Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #66 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.
Alternately, you could follow in the footsteps of two kind, incredibly appreciated patrons and have me watch and then write about a filmmaker or actor’s entire filmography.
That’s what I’ve been doing for the last eight months or so with the filmography of good old “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah, the manly man behind such masterpieces of machismo as The Wild Bunch.
And, I am excited to announce, another kindly patron has signed on for me to do another project with the motion pictures of David Bowie. I plan to begin tomorrow with the 1975 masterpiece The Man Who Fell To Earth but here in Peckinpah land we’ve made it all the way up to Peckinpah’s ninth film, the famously troubled 1973 revisionist western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Then again, what Peckinpah production wasn’t troubled? It’s almost as if serious production problems are an inevitable consequence of giving power, money and control to a violent, unprofessional, rage-filled alcoholic whose genius is inextricably intertwined with his madness.
That’s one of the many fascinating, sad paradoxes of Peckinpah’s career. We revere him because he is one of American cinema’s true auteurs, a legendary bad boy who left his bloody, messy, sweaty stamp on everything he touched.
Yet because he was such a troubled, impossible human being and world-class boozehound Peckinpah’s films were constantly being yanked out of his hands by studios terrified that without their intervention, Peckinpah would never deliver a releasable cut of a film, that he’d take years to complete a five hour long X rated bloodbath studios, censors and polite society would all reject as an unforgivable insult to propriety.
Peckinpah was a control freak who was forever losing control of his films and his vision.
For that very reason Steve McQueen apparently had final cut on The Getaway rather than Peckinpah and James Coburn is rumored to have ghost-directed much of Convoy, Peckinpah’s top-grossing film, after Peckinpah proved too inebriated to do so himself.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was one of a number of Peckinpah’s films taken away from the master. The western was edited down from 124 to 106 minutes against Peckinpah’s wishes yet failed with critics and audiences all the same, adding to Peckinpah’s reputation for being impossible to deal with.
According to one of my all-time favorite bits of IMDB trivia, Kris Kristofferson has stated that “Director Sam Peckinpah so detested the studio cut of (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), he actually urinated on the screen.”
Peckinpah’s leisurely ramble through American western mythology faced problems beyond a director who was reportedly so deep into his alcoholism that he was only lucid enough to film for four hours a day, and was so unhappy with what what the studio did to his movie that he gave it the old Angry Yellow Salute.
We don’t expect movies that deal with real figures to stick too closely to the historical record. We understand that movies have to be cinematic and consequently must take liberties with the past. Yet there’s a line you just can’t cross without looking ridiculous.
If you’re making a movie about Billy the Kid, for example, a legendary outlaw icon of reckless youth who died at 21, you’re going to want to cast an actor who isn’t in his mid to late thirties, as Kristofferson was when he was cast as Billy the Kid.
Pat Garrett was only thirty-one when he killed the twenty-one year old Billy the Kid but Peckinpah’s film cast a 45 year old James Coburn, who looked even older. Peckinpah was unparalleled in giving great roles to older actors, in creating deep, rich, lived-in, gloriously alive characters for cowpokes of a certain age.
Yet the drama of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is inherently the drama of youth; Kristofferson does a fine enough job as William The Middle Aged but the disconnect between the character’s ostensible youth and Kristofferson’s weathered visage never stops being distracting.
In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Coburn’s Pat Garrett is a former outlaw who once upon a time ran with his friend and partner in crime Billy the Kid but who finds himself tasked with hunting down his former associate after he trades in the lawless life for a Sheriff’s badge.
Billy the Kid is an outlaw figure in a Wild West that is rapidly being tamed by the forces of commerce represented by the big railroad companies as much as the law. Garrett succeeds in capturing his old friend but when he slips out of protective custody Garrett finds himself in the position of having to betray his old confederate all over again.
Garrett knows all too well that he will pay a steep moral, emotional and psychological price for doing what he must do so to help dull the pain he goes to a brothel and engages in a very narratively and thematically essential sequence where he is lovingly bathed (oh, but a man could get gross back in those days, with the sawdust and the hay and the infrequent bathing!) and then enjoys some hot interracial four on one action in a sequence that feels ripped out of the perfumed pages of Playboy magazine.
The studio understandably had some issues with the scenes Peckinpah filmed or wanted to film. I’m guessing Pat Garrett having sex, or just sort of lolling about lustily with four obscenely gorgeous sex workers was one of the sequences the studio objected to, along with the many shots of chickens being shot in the head thanks to Peckinpah’s apparent belief that nothing quite spices up a scene like the brutal, real onscreen death of an animal.
When an animal gets murdered in a Peckinpah movie for no goddamn reason at all, except to further illustrates that the world is, indeed, a brutal and unforgiving place for everyone, particularly animals on film sets without the Humane Society making sure everything is Kosher and legal, it feels disturbingly like the animal is genuinely being killed onscreen. That makes these exceedingly violent westerns feel distressingly like animal snuff films, one of many deeply problematic aspects of Peckinpah’s filmography.
Women, children, and animals have it rough in Bloody Sam’s brutal world. Then again, men don’t really have it easy either. Nobody has it easy in Peckinpah’s movies; to live is to suffer, to betray your ideals and values, to become what you hate.
Ah, but Kristofferson is not the only musical legend in the cast. Bob Dylan does curious double duty here as the singer and composer of the film’s score/soundtrack, and Alias, a free spirit who floats through the proceedings like a ghost. He’s a provocative idea rooted unmistakably if confusingly in Dylan’s own carefully wrought self-mythology as our greatest, purest and most American of geniuses.
Alias wouldn’t make a goddamn lick of sense with anyone else in the role. Then again, Alias doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with Dylan playing him either, which might be the point. He’s a riddle for which there is no answer, let alone a correct one.
As importantly, if not more importantly, Dylan wrote and performed “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” for the film, a masterpiece whose elegiac sadness perfectly captures the soul-deep sorrow and all-consuming sense of impending doom the movie strives for and intermittently achieves at its most lyrical and achingly sad.
Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, fresh off Two Lane Blacktop and deeply unhappy about the liberties the director took with his heavily re-written script, Dylan and Peckinpah each seemingly had their own strong conception of who Alias was and what he represented but seemingly no party conferred with any other party so we’re left with a cryptic cipher being pulled in at least three directions.
Dylan honestly does not seem to have any idea what he is doing in the film. The beatific expression on that gorgeous punim silently but powerfully shrug-screams, “The world truly is a strange and mysterious and beautiful place” and “Me and my agents are going to have a long talk when I get back vis a vis them being fired.”
Alias is a mystery wrapped up inside an enigma inside a puzzle box buried somewhere near Joshua Tree.
I don’t know why no one has cast Dylan as Adam Sandler’s dad in a movie yet, as the resemblance is striking. To me that’s a no-brainer. People would lose their shit seeing our two greatest artists, a Nobel Prize winner and a future Nobel Prize winner, joining forces to elevate their art to unprecedented heights. I don’t know about you, but I think Dylan’s central presence as Sandler’s hard-partying janitor father would really liven up The Fart Family Goes To Club Med or whatever horse shit he craps out for Netflix next.
If Dylan seems lost and overwhelmed in the middle of this amazing mess, this fantastic disaster, there’s something poignant and riveting about that confusion.
At its best Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is the cinematic equivalent of Dylan’s magnificent “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” or a great country song like Townes Van Zant’s “Pancho and Lefty”, which thematically has a lot in common with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: slow, sad, full of heartbreaking detail, a lovely elegy for a lost era and the lost men who inhabited it.
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