Take this badge off of me: The “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” saga

By on April 5, 2016

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s comprehensive retrospective of Sam Peckinpah’s features concludes with a Thursday matinees screening of his 1974 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (4:30pm EST). Shot amid chaos, and severely edited without its director’s participation before its release, the movie has survived as the last word on one of the silver screen’s most durable Western legends.

By the time Peckinpah first addressed the Billy the Kid mythos in a 1957 screenplay (of which more in a moment), the Southwestern outlaw’s story had become a much-filmed saga that had captured the American imagination.

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The real Billy the Kid

When Pat Garrett, the newly elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, killed 21-year-old Henry McCarty – aka Henry or William Henry Antrim, aka William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid – with a single shot to the chest in Fort Sumner, NM, on July 14, 1881, he rid the territory of a hired gun, cattle rustler, and killer who had been plaguing the citizenry for six years.

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The real Pat Garrett

The “yellowback” dime novels of the day, mostly penned by hack writers in the East, seized on the story, and Garrett responded with his own book, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, in 1882. It was a flop, but New York reporter Walter Noble Burns’ 1925 volume The Saga of Billy the Kid – an early Book of the Month Club selection and a major bestseller — set the template for a long run of movie adaptations that followed.

Burns’ research in New Mexico turned up an old flame of the Kid’s who claimed that the outlaw was a close associate of Garrett before the lawman shot him to death. Though no other testimony corroborated this assertion, it became the principal plot pivot in Billy the Kid, a 1930 feature based on the book (and filmed in an early widescreen process, Realife) starring screen newcomer and future Western star Johnny Mack Brown as Billy and Wallace Beery as Garrett. The relationship held fast in David Miller’s 1941 color remake with Robert Taylor and Brian Donlevy in the roles.

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Poster for 1930 film

Soon after the latter film, the Kid’s legend got a salacious spin in The Outlaw, a low-budget Western produced and directed by Howard Hughes. Though Billy (Jack Beutel) and Garrett (Walter Huston) were the ostensible center of the picture, its promotion focused on the charms of a buxom brunette making her screen debut, Jane Russell.

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Jane Russell in The Outlaw

Several low-budget oaters starring the likes of war hero Audie Murphy followed in the ‘50s. The 1958 feature The Left Handed Gun, an “adult Western” treatment of the story directed by Arthur Penn from a Gore Vidal script, with Paul Newman as Billy, was already in production in 1957 when producer Frank Rosenberg approached 32-year-old Sam Peckinpah, then grinding out scripts for TV Westerns like “Gunsmoke,” with an opportunity to adapt a fictional re-reading of the Billy-Garrett tale for a feature film.

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Peckinpah loved Charles Neider’s novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, which set the story in Monterey, California, and pitted the titular outlaw against his onetime partner in crime-turned-lawman Dad Longworth. The screenwriter poured his love for the Billy the Kid legend into the heavily researched script, but when Stanley Kubrick signed on to direct, he expressed his dislike for the work of Peckinpah, who left the project.

Four years and numerous rewrites later, with Peckinpah’s contributions unacknowledged, One Eyed Jacks was released, with director-star Marlon Brando as “Rio” the outlaw (who oddly bears the same name as Jane Russell’s sexpot character in The Outlaw) and Karl Malden as his turncoat nemesis Longworth. Brando’s lone stab at directing was a picturesque, overlong, and romanticized flop. But, in more ways than one, it set the stage for Peckinpah’s own directorial shot at Billy the Kid.

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By 1973, Peckinpah had become one of the most admired directors in the world, and one of its most controversial. He had already helmed three Westerns; 1968’s The Wild Bunch, with William Holden and Robert Ryan as a pair of old criminal colleagues now working on opposite sides of the law, had helped rewrite the genre’s playbook with its over-the-top violence. His 1972 adaptation of pulp novelist Jim Thompson’s The Getaway was a smash action hit that made him a bankable Hollywood commodity.

Among the producers who knocked on his door was Gordon Carroll. The relatively inexperienced moviemaker had hired Rudolph Wurlitzer to forge a new vision of the Billy the Kid story. Wurlitzer had authored the widely praised screenplay for Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, an elliptical road movie that starred singer-songwriter James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Peckinpah’s biographer David Weddle writes, “Carroll’s inspiration for putting a new ‘topspin’ on the played out legend was to draw conscious parallels between the saga of Billy the Kid and the modern living legends of rock and roll.”

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Rudy Wurlitzer, left, and Sam Peckinpah on the set of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (photo courtesy Everett Collection)

The director would go on to do extensive rewrites on Wurlitzer’s script, stamping it with his own vision, some of it derived from his work on the Hendry Jones script and his own filmography. The finished feature revolves around the relationship between Billy, an unrepentant cattle rustler, and his former drinking and whoring buddy Garrett, now working for a combine of ranchers who want to rid the territory of freelance gunslingers. It echoed the polarities of The Wild Bunch’s central figures – bank robber Pike Bishop and his ex-partner Deke Thornton, pressed into posse service by the railroad men who want to put Bishop out of commission.

The finished script focused on the mythic events of 1881 frequently retold in Billy the Kid movies: the outlaw’s capture by Garrett after a shootout at Stinking Springs, NM; his violent escape from the Lincoln County jail; and Garrett’s pursuit and ultimate killing of the Kid in Fort Sumner. These events are framed in the film by an ironic flash-forward to Garrett’s own 1908 murder, purportedly at the hands of the same cattlemen for whom he tracked and shot his good friend.

Producer Carroll managed to get his rock and roll. Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who had appeared as musician-turned-pot dealer Cisco Pike in the 1972 feature of the same name, was cast as Billy, opposite old Peckinpah familiar James Coburn, who took the role of Garrett.

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Peckinpah, Coburn and Kristofferson on the set

Carroll also cast Bob Dylan, in his acting debut, in the enigmatic role of Alias, a printer’s devil who becomes a member of the Kid’s outfit. (Another gang member asks him, “Alias what?“ He replies, “Alias whatever you please.”)

Dylan also penned songs for the feature, to the vocal disgust of Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s customary choice of composer, who quit the picture.

Donnie Fritts, Kristofferson’s close friend and himself a gifted songwriter, also appears in the picture as gang member Beaver, while singer Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson’s wife, plays his love interest.

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Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge

Peckinpah populated his cast of outlaws, saddle tramps, and frontier lawmen with the scuzziest, most grizzled group of character actors he could secure: Chill Wills (co-star of Peckinpah’s first feature The Deadly Companions), L.Q. Jones (an unforgettable member of The Wild Bunch’s lunatic posse), Jack Elam, Richard Bright, Richard Jaeckel, Harry Dean Stanton, Paul Fix, Matt Clark, R.G. Armstrong, Dub Taylor.

Barry Sullivan, an actor who knew his way around a saddle, was cast as the story’s behind-the-scenes villain, cattleman John Chisum (a role also played by John Wayne in the more admiring 1970 feature Chisum.) Two players who would appear in the finished film’s most devastating scene, Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens, had actually performed in One Eyed Jacks, as did supporting cast member Elisha Cook, Jr.

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Slim Pickens

Funded by MGM, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid began shooting in the fall of 1973 far from the backlots, on location in Durango, Mexico. Peckinpah, no stranger to studio interference, had already warred with hot-tempered, chronically meddling production head James Aubrey about the film’s budget, schedule, and crew; several studio suits would don Tony Lama cowboy boots and visit the set as the rugged shoot progressed.

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Over the course of its two-month schedule, Peckinpah and his cast and crew faced one problem after another. A malfunctioning camera mount resulted in out-of-focus footage that was only discovered tardily, forcing costly and time-consuming reshoots. A flu epidemic and chronic pulmonary illnesses caused by Mexico’s dusty, dirty air sickened and sidelined nearly everyone.

Increasing the havoc was Peckinpah’s daily drinking; a chronic alcoholic, he was now able to function on the set only about four hours a day, and often punctuated working hours by firing the handguns he had started to carry with him. Peckinpah’s associate producer/second unit director Gordon Dawson actually directed several key scenes.

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In early 1974, after conclusion of principal photography marked by budget and time overruns, Peckinpah returned to Los Angeles to start editing the film, and found himself faced with a rerun of events he had encountered on a couple of previous films. His 1965 film Major Dundee had been wrested from his control by Columbia Pictures and cut by nearly half an hour, while The Wild Bunch was also trimmed of some scenes, including a couple of critical flashbacks, by Warner Brothers following its release.

Incensed by Peckinpah’s intransigent behavior, and by an ad the director took in the Hollywood Reporter mocking rumors of his heavy on-set boozing, Aubrey was determined to keep the maverick filmmaker on a short leash.

With the ostensible excuse of developing box office receipts to fund MGM’s Las Vegas hotel, the exec moved up the release date of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to Memorial Day weekend and told Peckinpah, “Get to work.”

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Per his contract, Peckinpah was allowed two preview cuts of the film, and then the director essentially walked away from his own film. A platoon of six editors continued to slash away at the feature, pruning its running time by 16 minutes, from 122 minutes to a meager 106, losing continuity and color in the process. It missed its holiday release date by a couple of weeks, and appeared in theaters in late May 1974.

The film’s grosses outstripped its $4.6 million cost, but nonetheless did not prove the box office bonanza MGM had anticipated.

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We would probably not appreciate the ambition of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid if it hadn’t been screened in a pair of extended versions following the release of the truncated theatrical edition. Members of Peckinpah’s staff stole the first preview print of the film and hid it for years; it was subsequently screened by L.A.’s feisty Z Channel cable service and then issued on VHS and laserdisc by Turner Home Entertainment.

In 2005, Warner Home Video released an alternative cut, with editing supervised by Peckinpah scholar Paul Seydor, as part of a boxed set.

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Taken together, these versions offer a subtle, intense, and intimate telling of the enduring Western legend. It pits two beautifully drawn antagonists against one another: Garrett, the aging, weary, cynical onetime bad man, now working for men bent on owning the country and internally rebelling against imprisonment within the white picket fence around his house, and Billy, arrogant, sociopathic, and still violent, intent on riding outside the law and unwilling to admit his West is closing.

“It feels like times have changed,” Garrett says to Billy in one of the early scenes. “Times, maybe,” the outlaw replies. “Not me.”

Unlike The Wild Bunch, which traffics in large-scale set pieces and high body counts, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie of intimate violence about the society of murderers. The men who kill know the men they kill, and they go about their work as coolly as they perform target practice on live chickens. Murder takes place eye to eye.

A far cry from the Kid’s sentimentalized stand-in in One Eyed Jacks, Kristofferson’s Billy is a stone killer who dispatches his victims without a flinch; his score-settling escape from the Lincoln jail is among the movie’s early high points.

The film is filled with small, economically executed sequences of sudden death in close quarters: the opening shootout between Billy’s crew and Garrett’s posse, Garrett’s sadistically protracted showdown with Billy’s gang members; Billy’s faceoff with the newly deputized outlaw Alamosa Bill; and, of course, Billy’s hushed final encounter with Garrett (which is prefaced with an exchange between the sheriff and a coffin maker, played by Peckinpah himself).

But no scene in the picture is more indelible than the demise of Sheriff Colin Baker (Pickens), played out to the tune of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.”

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Dylan in a scene cut from the final film

It’s a gory yet elegiac farewell to the Old West, but it doesn’t allow Garrett to wriggle off the hook; unlike The Wild Bunch’s Thornton, who links up with the lone survivor of his old gang before the credits roll, the embittered, exhausted Garrett guiltily rides into the sunset alone, as a child pelts him with rocks.

Incomplete and flawed as all the extant versions of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid may be, it’s still the most thorough and affecting imagining of the outlaw’s story – one which, significantly, no one has attempted to tell again since.

Saying farewell to his gang in the film, Kristofferson’s Billy says, “Remember me to whoever rides by.”  We won’t forget.

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About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).
  • baba

    Brilliant analysis