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It's 1881 in New Mexico, and the times they are a'changing. Pat Garrett, erstwhile travelling companion of the outlaw Billy the Kid has become a sheriff, tasked by cattle interests with ridding the territory of Billy. After Billy escapes, Pat assembles a posse and chases him through the territory, culminating in a final confrontation at Fort Sumner, but is unaware of the full scope of the cattle interests' plans for the New West. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
I finally got to see the recent DVD Special Edition, with what probably is the film that Peckinpah set out to make, or close to it. This is definitely not the film I saw in 1973; and, yes, it is much better. The restoration has emphasized the real beauty of much of the cinematography. And it is not only the restored 9 minutes that give the film added power, but a slight but important rearrangement of scenes that manages to convey the all-important development of Pat Garrett's character, which is the real heart of the film.
It must be noted that this was a career-defining moment for James Coburn as Pat Garrett. Garrett, a former outlaw getting on the "right side" of the law in order to "live to be old and rich", is a problematic personality: he wants to be noble, but he's too scared of aging; he sets his old colleagues against each other, leading to the deaths of many of them - he becomes an angel of death for the Old West itself, yet (unlike, say, George Steven's Shane) he doesn't represent any civilizing force to replace it with. He can't admit any of this to himself, but he can't avoid it.
Consequently, by accepting the role, Coburn accepted an opportunity to set aside his most famous incarnation as the goofy hipster of such films as "President's Analyst" and "Our Man Flint", and to pursue a path closed off with the lost opportunity in Leone's rugged but incomplete "Duck, You Sucker", to play a complex, brooding and violent man haunted by an unforgiving past. Coburn's performance, at once quiet and strong, as complex as the character demands, really makes this film; and that it is Garrett's film, not Billy's, is now clear.
Are there weaknesses to the film? Yes. The historic background to the main story is lost; this being Garrett's film, we don't really need as much of Billy as we get from the film; finally, there are moments of self-indulgence on Peckinpah's part that are distracting and unnecessary.
Peckinpah uses the film to rid himself of one of his supposed influences: the fourth major scene in the film is a remake of a scene toward's the end of Arthur Penn's "Left-Handed Gun" - by bringing it to the fore, Peckinpah is obviously getting it out of the way as quickly as possible. (Penn, not the Peckinpah of "The Wild Bunch", was the director who introduced the notion of a gunfight ending in a "bullet ballet" in "Bonnie and Clyde" - a fact some critics of the early '70s used to insist that "Wild Bunch" was somehow derivative of that film.) However, as the film goes on, a new influence shows up, and in spades - Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time In the West". From Coburn's dressing in black and smoking a cigar when he firsts captures Billy, to the moment when Garrett and two colleagues approach the house where Billy's staying at the end, Leone's visuals and themes rise to the taste like hot-sauce in a bowl of chili.
Peckinpah's film is not really derivative - after all, Peckinpah's West is not that of Leone - Peckinpah's West is rich in color, and surprisingly green; trees don't make any appearance at all in Leone's deserted Monument Valley (and it's Spanish equivalent)location photography; in Peckinpah's West they play a substantial role as reminders of an ever-young nature infested with aging gunmen.
Yet the fact that Peckinpah and his crew felt a need to find a reference point in Leone's film hints at the source of weakness in this film, a lack of unifying vision. Although I don't agree that the story is so episodic that its inherent power is lost, there's no denying a lack of clarity at times.
Having said all this, I still insist that this is a really good film, and a really fine end-of-an-era farewell to the American "Old West" - or rather, to it's legend - the West never was "shoot-outs on main-street" or anything like that. The reason why directors like Peckinpah and Leone made such films as this was that they and their audiences were at last waking up to that fact, that what they learned as legends were little more than historical anomalies. Yes, there really was a "Billy the Kid" - and he had no more historic importance than the average gangsta on the streets of East L.A. has today.
Nonetheless, the biographical evidence is that Peckinpah at one time believed in the myth, and certainly preferred it to the reality. It is therefore a sign of courage and artistic integrity that he chose to make films about the end of the myth, rather than glorifying it. Neither Garrett nor the Kid are really very admirable in this film; if the film feels "distant" - and it does - this is because there is no moral center to the film - and, as it happens, that was true of the real West of the 19th century as well - it was just empty space, scenery, and some misfits of various backgrounds trying to find some ways to make a living in an as-yet inhospitable domain.
It is as yet unclear whether they succeeded; certainly films like this suggest they didn't.
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