Since the cut-to-ribbons 1973 release of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' came and went from cinemas, two further incarnations have been available to home entertainment audiences. The 1988 Turner Preview Version - so called because it was essentially the edit swiped from MGM by parties sympathetic to Peckinpah - debuted on VHS billing itself as the director's cut. It was missing a scene between Garrett (James Coburn) and his wife (Aurora Clavel), but was otherwise considered definitive ... or as near to definitive as possible given the ravages and compromises the film suffered.
I've never seen the theatrical cut and I consider this a small mercy. I grew up with the "director's cut" on tape (an okayish print, though widescreened to the wrong ratio) and replaced it with the DVD (beautifully cleaned up transfer, proper aspect ratio) a few years ago. The DVD was a two-discer including the 2005 Special Editon. Cover blurb declares "for the first time since it left the cutting room, the film has the balance of action and character development Peckinpah wanted ... based on the director's notes and the insights of colleagues". It reinstates the scene between Garrett and his wife, yet - even allowing for this inclusion - runs seven minutes shorter than the 1988 Preview Version.
I held off watching the 2005 Edition for a long time. Reviews were mixed. I discovered an article which presented an in-depth comparison: many of the two dozen or so differences were flagged as detrimental. The 1988 Version is a movie I love whole-heartedly. It's this incarnation of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' that occupies a place on my personal faves list. So I left the 2005 Edition in the case and continued my love affair with the 1988 Version.
Then I decided to give over December to this Peckinpah tribute and figured if there was ever a time to give the 2005 Edition its day in the sun, then hell the time was now. I watched it Saturday evening. Mulled it over. Spent a while flipping between the two discs, running key scenes compare-and-contrast stylee. And I've emerged with mixed feelings.
On the whole, the 2005 Edition is a much tighter film. Some cuts are minor, little more than trimming: Billy (Kris Kristofferson) walking from the bar to join Garrett at a table near the start, for instance. It's just the walk from the bar that's cut - no loss to the film. Other cuts remove redundant dialogue, such as Lemuel (Chill Wills)'s drawled line about how all a cowboy needs is "loose boots, a tight pussy to play with and a warm place to shit" - a bit of vulgarity that adds nothing to the scene and isn't even particularly funny in a coarse, ornery sort of way (his earlier, as just as vulgar line, "she got an ass on her like a forty dollar cow and a tit, I'd like to see that thing filled full of tequila" has already established the kind of man Lemuel is). Getting rid of Garrett's "what you want and what you get" to Poe (John Beck) near the end is advantegous: it's an unconvincing line reading of a cliched line and the scene is punchier without it.
However, the removal of Ollinger (R.G. Armstrong)'s inspired and borderline surreal "I'll take you for a walk across Hell on a spiderweb" infuriates. Without it, J.W. Bell (Matt Clark)'s decision to draw on Ollinger lacks weight. True, Ollinger has kicked Billy to the floor, but Bell has, by this time, been both a hanger-on around Billy's outfit and a badge-wearing deputy; when he tells Ollinger "you've gone loco", it's not because of Ollinger's use of force but the intensity of his religious mania. A man who threatens to take someone "for a walk across Hell on a spiderweb" is clearly suffering some kind of delusional behaviour; losing this line makes Bell's stand-off with Ollinger come across as something of a mountain out a molehill.
The placement of the raft scene slightly earlier in the narrative works well: the scene still retains its poetic and elegiac qualities and moving it allows for events after Garrett's shooting of Holly (Richard Bright) and discovery of the Kid's location to snowball a little faster. Garrett is therefore hurried towards the inevitable denouement at Fort Sumner with a greater sense of the inexorable.If these were more or less the extent of the differences, I'd probably be hailing the 2005 Edition as masterful and kicking myself for putting off approaching it for so long. And maybe it's because I have shied away from it for four years - maybe I need to give a few more viewings and let it grow on me - that I'm conflicted about it. But there are three aspects of the 2005 Edition that I don't think I could reconcile myself to, no matter how many times I watch it.
The first is the excision of the freeze frame opening credits and the recutting of the Las Cruces/Old Fort Sumner montage. The first cross-cut between Garrett's assassination and Billy and co. plinking away at chickens is devoid of context and comes across as awkward and confusing. The sequence soon gels, though, and plays shorter than the 1988 Version; unfortunately, it's followed by a completely reimagined credits sequence, the credits (in yellow here instead of red) playing out over a series of airbrushed stills. A quick comparison of the title and Peckinpah's directed by credit (1988 Version followed by 2005 Edition) tell you all you need to know.
Secondly, the segue back to the Las Cruces assassination after Garrett rides away from Fort Sumner at the end - the bookends to the film allowing for a reading of the film entire as Garrett's dying thoughts as he plummets from the wagon, is removed entirely. The 2005 Edition ends on a freeze frame of the child who disgustedly throws stones at the departing Garrett running back and almost exiting the frame. It's an abrupt conclusion and an awkward image. Again, by way of comparison:
The third really narks me. As readers of yesterday's post will have noted, I like Peckinpah's scene as Will the coffin-maker. I think it's one of the key scenes in the film. It's rich in subtext. It evokes Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens)'s yearning to depart the territory on the boat he's building; Will's building something quite different: a more predictable mode of conveyance by which most people who live by the gun depart the territory. It's also mind-bogglingly meta, the director directing the actor becoming the director as actor directing the character. And on top of all this, there's a wonderful Prospero analogy going on. The 2005 Edition kills the scene, cutting Peckinpah's dialogue to "so you've finally figured it out, huh" (cut to Garrett staring at Pete Maxwell's place) "go on, get it over with" (cut to Garrett striding determinedly in said direction). The effect is that Will almost seems to sanction Garrett's actions. Take away that fantastic line "When are you gonna learn you can't trust anybody - not even yourself, Garrett? You chicken-shit, badge-wearing son of a bitch" and Will seems to be giving Garrett permission, rather than hurling that one last bitter accusation at him.
I guess the ideal cut of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' would be a mixture of the 1988 and 2005 incarnations. But maybe that would only be my perfect version and nobody else's. Ultimately, because of the circumstances in which it was made, there will never be an absolutely definitive version of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'. But given the choice of what's currently available, the 1988 Version is the one I'd saddle up with.