Sunday, December 20, 2009

Peckinpah as Prospero

In a film defined by its protagonist confronting himself at every stage of the narrative - confronting his compromised morality; confronting the ramifications of the sell-out deal he has made with politicians and businessman, an uneasy alliance that will ultimately prove his destruction - two scenes in particular, scenes which are narratively and thematically "rhymed", put Pat Garrett (James Coburn) under the spotlight more nakedly than anywhere else.

In the first, Garrett enlists the help of Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) in hunting down Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), a member of Billy the Kid's gang from whom Garrett hopes to extract the Kid's current whereabouts. Baker is Garrett a few years down the line: a sheriff in title only and so disconnected to the job that he no longer bothers with the trappings of authority. Before siding with Garrett to confront Harris, Baker has to ask his wife (Katy Jurado) where his badge is. (Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door', written for the scene that follows, opens with the lyric "mama, take this badge from me / I can't use it anymore.") When Garrett first approaches Baker, he's busy in his backyard with timber and tools, building a boat.

"I'm gonna drift out of this damn territory," he tells Garrett, adding (with the kind of ornery frontier poetry so redolent of Peckinpah), "this town ain't got no hat-size no how." This ambition, however, remains unrealised. Baker is shot during the exchange of fire with Harris. Gut shot, to be specific. He stumbles down to the banks of the Rio Grande and sits, eyes glazed and short of breath, watching the slow patterns of light on water as the instrumental version of Dylan's ballad plays softly on the soundtrack.

Baker's death re-emphasizes to Garrett what he already understands: that his tracking down of the Kid is an act of treachery. When Garrett retributively shoots Harris, there's a complete denial of catharsis. "Us old boys oughtn't be doing this to each other," the dying Harris tells him; "ain't that many of us left." Harris's words are both a benediction for his killing of Baker and an accusation against Garrett.

Later, towards the end of the film, Garrett arrives at Fort Sumner. In tow are John Poe and Sheriff McKinley, their souls in hock to Governor Wallace and John Chisum, their consciences assuaged by social pretensions and the dollar bottom line. It's an uneasy alliance that Garrett has with them. Entering Fort Sumner, they spread out and slowly, picking their way through the nocturnal streets like doomsayers, go in search of the Kid. Garrett comes upon Will, a coffin maker, still practising his trade even though the sun is down and the citizenry are abed. Garrett greets him and stops to pass the time. Garrett takes a bottle from his inside coat pocket and offers it to Will, who refuses with a flip of his hand.

Garrett knocks back a slug. He stares across towards Pete Maxwell's house, where the Kid is staying. He's reticent; a man putting off the inevitable.

"You've finally figured it out, huh?" Will says, shooting a sideways look at Garrett. "I thought you was pickin' shit with the chickens, cuttin' yourself a tin bill."

Garrett continues staring at the Maxwell residence, unresponsive.

"Go on, get it over with," Will urges. But Garrett hangs back. As if encouraging him a few moments' hesitation longer, Will continues, "You know what I'm gonna do? Put everything I own right here - " (indicating the coffin) " - I'm gonna bury it in this ground and leave the territory."

Garrett pulls himself together and takes his leave of Will without a word. He walks - hell, stalks - away, not responding, not looking back (although his face hardens with self-loathing) as Will calls after him, "When are you gonna learn that you can't trust anybody - not even yourself, Garrett? You chicken-shit, badge-wearing son of a bitch."

It's an electrifying scene, and would have carried all the weight it does if Will had been played by some whiskery character actor. Eli Wallach, say, or Edmond O'Brien. But Will is played by Sam Peckinpah himself. And 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' takes on a meta-textual element. Unlike that impresario of the cameo appearance Alfred Hitchcock, or his contemporary acolytes Quentin Tarantino or M Night Shyamalan, Peckinpah was not in the habit of appearing in his own movies. In fact, 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' is a one-off. Nine films into his career, five still to go, Peckinpah essayed his one and only acting role*. This alone imbues Will's (small) part with significance.

Narratively, Will exists to remind Garrett of Baker's death: Baker is building a boat when Garrett encounters him, Will a coffin; Baker talks about drifting out of the territory, Will about leaving it; Baker opines that "this town ain't got no hat-size", Will muses on burying everything he owns and leaving. Both men personify leavetakings. Baker dies because of Garrett's quest against the Kid; Will, leaning on a half-finished coffin throughout the scene, is a man who buries the dead.

But there's also a subtext, one made all the more explicit for Peckinpah playing Will. The reference to everything he owns can easily be taken to mean his body of work as a director. The burial of it can be read as a metaphor for the ravages done to everything he'd made thus far, either during filming or in post-production, by the producers/studios/money men who compromised and made cuts to his films. Essentially, this is Peckinpah as Prospero, drowning his book in the last act of 'The Tempest'.

Prospero drowns his book; Peckinpah leaves the territory. 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' was his last western.

But the scene is even more meta than that. When Will tells Garrett to "get it over with", the director has emerged from behind the camera where he was directing the actor (James Coburn) and - now a part of the fabric of his own film - explicitly directs the character. Garrett, walking grim-faced towards Pete Maxwell's place as Will's litany of abuse hangs in the air behind him, has been sent on his way to commit the act that history will judge him for.

*Excepting a non-speaking role as a cameraman in 'Convoy'.


Samuel Wilson said...

Having spoken against the film last time, your new post gives me an opportunity to say that "Knocking on Heaven's Door" is one of the greatest pieces of music written for film, and the scene is worthy of the music.

Neil Fulwood said...

Agreed entirely: awesome piece of music and Peckinpah nails the scene. The look that passes between Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens says more than words ever could.

Troy Olson said...

Absolutely outstanding stuff here Neil. This scene is my all-time favorite from any Western film -- a perfect mix of music, acting, and tone.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Troy. I was going to incorporate this into the main review of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', but the scene is so multi-layered and shot through with meaning that it just grew into a separate article.