Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid

Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid

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Pat Garret and Billy The Kid was released in 1973 and is the last Western directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah. It was filmed, when Peckinpah was a functioning alcoholic, in Durango, Mexico and it was a difficult and tense production. Just before shooting began the budget was cut by producers MGM who, at the time, were building The Grand in Las Vegas. Cast and crew were struck down with illness due to poor irrigation and there were technical difficulties with the camera lenses being scratched and damaged, which, eventually, led to reshoots. 

Peckinpah was so unimpressed by what he was seeing in the dailies that he reportedly climbed on a chair and started pissing on the screen. By the time filming had finished the film was both over budget and over schedule.

There were further conflicts during editing with MGM President James Aubrey requesting that the film be cut; he had been at loggerheads with Peckinpah all through production. Although Peckinpah did complete a preview version that was shown to critics, he eventually had the film taken from him and then cut by nearly twenty minutes before being released to less than favourable reviews.

Much like his most celebrated Western, The Wild Bunch, it's the bond between men that is at the core of this story. Again we have two guys that were once great friends now separated and with each one on a different side of law. But where as in The Wild Bunch where that relationship would play second fiddle, in the overall story, to bond between the members of The Bunch themselves, here it is the absolute focal point. Where the gang in The Wild Bunch were prepared to go down in a blaze of glory side by side, in this story we are witness to the end of a relationship that will climax with one man left standing. There is no blaze of glory here. Only sorrow and regret.

The film tells the story of Pat Garrett's pursuit of Billy The Kid after he is hired by local cattle barons to bring him in. We see in flashback that Pat (James Coburn) and Billy (Kris Kristofferson) used to be best of friends but now Pat is on the side of Law and is bound by duty to hunt to him down. Like all great Westerns, and the reason I find myself falling in love with the genre so much, it's such a simple story that's all about great characters portrayed with solid performances. Both lead actors are fantastic here with Kristofferson giving a swaggering, super cool almost rock star like performance that is perfectly juxtaposed by Coburn's Garrett who is so reluctant to perform the job at hand that you can almost hear the spurs on his boots spinning as he drags his heels towards the final showdown.

There is an air of inevitability throughout this movie that no one can escape. The character's know what's going to happen and so does the audience. They all seem to know that their way of life is coming to an end. It could make for quite a sombre viewing experience, and in places it is, but at the same time it's also a beautiful and emotional movie. It helps that the soundtrack to the movie was written by Bob Dylan, who also appears as one of Billy's gang, as it compliments the film perfectly. I'm no Dylan fan and one of the only songs from him I'm familiar with is Knocking on Heavens Door. What I didn't know was that it was specifically written for this film and is used majestically in one of the most poignant and heartbreaking scenes in the movie.

I really can't recommend this film highly enough. Although not as action packed as The Wild Bunch there are still a couple of great action sequences, all filmed in that familiar Peckinpah style. There is, however, an emotional weight added to this story that makes it a very different kind of Western to the ones that I've seen previously.

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