Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
Bob Dylan's music accompanies the first killing in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett (James Coburn) rides across New Mexico with some of his comrades. He is complaining with his weathered baritone about how one of his comrades is grazing sheep in his land. That comrade replies that the lease agreement they had involves his land and not Pat's. Pat scoffs at the law, the same law that he acknowledged when he was elected Sheriff of the land. A few moments after Pat's indignant scoffing, Pat Garrett is shot to death. Director Sam Peckinpah freeze frames the violence, and cross cuts the assassination with a flashback to a few decades ago wherein Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) and his band are shooting chicken's heads. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is bookended with two deaths. Peckinpah is keen on reminding us that his film is an ode to a death, of Pat Garrett, of his pal-turned-nemesis Billy the Kid, and finally, of the Old West.
A younger Pat Garrett disrupts Billy the Kid's fun and invites him inside the saloon. After a few glasses of whiskey, Pat tells Billy to leave the area in five days, or he will be forced to chase him out. Pat and Billy were former friends. However, Pat has accepted the post of sheriff and with it the mission to end Billy's outlaw career. Now, they are formidable enemies, with Pat and his assured confidence and with Billy and his youthful wit and clever designs and trickery. Peckinpah lets his audience wade through the duo's mastery: gunfights after gunfights leave several casualties with the two standing alive and surviving.
Amidst the numerous bloody deaths, there is a distinct lyricism to Peckinpah's storytelling which is fascinatingly undaunted by the somewhat flawed narrative flow. It helps that Dylan lends his musicality to the film (he is also casted as the mysterious "Alias," one of Billy the Kid's erstwhile companions) which flavors the rustic scenery of New Mexico with a gorgeously apt romanticism. It also helps that Kristofferson (who is far older than the real Billy the Kid who died at 21) possesses a cool charm which is comparable to Coburn's sun-drenched and slightly exhausted macho offerings. Peckinpah's two anti-heroes are so iconic that his shifts from one storyline to another gets muddled and confusing. Peckinpah adds a host of other characters to keep Pat's hunt more interesting and the deaths and tortures numerous.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Peckinpah's personal ode to the death of the Old West, as encapsulated by the outlaw Billy the Kid. It seems that the sheriff Pat Garrett ultimately belongs to that era of free spirits unherded by commercialism-established laws and regulations, that when Pat Garrett was ultimately forced to shoot Billy the Kid, an appropriate response was to shoot his reflection in the mirror too: it's a mighty metaphor of Pat Garrett's death as compared to the uneventful portrayal of his assassination during the beginning and the end of the film. When Billy the Kid died and the rule of law reigned triumphant in the Frontier, personalities such as the Kid, Garrett, and their ragtag band of outlaws and rabid law enforcers have been stripped of their myths and accompanying lyricism. Death is no longer a legacy, but a mere expression of crime and punishment.
This post is my contribution to This Savage Art: Sam Peckinpah Blog-A-Thon.