Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Renegade’s Requiem

<em>Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid</em><em>: </em>Renegade’s Requiem

Had all five found themselves in the same cantina—and it’s not impossible that at some point they did—they might have called themselves the Wild Bunch. All fashioned themselves outlaws or at least flirted with the idea: screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer, a homegrown Beckett whose novels were bulletins from Armageddon; lead actors James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson, the former from a generation of ugly-cool amoralists who hijacked movie stardom and the latter a Rhodes-scholar janitor who emerged as the hottest country songwriter since Hank Williams; costar and film composer Bob Dylan, the 1960s’ single most revolutionary figure in any medium, Warhol notwithstanding; and director Sam Peckinpah, the best American filmmaker of his time who wasn’t named Kubrick or Altman. Among them they had enough genius, ego, and creative firepower to generate any brilliant enterprise from the dust up, not to mention the neuroses, arrogance, and alcoholism to completely fuck up everything. On 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, they managed to do a little of both, producing one of cinema’s towering westerns, in which self-destruction is not only an aesthetic but its own subject matter.

If the western was going out of fashion when Peckinpah got to it in the 1960s and early ’70s, the genre has always attracted renegades outside their time. The violence of Peckinpah’s contradictions has become a cliché: a poet-barbarian born to ranches and rifles and versed in theater and history, who loved not just Johns Ford and Huston but also Ingmar Bergman and Italian neorealism, with a daily liquor consumption more accurately measured in crates than bottles, “Bloody Sam” was known to have brought a pistol to at least one studio meeting, the sort of gesture that reflected his feelings about the studios while occasionally disinclining the studios to hire him. At once a classicist in the tradition of My Darling Clementine, High Noon, and Shane, and a revisionist in the spirit of Johnny Guitar, Forty Guns, and One-Eyed Jacks (for which he wrote an early draft that was rejected), Peckinpah was both seduced by the western and suspicious of it. In one of those rare periods of American culture that didn’t reflexively reject nuance, he instinctively, maybe even unconsciously, understood that the western’s lessons were as fatal as its glories were futile when it came to revealing the crazed, unkempt country out of which the genre was born.

With all due respect to 1962’s Ride the High Country, 1969’s The Wild Bunch, and 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Garrett is Peckinpah’s greatest movie, an examination of how American power and greed corrode the stuff of freedom and friendship. “How does it feel?” Billy asks his old friend about selling out to the cattle barons (echoing a classic Dylan song in the process), to which Garrett wearily answers (echoing another Dylan classic), “Like times have changed.” Billy retorts, “Times, maybe. Not me.” As with all of Peckinpah’s most important films, regarding Garrett in autobiographical terms is irresistible. If you wonder whether the filmmaker is Garrett or the Kid in this allegory of innocence, betrayal, and the obliteration of a brave and savage American spirit, the answer is: yes. Like all great artists who never saw the point of having a cake you can’t eat, Peckinpah has it every which way in Garrett: his vision of the Old West is utopian and anarchic, lyric and sordid, preposterously male with its few rare women the only voices of reason, all invoking the bard’s power and the beast’s primal ruin. Peckinpah deromanticizes everything he has ever romanticized, then romanticizes the deromanticizing. The most turbulent production of a turbulent career—shot in faraway, dusty Durango, Mexico, with a crew racked by illness and cameras that didn’t work and a studio that never showed any faith in it—Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is, among other things, the story of an artist who gave himself too much license for too much excess while also never really cutting himself a break for an instant.

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