Monday, December 21, 2009

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (2005 Special Edition)

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.


Doniphon said...

I can't stand the 2005 version, although I did like the scenes between Pat and his wife. If I'm remembering correctly, "Knocking On Heaven's Door" is played much more predominantly over Sheriff Baker's death, and I felt like it really ruined an incredible scene. I just don't understand why the people who restored it felt they had the right to do it, as if they know what Peckinpah wanted. It seems weirdly presumptuous.

Neil Fulwood said...

I tried to find a balance between the different cuts for the sake of writing a fair article. The 2005 version works well when it makes minor tweaks and tightens up the editing, but the big decisions to cut entire scenes or chunks of dialogue and to use Dylan's music much more obtrusively are a mistake. Although I love the vocals to "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", that scene works much better for me with just the acoustic version playing.

Bryce Wilson said...

See I find this funny, I was introduced to the film with the 2005 cut and I can't even imagine that scene without Knocking On Heaven's Door over it. To me it makes it.

Bryce Wilson said...

Hey Neil as Promised I went ahead and did my own write up on the film. Cheers!

Neil Fulwood said...

Another excellent review, sir! Many thanks for the contribution. I'll be doing another "links and resources" style entry tomorrow and I'll be sure to link to it then.

Troy Olson said...

I didn't get past the credit sequence in the 2005 version before determining it was already making the experience worse. Yeah, I was that knee-jerk about it.

I'm having trouble coming up with any other film that has as strange a set of releases as this does...anything come to mind?

Bryce Wilson said...

Aw Shucks, thanks Neil.

@Troy, no I don't think their is. Maybe that short film of Jodorowskies that spent most of its life in a Hungarian attic.

Michael Grover said...

Neil, have you read the book Peckinpah Today: New Essays on the Films of Sam Peckinpah? Two of the essays address the 2005 "Special Edition" of Pat Garrett. One is by Seydor himself, and seems to be his attempt at a justification of his cut. The other is by Stephen Prince, and it basically rips Seydor a new asshole (in a mild-mannered, academic way). It makes for interesting reading. I acquired the 2-disc set last year, but like you, I've avoided watching the Seydor cut. I think I'm going to have to give it a go, if only because I still haven't seen the "wife scene."

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Mel Kizadek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mel Kizadek said...

It's all a work of the imagination, so one can imagine the definitive version for oneself. This is not possible in most movies, because we only get to see one version, ever. Here, we've got several versions, thus several impressions, and, in a sense, this fragments the work a little too much and it becomes one more puzzle-burden to carry, confusing matters and wasting one's time. Essentially, one is seeing the same movie and nitpicking relatively trivial details. So the problem is not the editing, or the version.
The problem is Kris Kristofferson as Billy. I love the guy, but he doesn't work in any version. His mood, appearance, even his lack of skill with a gun and his general body language seem misplaced and often clunky. Coburn understands how to make the character tight and balanced on the screen, whereas Kristofferson acts as if it's all a bit of a laugh, being in the movies and playing Billy the Kid. This self-consciousness makes Billy look like a bit of a slob and quite a silly person. But maybe Billy was a silly person, I hear you say. Probably, but who wants to see a western about a silly person, unless it’s Bob Hope playing Paleface, or Dustin Hoffman in Little Big man?
Coburn/Garrett carry the energy here. Billy and his gang of losers are just a drag and make me want to just go to bed. And every time I see Alias, I just think, there's Bob Dylan... hmm, not bad there... shoulda' cut that, though; a distraction. Casting: that's always been the problem with this movie, not versions.
One thing I'll say for him, though, Billy can sure handle his liquor. First thought in the morning: whiskey. Before making love for the last time: whiskey. Doesn’t interfere with his gunplay one bit, apparently. Why is he drinking? I know that in westerns, when the cowboy is thirsty, he drinks whiskey, never water. But if Billy was that nervous or scared, he should have gone to Mexico and stayed there. By the end of the movie, I expected to be staggering around the room myself after all that booze, or rushing to the toilet after all that damn tea.
So the definitive version for me will be when a young Dennis Hopper gets the role of Billy, by way of digital replacement, many years from now.