooting the stuff till he saw it in the rushes back in L.A. Then this big edict came down, 'You can't shoot any more retakes!'" But that didn't stop Peckinpah and his gang. "Well," Coburn continues, "we reshot everything that was necessary. But we had to reshoot it in the context of shooting the new scenes. We were reshooting scenes at lunchtime, we were reshooting at the end of the day, we were reshooting whenever we could.'"
The problems on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid were of the Apocalypse Now (1979) variety- monumental setbacks that might have sunk another, less obsessed director. Rainstorms repeatedly halted filming and ruined sets. A large chunk of the cast came down with the flu (there's one scene that Coburn didn't even remember filming because he was so ill). The script was being extensively re-written on the set. Even Dylan inadvertently added $25,000 to the final tab when he went jogging and ruined a shot of the sunset that Peckinpah had been preparing to capture for several hours! The already boiling tension between Peckinpah and Aubrey increased with each new incident.
As the production drug on, Peckinpah's alcoholism and paranoia finally got the best of him. Reportedly, he would begin each morning with a big glass of vodka, just to stop shaking. Then, when he got to the set, he'd mix vodka and grenadine all day long, until he was in a rage. "After about four hours, Sam was gone," Coburn said. "He was a genius for about four hours, then it was all downhill." At one point, Peckinpah even posed for a joke photograph that he sent to the Hollywood Reporter, showing him lying on a hospital gurney while receiving a bottle of whiskey through an intravenous drip.
"On that film Sam created an atmosphere that was so poisonous," one crew member recalled. Peckinpah even had an assistant tap the telephones, so conversations could later be perused to see if any crew members were planning a revolt. He also flew actors to Durango and purposely kept them in hotel rooms for weeks on end, on full salary, just to get back at Aubrey. He even billed MGM for mariachi bands that he hired to entertain the crew...or, more specifically, to aggravate his nemesis in Los Angeles.
With all this agitation, it's a miracle that Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid holds together at all. Though not a masterpiece, it still contains moments of intense beauty and bedraggled poetry. As an accurate portrait of the man behind the camera, it can't be beat. One thing is certain - if you enter the world of Sam Peckinpah, you play by Peckinpah's rules. Even if they're not always coherent.
A note on the original theatrical release of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: For years the only available version of Peckinpah's 1973 feature was the studio-approved edit which the director disowned. Recently, however, Warner Video has released the studio version on a DVD along with a Director's cut of the film which is much closer to the version Peckinpah intended. The latter version has caused some critics to change their original opinion of the film. For example, David Thomson wrote in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film that "Pat Garrett is one of the great American films, entrancing, perplexing, and - may I add - growing: only recently, a letterboxed videotape came my way with a long, bitter scene between Garrett and his wife that changes my sense of the film (yet again). For there are versions of Pat Garrett, and there is a Peckinpah cult that delivers Sam's real or deepest wishes long after his death. Why not? So many of his films were butchered, adding confusion to plot lines that are often cryptic and episodic."
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Gordon Carroll
Screenplay: Rudolph Wurlitzer
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Music Score: Bob Dylan
Editing: David Berlatsky, Garth Craven, Tony de Zarraga, Richard Halsey, Roger Spottiswoode, Robert L. Wolfe
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Set Design: Ray Moyer
Sound Design: Harry W. Tetrick, Charles M. Wilborn
Makeup: Jack R. Wilson
Special Effects: A.J. Lohman
Cast: James Coburn (Pat Garrett), Kris Kristofferson (Billy the Kid), Bob Dylan (Alias), Harry Dean Stanton (Luke), Matt Clark (J.W. Bell), Barry Sullivan (Chisum), Dub Taylor (Josh), Rudolph Wurlitzer (Tom O'Folliard), Chill Wills (Lemuel), Jorge Russek (Silva), Don Levy (Sackett), Aurora Clavel (Ida Garrett), Donnie Fritts (Beaver), Emilio Fernandez (Paco), L.Q. Jones (Black Harris), Charles Martin Smith (Bowdre), Sam Peckinpah (Will), Walter Kelley (Rupert), Rutanya Alda (Ruthie Lee), John Beck (Poe), Jack Elam (Alamosa Bill), Slim Pickens (Sheriff Baker), Jason Robards, Jr. (Governor Wallace).
by Paul Tatara