Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is #582 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 02/12/11 on DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #576 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).

Step 1: Hire Sam Peckinpah, the most notorious, the bloodiest (and most difficult to work with) filmmaker of his day (sorry Sam Fuller) and give him free reign with the equally notorious and equally bloody (and probably equally difficult to work with) legend of Billy the Kid.

Step 2: Design the entire mood of the movie around a soundtrack written specifically for the film by a certain musical creative genius (and possible prophet incarnate according to a good friend of mine) by the name of Bob Dylan, nee Robert Zimmerman - and give the singer/songwriter a part in the movie as a knife-wielding outlaw named Alias. 

Step 3: Release Hell.

Granted, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is not the balls-out blood-letting that The Wild Bunch is, nor is it as subversively wicked as Straw Dogs but it is still pure Peckinpah from start to finish - well, at least it was until MGM (in the manner of many a tragic studio story of yesteryear) recut the film without the director's knowledge (in other words, brutalized the filmmaker's vision!) and released this decidedly inferior version to inevitably derisive reviews.  The film would later be restored to its supposed original glory, but even the version known as the director's cut, due to it being restored after the director's death, may be lacking in what Peckinpah had wanted his movie to be.  Both versions are available on a double disc DVD set.

But this post-production hanky-panky aside, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a Hell of a fun movie to watch.  The film stars James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, respectively as the titular friends turned enemies.  The fact that the thirty-seven year old Kristofferson is playing a character that died at twenty-one and the forty-five year old Coburn is playing a man who in reality was just thirty when he killed the Kid, is really nothing more than a quaint anecdote once one turns on their suspension of disbelief and just lets the movie wash over them in the semi-mystical way it is meant to.  Kristofferson and Coburn are great in their roles (rumour has it James Taylor was originally set to play the part of Billy) and the film is filled to the veritable brim with great character actors of the then-present and the past.  In smaller roles, we get to see Jason Robards, Harry Dean Stanton, Dub Tayler, Chill Wills, Charlie Martin Smith, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Richard Jaeckel, Luke Askew and Elisha Cook Jr.  Singer Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson's wife at the time, also plays a small part.

Of course the most fun character to watch is that of Alias.  After hearing that Peckinpah wanted to get Roger Miller to do a title song for the movie, Kristofferson brought in Bob Dylan who immediately wowed the at first unconvinced Peckinpah.  The ensuing soundtrack was as unsuccessful as the studio recut film although it did have one song, Knockin' on Heaven's Door, that would become a big hit.  My personal favourite track though (in terms of just its musical style), is the title track - a sweetly melancholic ballad in the tradition of Dylan's more troubadour style of John Wesley Harding.  Yet, the scene in which Knockin' on Heaven's Door plays (where Slim Pickens' character is dying) is not only the finest scene in the film but one of the most emotionally jarring scenes I have ever watched on screen.  The scene is simply devastating.  It is in this manner that Dylan's music helps to make Peckinpah's revisionist western an even more powerful motion picture than even the director (could do.

The movie has the typically heightened sense of self-awareness that many American films had during this period of seventies cinema (think the films of Altman, Scorsese and Bogdanovich) which adds to the storytelling aspect of such a legendary (and oft historically inaccurate) tale.   In my opinion, not only does this film deserve to be included on such a list as is being counting down with these posts (and there are many on the list I feel do not deserve such an honour) but it is one of the best films of the time period.  With an almost counter-culture feel about it (The Vietnam War was still wallowing about and Watergate was a hot topic) Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a prime example of how movies were being made in Hollywood (a surprisingly much freer Hollywood at the time) from the late sixties to around 1981 or 1982.

1 comment:

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