Pat Garrett is hired as a lawman on behalf of a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down his old friend Billy the Kid.Pat Garrett is hired as a lawman on behalf of a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down his old friend Billy the Kid.Pat Garrett is hired as a lawman on behalf of a group of wealthy New Mexico cattle barons to bring down his old friend Billy the Kid.
Although Neider's book, ridiculously renamed "Guns Up" in a Pan paperback edition (the one I read), is a fictionalised account, it is an unforgettable masterpiece, invoking a unique sense of nostalgia for the Old West. Peckinpah loved the book and was inspired to write what turned out to be the first screenplay for "One-Eyed Jacks", later made by Marlin Brando who changed just about every element.
Although Peckinpah dropped out of that project early, when he finally got a chance to make his version, he moved a long way from Neider's book. In fact, the script moved closer to the historical record. However, although Neider's book is not credited, it's obvious that Peckinpah tried to capture its spirit.
The story tells how Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid once rode together, but eventually found themselves on opposites sides of the law. When Billy brutally escapes from jail, in one of the film's best sequences, it sets in motion a ruthless hunt by Pat Garrett, which can only have one ending.
Peckinpah actually frames the film with the death of Garrett. This sequence along with others have the trademark Peckinpah slow motion deaths with arching blood spray - techniques that had already become a little hackneyed even by 1973.
However, the central problem was in Peckinpah's casting of Kris Kristofferson. Not so much, as many reviewers have suggested, that at 37 he was too old to play Billy the Kid, but more because he just didn't project the necessary sense of danger; he comes across as too affable, too laid back. Brando in "One Eyed Jacks" gave a stunning performance as a man with a dangerous edge, and although it might seem unfair to compare the two, that lack of threat is a key weakness in Peckinpah's film.
Bob Dylan is in the movie and also provides a couple of very nasally songs on the soundtrack; his presence isn't just anachronistic, it's bizarre.
On the other hand, James Coburn is just about perfect as Pat Garrett, and the rest of the cast is probably the greatest coming together of iconic stars from western movies ever - Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Jack Elam, LQ Jones, Katy Jurado, Gene Evans, Paul Fix and others - one of the joys of the film is in spotting them.
Apparently the film was badly cut by the studio. Despite that, and some strange decisions by Peckinpah himself, the film is nothing less than interesting. But because of all the tampering, like Brando's film, it misses out on greatness. As for Neider's book, it still awaits the right filmmaker to give it the definitive treatment on the screen.
- Apr 2, 2015