Saturday, March 14, 2015
It’s difficult to write about ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ without the retrospective fact that it was Sam Peckinpah’s last western throwing an almighty shadow over the proceedings. So much of it seems autumnal: Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens)’s slow, agonising, strangely poetic death scene, scored to Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’; Pat Garrett (James Coburn)’s foot-draggingly protracted odyssey in search of an outlaw he’d rather not apprehend, the already grizzled lawman seeming, in each successive scene, older and more weighed down not just with a sense of inevitability but a foreshadowing of how history will judge him; Billy (Kris Kristofferson)’s downward spiral from his myth-making act of showboating to an entire township during his escape from Lincoln County Jail to his dissipated solitary last bout of drinking as a dust storm swirls about him in the rundown enclave of Old Fort Sumner while Garrett’s odyssey draws inexorably towards its close.
So much of it seems tired: Garrett’s weary pauses between words (“the electorate … want you gone … out of the country”), each pause like a Harold Pinter play on Mogadon, entire worlds of reflection and self-accusation hanging on the ellipses; Baker reluctantly pinning his badge on as he goes to what will be his death; the sense of inevitability to the outcome of the duel between Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) and Billy the Kid (both men cheat: the Kid cheats more effectively); the whiskery old forty-niner (Elisha Cook Jnr), whom Garrett’s de facto deputy John Poe (John Beck) mercilessly brutalises, reeling off a litany of things he’s tired of.
So much of it seems like a psychological self-portrait by its director: a meandering, woozy, often melancholy and sometimes frenziedly angry film that, in its most naked and agonising moments, turns against itself - pace Garrett catching himself in the mirror after shooting the Kid and turning his gun on his own reflection – in what almost seems like self-defeat.
And so much of it is pure Peckinpah. Sometimes organically so and in a good way: the children playing on a noose, much to the approbation of Bible-bashing deputy Bob Olinger (R.G. Armstrong), is reminiscent of the children giggling over the battalion of red ants that overrun the scorpion in the opening credits sequence of ‘The Wild Bunch’ (images of children bearing witness to the corruption of adulthood can be found in virtually every film Peckinpah directed). And sometimes in a forced, self-conscious manner: a minor character suddenly launching into ‘When the Roll is Called Up Yonder’ couldn’t telegraph the reference to ‘Ride the High Country’ more obviously if he’d worn a signboard; Garrett’s dalliance with a troupe of whores feels like it should occupy the same thematic territory as Pike Bishop (William Holden)’s moment of abject self-disgust towards the end of ‘The Wild Bunch’, but instead comes across as gratuitous and just plain absurd.
Perhaps one of the reasons why ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ is both quintessentially a Peckinpah western and a sad (and slightly weird) leave-taking from the genre is the way it simultaneously corresponds to his grand overarching aesthetic (men outliving their times) and succumbs to pessimism in offering no magnificent rejection of, or rebellion against, it. In ‘Ride the High Country’, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are ageing men, one trying to remain honourable, the other living on his wits and trusting to a younger counterpart, both of them challenged by a new and viciously amoral breed of desperados (personified by the Hammond brothers). In ‘The Wild Bunch’, Pike Bishop’s group of outlaws are overtaken by history in the early years of the twentieth century, the First World War visible on the horizon while the bunch are still trying to make “one big score” as if it’s still 1880. The eponymous saddle tramp in ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ makes an unexpected grab at the brass ring with a roadhouse on a stagecoach route only for the internal combustion engine to show up and ruin everything for him on every conceivable level.
But whereas Hogue is offered a lyrical, even somewhat satirical, götterdammerung, and Bishop’s bunch – having weathered internal tensions that almost tear them apart – are finally reconciled and take their long walk to celluloid immortality functioning as a tight and cohesive unit, Pat and Billy are antagonists throughout, never mind what kinship they might have shared at some distant point in the past. Even Judd and Westrum – Pat and Billy’s closest analogue in Peckinpah’s filmography – present a startling contrast. Judd is upright and moral, wanting to “enter his house justified”; Garrett is an ill-tempered man of violence who screws around with hookers behind his wife’s back. Westrum’s villainy is rueful; the Kid’s cold-blooded. (Westrum would never dispatch a man with a bullet to the back as Billy does J.W. Bell.) And finally Judd and Westrum are reconciled – as purposefully as the bunch are reconciled – and when they stride out for the iconic finale they are undoubtedly heroic.
There is no heroism in ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. None whatsoever.
The Kid outlives his time when Garrett becomes sheriff of Lincoln County. Garrett tries to change with the times but can’t reconcile himself to the choice he’s made. Unlike Peckinpah’s other western protagonists, neither of them take a stand against the changing times. The Kid seals his own fate in returning to Fort Sumner, a decision occasioned by a vengeful imperative that’s almost immediately abandoned; indeed, when Garrett catches up with him, the Kid has done nothing more than sit around and wait for his executioner. Garrett seals his when he summarily pisses off various authority/political figures – Holland (Jack Dodson) and Norris (John Davis Chandler), associates of Governor Wallace (Jason Robards); and cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan) – and inadvertently sows the seeds of his own destruction: a political conspiracy that will, two decades after the death of the Kid, result in Garrett’s own assassination.
The death of Sheriff Baker remains film’s most famous scene. It’s occasioned by a visit to Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), who greets Garrett and Baker with a fusillade of bullets and refuses to give up the Kid even when Garrett gets the drop on him. During the shoot-out, in a moment that’s damn near overshadowed by the poignancy of Baker’s demise, Harris tells Garret, “Us old boys oughtn’t be doing this to each other.”
Hum ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ all you like, quote the “Times have changed”/”Times maybe, but no me” exchange till you’re blue in the face, but Black Harris’s jeering accusation summarises everything you need to know about ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’. Sam Peckinpah’s final western.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
I had the opportunity recently to conduct an email interview with Paul Seydor. My thanks to him for the time and enthusiasm he put into providing me with an in-depth and fascinating series of answers.
NF: Paul, congratulations on a book that’s every bit as insightful and passionate as ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration’, and thanks for taking part in this Q&A. Something of a random question to begin with: in a footnote to the introduction, you note that there are some “thirty-seven books on Peckinpah and his works”, one of which is a book of poetry. I’m not quite sure how the existence of a Peckinpah-related book of poetry has managed to stay off my radar. Who’s the author, and how effectively as a form does poetry respond to Peckinpah’s work?
PS: The author is W.K. Stratton and the book is titled ‘Dreaming Sam Peckinpah’. Stratton is a journalist and the author of several books, some of them on sports themes, his most recent a very good biography of Floyd Patterson. He’s currently at work on a book about ‘The Wild Bunch’, his favorite film. As to how Peckinpah’s work responds to poetry, given that Peckinpah himself was a visual poet, very well. There’s a long history of poets responding to other poets. Stratton’s is a collection of ruminative poems and portraits on themes of love and loss, of dreams and disappointments, and, not inappropriately, given its namesake, redemption, but they are less about Peckinpah as such than constellated around themes and feelings generated by his films. Certainly worth a look and a read.
Contemporaneous accounts of Billy the Kid sprang up within weeks of his death, Garrett’s own being published in 1882, and the myth-making got underway from the outset. What challenges do you feel this presents the historian? Do you think we will ever arrive at a wholly objective portrait of the Kid; or is the legend half of the story?
If by “wholly objective”—a loaded phrase if ever there were one—you mean a portrait on which everyone could agree is the “truth,” then the short answer is “no.” The first half of his short life is literally shrouded in mystery. For example, there isn’t a single document of official record that even establishes his existence before he was a teenager. It was only because someone in the church where his mother married her second husband noted in the church records of the marriage that Henry, as he was called then, and his brother were in attendance as witnesses that we even have the earliest official confirmation that he existed. The common thinking is that the Kid was twelve at the time, assuming 1859 the correct birth year—which it was, give or take a year or two.
This begins to give you some idea of how little is known about Billy and his origins. But the bigger problem, in my opinion—and researching the new book I read every important biography I could find, beginning with the first (which wasn’t Garrett’s, by the way—at least three preceded his)—is that the Kid’s story, and Garrett’s too, had already begun to be encrusted by gossip, hearsay, folklore, and legend virtually before it had a chance to become “history” as such. By the time Maurice Fulton began his research in the early decades of the 20th century, he had to cut away so much of this overgrowth before he could begin to arrive at a sense of the Kid and Garrett that was plausible. Further, the two most important incidents in the Kid’s life, the two incidents that together are responsible for his ascent into legend, are his escape from the Lincoln County jail and his death. Yet a key part of the escape—how he got the drop on J.W. Bell—was witnessed by no one except the two participants, and we have Billy’s accounts of how it happened only as refracted through two friends who didn’t write them down until decades later. As for his death, again, only three persons were in the room: Garrett, who shot him; the Kid, who was shot; and Pete Maxwell, who bolted out the door. Only Garrett wrote down his account of what happened. Poe, his deputy, who was outside, wrote his account almost four decades later, but again, he wasn’t inside the room; and all the other accounts are from people who arrived on the scene only after it happened and are colored by their sympathies for the Kid and their antipathy for Garrett.
Precisely because so relatively little was known about the Kid himself, it was an open invitation for writers, whether historians, novelists, reporters, etc., to clothe the Kid and Garrett in the vestments of their own needs, prejudices, biases, and beliefs. The Kid could be everything from a cold-blooded killer to a cowboy Robin Hood and Garrett everything from a corrupt ambitious sheriff to an honorable lawman bent on doing his duty as he saw it. So, yes, as you suggest, the legend is indeed part of the history—in my opinion, all legend is part of history—as is also the case with, to take a very grand comparison, the Trojan War.
All that said, however—this answer is probably longer than you want—still a great deal is known about the Kid, and the same goes for Garrett. ‘Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life’ is an excellent cradle-to-grave biography by Robert M. Utley, the most academically credentialed historian to write about him. Mark Lee Gardner’s recent ‘To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West’ is an outstanding dual-biography of Garrett and the Kid and one of the rare books that is fair-minded and balanced to them both, with no axes to grind or agendas to push; Gardner’s benefits from the most up-to-date research (he’s a scrupulous and tireless researcher) and he is by far the most gifted storyteller. Frederick Nolan’s ‘The West of Billy the Kid’ is a colorful and comprehensive picture of the world of Billy the Kid, the New Mexico Territory of the time, and all the many people associated with him. And Bob Boze Bell’s ‘The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid’ has among its other virtues a time-line which references what was going in the world outside the Mexico territory at the time. There’s also a superb monograph, ‘Antrim Is My Stepfather’s Name’, by Richard Weddle (no relation to David Weddle) that offers greater detail and a much fuller picture of the Kid’s life in Silver City around the time his mother died than any other account known to me. Weddle’s been researching all things related to the Kid for a couple of decades now, and his knowledge about the Kid’s life and times is quite literally voluminous—his own book on the subject is eagerly awaited.
Peckinpah’s first go-around at the story was his adaptation of Charles Neider’s novel ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’, a fictionalised and geographically relocated take on the Billy the Kid novel. With novelists generally not hesitant to embrace historical figures, why did Neider reimagine Billy as an entirely renamed fictional construct? And how does setting the novel in Monterey alter, accentuate or redefine the narrative?
Neider was an eastern intellectual of Russian-Jewish heritage who, like many easterners, fell in love with the Old West and schooled himself voraciously on the subject. He published a superb anthology ‘The Great West: A Treasury of Firsthand Accounts’, which I believe is still in print. As a consequence of all this research, he came across the history of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and was immediately hooked. He began researching the materials toward the end of writing a novel about it (he had already published a novel highly praised by the likes of Saul Bellow and Thomas Mann). Neider believed that the potential for good fiction about the Old West was rarely fulfilled because so much of it was written by hacks for mere entertainment. By Neider’s own account, he was more interested in the legend or, more specifically, how the history wound up as a legend—obviously, this is one of Peckinpah’s great themes too, notably in ‘The Wild Bunch’. But part of Neider’s method was also to debunk the more absurd aspects of the Kid’s legend so that what remained was believable yet still the stuff on which myths are made.
There are two reasons why he changed the settings and the names. First, though he originally planned to set the novel in New Mexico, he and his wife found the climate antipathetic. Once he made this decision, he required the new setting have a rich Spanish heritage and proximity to the sea, both of which were answered by the Monterey Peninsula, an area he and his wife had already fallen in love with and where they longed to spend more time anyhow. So they relocated there for a while. As for changing the names, Neider specifically did not want there to be too close an identification between the historical figures and the characters in his novel. He was quite clear that he wanted to write fiction, not history; and his purpose was to demonstrate that serious literature could be written about those aspects of the Old West which seemed to be confined largely to B-movies and pulp novels. In my view he succeeded on all counts. Peckinpah certainly thought so as he judged it “the best Western ever written.”
You note in the book that Peckinpah’s ‘Hendry Jones’ adaptation is highly conventional in its denouement. How do you think a film made from Peckinpah’s script – and particularly one directed by as meticulous a perfectionist as Stanley Kubrick – would shape up compared to the grand guignol work Marlon Brando finally created?
You know, Neil, my friends have heard me say many times that I think there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like both Peckinpah and Kubrick and those who like Peckinpah or Kubrick. I fall in the latter group. I admire some of Kubrick’s work—though there’s none of it that I love—but mostly I find his films cold, barren, simplistic, and—once past ‘Lolita’ and ‘Spartacus’—utterly devoid of characters that are recognizable as human beings. And beginning with ‘2001’, I also find them numbingly dull. Kubrick himself had Brando fire Peckinpah because he, Kubrick, felt the script needed a page-one rewrite. This right off the bat speaks volumes, in my opinion, for the kind of film Kubrick might have made of it, if indeed he had any real idea of the kind of film he was after. I get the distinct impression that he didn’t, but that may be just me being ungenerous to a filmmaker I don’t care for. Whatever else, I certainly doubt Kubrick was remotely capable of making the kind of film Brando stumbled into, which I think a far better film than either Peckinpah or Neider did, both of whom really hated it. But it’s a really unusual and idiosyncratic variation on the Western that is quite unlike any other. Say what you will about it, it’s character-driven in a way that Kubrick’s work never is. When Brando first proposed Kubrick as director, Peckinpah was both pleased and excited. But in those days Kubrick was not STANLEY KUBRICK, Intellectual Director (in my assessment—again, doubtless ungenerous—pseudo-intellectual) and Auteur. He was an interesting up and coming director with ‘The Killing’ and ‘Paths of Glory’ fresh behind him. But, no, I don’t think he would have made a very good film out of ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’. The very fact that he had Sam fired and demanded a page-one rewrite suggests he had no essential sympathy for or sense of what Neider and Peckinpah were about. And once Peckinpah was gone, Kubrick and Brando found it difficult to agree on almost anything.
Rudolf Wurlitzer’s original screenplay, then titled ‘Billy the Kid’, was driven by the Kid – or, more specifically, by his psychological disintegration. Peckinpah brought a greater focus on Garrett. I’ve never read Wurlitzer’s original screenplay, but I’d be interested to know how much of his original conception remains in the film (in any of its incarnations), and how successfully you feel the dynamic between the two characters is balanced?
There’s a lot about this question in the book, so I can’t do more than summarize here. Wurlitzer’s ‘Billy the Kid’ screenplay—that was its original title, with Garrett not in the title—was genuinely balanced between the two figures, although the focus was plainly on the Kid’s story, with Garrett the most important other participant in that story. By the time Peckinpah was finished with it, it had become wholly Garrett’s story, with the Kid the most important other participant in that story. However, the process whereby this happened was initiated by Wurlitzer himself, and he is responsible for the first drafts of most of the added scenes that made Garrett ascendant. As for how much remains of his original conception—as opposed to the dialogue and the scenes, the great majority of which are his—that depends on how you measure these things. The back-and-forth structure is all Wurlitzer. The flashback structure that was laid upon this is Peckinpah’s, or rather it was Peckinpah’s based on a suggestion from the producer Gordon Carroll. The dynamic balance in the film decisively toward Garrett is something for which both Peckinpah and Wurlitzer were individually and collectively responsible, but it happened gradually as the screenplay evolved during preproduction rewrites, casting, production rewrites and shooting, and the editing. Wurlitzer’s conception of the Kid was, I think, almost wholly abandoned by Peckinpah, yet, as I show at length in the book, without Peckinpah’s replacing it with a different conception. This is why Garrett is so strong and the Kid so relatively amorphous and contradictory a character.
There’s a parallel between ‘Major Dundee’ and ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ in that Peckinpah passed over opportunities to recut both films following their original, compromised releases. While, as you acknowledge in the book, ‘Major Dundee’ could only ever have been a very good film but not a masterpiece, surely any reworking on ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ could only have been for the good. Not to mention a slap in the face to James Aubrey. Yet he declined the offer. Was this self-abnegation, or do you think Peckinpah felt there were issues with the film that couldn’t be resolved even in post-production?
Again, I can’t do more than summarize what it takes me a long time to explain and argue in the book. Specifically as regards walking away from Dan Melnick’s invitation to recut the film as Peckinpah saw fit, Sam had to realize, as I quote Garner Simmons in the book (who knew Sam at this time), that he lacked realistic solutions to fix the most intractable problems in the film: the aborted trip to Mexico and the contradictions in Billy’s character. I personally think it’s a shame Sam didn’t go back and finish the film his way, because I believe that he and his editor, Garth Craven, would have come up with a version that would have been the best that could be achieved from the available footage and they could have worked on it without the intense and hostile pressures of the Aubrey regime. But after a promising start, Sam just wouldn’t make himself available and without his cooperation the studio wasn’t about to spend the money proceeding with it.
Why did Sam behave like this? Well, that’s anybody’s guess? Questions like these go to the very core of Sam’s being. I have my own answers, some of which I’ve shared in the book, so does everyone who knew him, some of which I’ve also shared in the book. One of the most frequently recurring is that Sam sometimes built escape hatches into those projects he wasn’t sure about or those he was losing confidence in, and ‘Pat Garrett’ eventually became one of those. Not finishing the film was a way of not having to face the very real likelihood that some of the problems were unsolvable without additional shooting. As Garner said, by not finishing it, Sam allowed the world to believe that only he could have fixed it and “they” wouldn’t let him.
Sam was a deeply complex, complicated, and troubled man—that he was able to transmute so much of what troubled him into his films is part of which gives those films their edge, their intensity, their beauty, and their truthfulness. With ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ he even managed, however adventitiously, to transmute his inability to finish the film into a film that is itself unfinished and yet that in some strange and wonderful way embodies also a great and powerfully tragic vision.
Can you please tell us something about how you came to be involved with the 2005 Special Edition, and how much hands-on editing work you actually undertook?
Thank you for asking this question, Neil, because in some respects this was the whole reason I wrote the original essay in the first place, which appeared in Michael Bliss’s anthology ‘Peckinpah Today’. Once again, I have to summarize a much longer and more complicated story that is told in detail in the book. I have long believed that the theatrical version of ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ has been unfairly maligned as “butchered,” “the Aubrey version,” “the MGM version,” etc. None of this is true: it was prepared by Peckinpah’s closest editorial colleagues—Roger Spottiswoode and Bob Wolfe—precisely to keep a studio-butchered version from ever being released and no one at the studio had a hand in it except for the final two-shot of Garrett and Billy, the only thing I’m aware of that was personally ordered by Aubrey. I have also believed that the Turner preview does not deserve the reputation it has as the “director’s cut,” which it most emphatically is not. Among other things, it’s missing two crucial scenes that he regarded as at least as important as the prologue. It’s also a version that was never finished.
When Nick Redman, taking his cue from a remark I made in the first edition of my study of Peckinpah’s Westerns, pitched a Special Edition for the boxed set of the Peckinpah Westerns that Warner owned or had access to, it was strictly on the understanding that the theatrical version, because it was properly finished, would be used as the base version to which selected scenes from the Turner preview would be added. Among other things, I framed the project precisely so that I would have to do as little editing as possible because I had no desire to edit the work of editors and a director whom I held in the highest esteem. It would be much more accurate to call my work here kluging or compositing rather than editing as such. The only actual editing I did—and I was allowed precious little time to do even that (around an hour!)—was removing the freeze-frames and titles shots from the Turner preview because the theatrical already had its own titles sequences—a rather good one, I think—and the studio was not about to spring for another.
So all the things that some blogs and websites said I did—such as cutting most of Sam’s appearance as the coffinmaker, or dropping Tuckerman’s hotel (the scene with Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook, Jr.) or restoring Dylan’s vocals for Cullen Baker’s death walk—I did not do. Those and other things had already been done in the theatrical version long before I ever came on the scene. In pointing this out, I hope no one reading this will assume I’m trying to distance myself from the Special Edition because of the criticism it has received in certain quarters. Far from it. I’d love to be able to claim ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ as one of my editing credits, including (indeed, for me, especially the Special Edition because I believe it’s a better edited film), but I can’t because it’s not true. What you see in the Special Edition is that version that Spottiswoode and Wolfe, under Dan Melnick’s protection, prepared for release with some additional scenes and one line put back in. I did not put back the Epilogue—for a whole slew of reasons that are fully explained in the book—but used instead the proper theatrical ending that Peckinpah shot and that was at some point prepared, complete with opticals and end-credits crawl. Though at least one print was made of it, it was never used because Aubrey—in to repeat one of the rare instances where he actually did demand something specific that he ordered implemented—preferred the smiling sentimental two-shot of the title characters, a terrible choice that Roger in particular hated.
This is much too brief too clarify this whole issue completely, but I hope that it is adequate and that it will get your followers who want to know more to read the book and will stop referring to the Special Edition as the “Seydor” version or the theatrical as the “Aubrey” version!
I also hope—though I fear this is a naïve or vain hope—that henceforth commentators will stop resorting to the kneejerk “butchered, cut to ribbons, hacked up,” etc., etc., etc., characterizations when referring to the theatrical version. It is nothing of the sort. As I show in the book, it was prepared with loving care and the most scrupulous fidelity to Sam’s vision that they could manage by his most trusted editorial colleagues, Spottiswoode and Wolfe. If those who make such peremptory criticisms had ever bothered to do a serious study of the theatrical vis-à-vis the Turner, they would have seen that the lifts were carefully considered inasmuch as they consisted of scenes and other material that could be removed without damage to the continuity of the narrative. And we do well to remember that it was on the basis of the theatrical version alone, a good decade and a half before the also incomplete Turner was ever released that the film was eventually judged one of Peckinpah’s masterpieces. Moreover, again I repeat myself, when it comes to vast majority of scenes it shares in common with the previews—which is to say the vast majority of scenes—those in the theatrical are better edited. Why? Because they had the benefit of fine cutting by editors who had fine cut Peckinpah’s films since ‘Straw Dogs’, a fine cutting process that the previews for the most part did not benefit from.
When Garner Simmons and I first saw the Turner on a large screen, which was at the Directors Guild of America theatre when Turner arranged a showing as promotion for the forthcoming laserdisc, we discovered later that we both had a similar reaction. Garner found much of it “slack” and I found a lot of it “loose,” with sagging rhythms and swollen beats and pauses—this from the director who had, in my immodest estimation, the greatest editorial imagination of any director who ever lived. As I was writing up my answer to this question, I got in touch with Garner and he offered the following, “The points you raise — namely that of the Turner version’s ‘slack’ or ‘loose’ editing as well as the fact that Sam Peckinpah himself, had he been involved in the final editing, would never have allowed such a cut—are absolutely valid. As I have written before, Sam saw the filmmaking process as having three critical stages—first, when you write it; second, when you shoot it; and third, when you finally cut it. At each stage, the film is shaped (reshaped?) and therefore until you have fine-tuned the final release print, it is not complete. One of the things that allows Peckinpah’s work to rise above the rest is his obsessive attention to detail. It is this lack of Peckinpah’s essential participation in that final stage that renders ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ a ‘flawed’ masterpiece for all time.”
I realize that many people who watch the film only on television may find views like this surprising, especially from Garner and myself, who’ve written so admiringly about Peckinpah’s work. But anyone who’s been involved in filmmaking for any period of time knows that home viewing is at best an imperfect way of getting a sense of how a film plays and is no substitute for watching it uninterrupted on a big screen with an audience—something, by the way, as I show in the book, Peckinpah himself never did with this film until sometime in 1980, despite the fact that on ‘The Wild Bunch’ the previews were vital to his fanatical fine-tuning of that towering achievement in the art and craft of film editing.
Your book is exhaustive in its research and detail. How long did it take to research, or would it be fair to say that the book embodies a logical conclusion of something that you’ve been moving towards since you first saw the film?
Well, I didn’t even know I was going to write this book—I kind of backed into it. When Michael Bliss asked me to contribute to his anthology (‘Peckinpah Today’), I initially turned him down because I was too busy editing features at the time and I didn’t feel like writing again about a director I had already written substantially about twice before, not to mention contributing to the audio commentaries on the DVDs. Meanwhile, in a few small but quite noisy pockets of the Internet there was so much hostility toward the Special Edition and so much misinformation about my involvement—indeed, no information at all, just a lot of ignorant opinion from fans, including, alas, even an academic who should have known better, all too lazy to do their homework before spouting off—that I finally told Michael I’d write about the preparation of the Special Edition. The essay was so long—26,000 words—that when I finished it, I said to my wife, “You know, I might have the beginnings of a small book in this.” Well, five years—and 150,000 additional words later!—there’s the book.
But how did I get there? Well, I thought, talking to myself, “Since, Paul, you’ve written about how it turned out, why not see where it came from?” So that led back through Wurlitzer’s screenplay to Peckinpah’s adaptation of Neider’s novel for Marlon Brando to Neider’s novel itself, then to the book that Garrett himself wrote a year after he killed the Kid, and suddenly I discovered it’s possible to draw an almost direct line from Garrett and the Kid right to Peckinpah’s film 91 years later. So I guess I spent around a good year and more reading up on everything I could find about Billy the Kid. The chapter on Garrett’s book contains a pretty thorough survey of variant versions of the death of the Kid and the escape from the Lincoln County jail; the chapters on Peckinpah’s adaptation of Neider’s novel, Neider’s novel itself, and Wurlitzer’s original screenplay treat them with a depth and detail that I’ve not seen elsewhere and so constitute original contributions to scholarship. And there is a lot of material about how Peckinpah and Wurlitzer used the history and where they discarded it or deviated from the facts.
I should also add that one of my motivations in writing the book was to set the record straight about the immensity of Rudy Wurlitzer’s contribution. The more I knew about Wurlitzer and his screenplay, the less good I felt about how I treated him and it in my previous books. So I wanted to do things right by him. I had never spoken to him—and I’ve still not met him face to face—before I began the research. But once I read the original screenplay and wrote the chapter about the screenplay, I sent it off to him and he phoned me a few days later. I think the first words I said to him after the usual greetings were, “I’m sorry it took me forty years to appreciate what a fine job you did on the screenplay.”
When it came to the film and the production, however, the really big breakthrough was when the Academy library finally digitized the thirty and more hours of tapes of preproduction and a few production meetings on the film, tapes in which you hear Peckinpah, Wurlitzer, the Gordons Carroll and Dawson, Kristofferson, etc. talking about the film, making the deals, etc. This led to a considerable expansion of the original essay, and several matters about which I could at that time only speculate about and which I could then support with solid evidence. And once more it represents all original research that’s never been used or presented before.
Not necessarily comparing them to Peckinpah’s masterpiece, but are there any worthy candidates in that sub-genre of films about Pat and Billy, from the ‘The Left-Handed Gun’ to Gore Vidal’s ‘Billy the Kid’? Do even, say, the ‘Young Guns’ films add anything noteworthy to the canon?
Again, the short answer is no. I like things in ‘The Left-Handed Gun’, notably the performances of Paul Newman as the Kid, John Dehner as Pat Garrett, and Denver Pyle as Olinger. The film itself is clunky and pretentious and melodramatic, and a lot of the acting is overdone, the writing frequently awful, and Penn was nowhere near the director he soon became. The single best moment, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of Penn’s ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, is when Olinger is blasted out of one of his boots which remains standing up right. When a little girl laughs at it, her mother slaps her face. A great moment—would that there were several dozen more.
The television production of Gore Vidal’s ‘Billy the Kid’ is for the most part a good, solid piece of work, more historically based—it’s a pity it’s not yet available on DVD—with a really outstanding Billy the Kid in Val Kilmer (he’s Mark Lee Gardner’s favorite Kid, though Gardner regards Peckinpah’s as far the greater film), and the other characters are all played closer to their real ages. Lew Wallace is given a larger and more historically accurate role (though he’s played and written in a rather avuncular manner that I found surprising given Vidal’s usual cynicism about elected or appointed officials). The ‘Young Guns’ films are little more than potboilers—amusing if you like that sort of thing. A parenthetical note: the blanket that Coburn has in ‘Young Guns 2’ is the same coat he is wearing at the beginning of ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’.
I personally think the most interesting Billy the Kid film after Peckinpah’s is King Vidor’s ‘Billy the Kid’, from 1930. It takes a frankly romantic view that uses much more of the many elements, incidents, and plot strands of Garrett’s book and also Walter Noble Burns’s ‘Saga of Billy the Kid’, of which it is something of an adaptation. The movie unashamedly depicts Billy as a kind of Robin Hood protecting the weak against the powerful and corrupt authorities, gives him a romantic interest, makes much of the siege of McSween’s house and the battle of Lincoln; at the end Pat Garrett does an abrupt sympathetic about face and sends the Kid and his girl friend off to Mexico in an ending that I personally believe John Ford stole lock, stock, and barrel nine years later for ‘Stagecoach’. Completely ridiculous as far as history goes, but a good entertainment in its own right and a remarkable piece of popular culture, a revealing example of how conceptions of the Kid changed with changes in society (i.e., the movie was released not long after the stock market crash of 1929).
You're both an academic scholar and a feature-film editor who’s been nominated for an Oscar and won an American Cinema Editors Award. Your new book is published—in a beautifully designed and produced edition—by Northwestern University Press. Can you tell us about your association with the university and why a university press?
I debated marketing the book through an agent to trade presses, but the interest in books about filmmakers is not these days what it was in the glory days of the seventies and eighties. For example, Michael Sragow’s absolutely first-class biography of Victor Fleming was clothbound published by a distinguished trade press. Yet despite the fact that his is the first and only biography of Fleming, the man responsible two of the most enduringly popular films ever made, ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and despite superb reviews, the publisher had no interest in the paperback publication, which fell to a university press (Kentucky). So I was concerned that even if a trade publisher could be found who was interested, the manuscript might be awhile making the rounds. But my close friend and erstwhile academic colleague, the great literary critic and biographer Hershel Parker suggested I consider Northwestern University Press, with whom he had published several books, including all the corrected texts of Melville’s work and his own most recent book, ‘Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative’, a wonderful book about his experiences writing his definitive two-volume biography of Melville. Well, Northwestern’s a great press and the prospect of sharing a press with Hershel was a chance I couldn’t pass up. So I sent the manuscript off to NUP, and within three months they got stellar reports to publish from two very distinguished readers, and I’ve never looked back. Northwestern’s been the best group of publishing people I’ve ever dealt with: intelligent, creative, committed, passionate, very solicitous of the author, yet firm and practical when necessary and dedicated to publishing the best book possible out of any manuscript they accept. And as you’ve already pointed out, they did a spectacular job on the book in its design and physical appearance. I couldn’t be more pleased. And with a university press, it’s all about the book itself, the content, how good can it be, not will it sell, will it offend, what’s its market, etc. Another thing about university presses is that if your book is any good, it tends to be around for a long time. You know, counting its first and second editions, my ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films’ and ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration’ (University of Illinois Press)—that book has never been out of print since 1980 and it’s still widely regarded as the best critical study of Sam’s work. So, I couldn’t be happier with where the new book landed and the company it keeps in the catalogue. As Pike Bishop might say, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Paul, thank you.
Friday, March 06, 2015
BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Authentic Death & Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film’ by Paul Seydor
Troubled film shoots aren’t exactly a rarity in Hollywood, nor are compromised visions. Factor in everything that conspires against artistic creativity from rewrites to reshoots by way of studio interference, director/producer battles, on-set disasters, overruns, budget reconfigurations and even filmmakers removed from projects, and it’s amazing that movies get made at all, let alone good ones. Sam Peckinpah was a world-class filmmaker as renowned for the visceral intensity of his artistic vision as he was notorious for combativeness. More than most, he found himself often at loggerheads with his studio paymasters. And arguably no more bitter battle was fought than that between Peckinpah and MGM head James Aubrey. The battle was one of the most curious in a career marked by conflict – Peckinpah seemed almost hellbent in provoking an antagonist who already had a fearsome reputation for fucking over directors, but instead of going head-to-head in true Peckinpah style – conducted something more akin to a passive-aggressive war of attrition. The outcome: Peckinpah walked away to make ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ and Aubrey shortly found himself sacked. The real victim, however, was the film itself.
And yet ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ – never completed, and existing now in no fewer than five versions – had some kind of melancholy magic in its celluloid, some dark resilience, and its punch-drunk, woozy and downright subversive brilliance is still there despite (could one make a case for saying because of?) its flaws.
All of which is an incredibly longwinded way of saying that, if one considers both the film’s antecedents (historical and creative/revisionist) and its tortured path from conception to big screen, there was always a book to be written about this singular and haunting western, its director’s swansong to a genre he revolutionised and is remembered for. That book is now a reality and it’s an essential addition to the bookshelves of anyone who has a serious interest in cinema. For anyone with a genuine passion for Peckinpah’s work … well, you’ve probably read it twice over by now and you don’t need the 1200 words of this review to tell you how rewarding it is.
In fact, ‘The Authentic Death & Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film’ – its wonderfully aureate title a nod to Garrett’s own (albeit heavily ghostwritten) account of the Kid’s death, and hereinafter referred to as ‘TAD&CA’ – should need no introduction. Paul Seydor is, after all, the author of ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration’, one of the keystone texts on Peckinpah’s work (along with Garner Simmons’s ‘Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage’ and David Weddle’s ‘If They Move … Kill ’Em’), and an insightful and energetic work of scholarship in its own right. Oh, and he also made the Oscar-nominated documentary ‘The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage’.
In ‘TAD&CA’, Seydor doesn’t just discuss the making of the film – inclement weather, technical problems, reshoots on the QT after Aubrey forbade the extra spend, an influenza epidemic – and the Peckinpah/Aubrey conflict that took its toll in the editing rooms; he charts a throughline from the historical record vis-à-vis Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, through the dime-store myth-making that began just weeks after the Kid’s death, Charles Neider’s reappraisal of the story as great American literature in his novel ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’ (as with Seydor’s book, the title is a tip of the hat to Garrett’s ‘The Authentic Life of the Billy, the Kid’), Peckinpah’s first artistic engagement with the material in a screenplay that would have had Marlon Brando as Hendry Jones under Stanley Kubrick’s direction (Brando ultimately jettisoned Peckinpah’s script and parted ways with Kubrick and made the film, retitled ‘One Eyed Jacks’, himself), to the tangled psychodrama that saw Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Kid-centric script develop into Peckinpah’s sombre, reflective and quite definitely Garrett-fixated masterpiece.
That’s the thing about ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ – whatever version you may have seen it in (the most widely available cuts are the rather misguidedly titled 1988 Turner Preview Edition and the almost as misleading 2005 Special Edition which was spuriously marketed as being recut based on Peckinpah’s own notes), and whatever the flaws – this scene missing, that scene truncated, a line of dialogue that makes no sense, a bad line reading, an awful performance from a minor supporting player (I’ll “handle a crude situation with remarkable skill” and mention no names) – there’s no doubt the film is just that: a masterpiece.
Seydor’s relationship with it, beyond the chapter it occupies in ‘Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration’, is deeper and more complex than usual for a critic or academic – even one as passionate about his subject. Seydor was the guiding hand behind the 2005 Special Edition of the film, put together for the Warner Brothers box set of the Peckinpah westerns – well, four of them: ‘Ride the High Country’, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ and ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’; Sony Pictures were keen the include their restoration of ‘Major Dundee’ and offered Warner very generous terms, but Warner turned them down. (The disinterest in Peckinpah’s legacy that seems to permeate Warner extended to their declining to make a print of the 2005 Special Edition available when the Cannes Film Festival wanted to screen it to mark Peckinpah’s posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.)
As it is, the box set offers adequate prints of three of the films (’PG&BtK’ has yet to exist in home viewing format that does justice to John Coquillon’s cinematography), but they’re indifferently presented and boringly slipcased; moreover, a proposed new documentary was axed over budgetary concerns, while a collection of essays intended to accompany the set never made it past the press kit. Seydor’s access to the film was limited and he worked for free to assemble the most complete version he could given the strictures of time, money and resources. This, the 2005 Special Edition, was based on a combination of the theatrical release and one of the two preview prints Peckinpah was contractually allowed in his deal with MGM (with great humility Seydor acknowledges that these incarnations, while unfinished, are the only versions of the film on which a restoration can be based with any moral and aesthetic integrity).
It was met with both praise – Kris Kristofferson considers it the best version of the film he has ever seen – and controversy; and here I must admit to some grumblings on this very blog. When I wrote about it during my Peckinpah retrospective in December 2009, I had no idea of the strictures Seydor was operating under, nor how little time he had been allowed to physically work on the editing himself. And while I miss R.G. Armstrong’s “walk across hell on a spiderweb” line and rue the truncation of the Will the coffin-maker scene on the basis of my own Peckinpah-as-Prospero interpretation, I look back at that article now and wish I’d known then what a poisoned chalice Seydor had accepted with the project and how insufficient the facilities afforded him by the studio. Had I known, my words would have been softer. For what it’s worth, let this review stand as correction and apology.
‘TAD&CA’ discusses the 2005 Special Edition at some length, but even Seydor’s own work on the film isn’t the end of the story. The final section, “Ten Ways of Looking at an Unfinished Masterpiece and Its Director”, suggests that Paul Seydor and ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ may never entirely be done with each other. The film has a grip on him. I can entirely understand why.
Monday, March 02, 2015
March is ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ month on The Agitation of the Mind. I’ll be reviewing Paul Seydor’s finely researched and monumentally detailed new book ‘The Authentic Death & Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film’ and curating a Q&A with the author.
I’ll also be reappraising the film itself, both the 1988 Turner Preview cut and the 2005 Special Edition. These reviews will be written in context of Seydor’s book; I’ll be making no reference to the material I produced for my Sam Peckinpah retrospective on this blog in 2009.
Seydor traces, in the early chapters, the various accounts of Billy the Kid, from Garrett’s own (albeit heavily ghostwritten) memoir to Charles Neider’s novel ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’, by way of Marlon Brando’s ‘One Eyed Jacks’, a production initially slated to be written by Peckinpah and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Accordingly, I’ll be looking at this curate’s egg of a western, not to mention a few other films that treat, or are influenced by, the mythology surrounding Billy the Kid.