Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

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.


Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

I probably like Peckinpah more than any other director.

Wrote some pieces on him too.

Unknown said...

Excellent write-up, one of the best I've read on Pat Garrett. Also, I appreciate the heads-up your earlier post gave me on the new Paul Seydor book.