It is easy to view Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah’s first Western post-The Wild Bunch, and examine it as a follow-up to that seminally shrieking exercise in wolf-like nihilism. It would be easy to do so, and probably correct, but also incomplete. Pat Garrett, which follows ex-outlaw turned lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn) as he vengefully hunts down his ex-partner Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), bears an outline that is almost identical to The Wild Bunch. In both films, an ex-outsider who becomes a man of respectable society is strangled by his dogmatic commitment to hiding the memories of his lawless days by killing the last reminder he has of those days. In both films, the violence of wild society gives way to the violence of so-called “civilized” society, and in both cases, the social outlaws must die so that the corporate, conglomerate violence of civil people can live.
Both films are also parables of their time, with the outlaws evoking the laconic, lazy-day social unrest of the hippie generation which must give way to the clipped, ruthlessly efficient anvil of respectable society. Both are stories of transition, and both are stories of society being torn down by its implicit need to stamp out every single outsider until no one is left, and until that society has no time to do anything but stamp out and cut-up anyone who doesn’t want to listen. The society, or the lawmen, begin a war of attrition with their rebellious past until they are torn down as well. They are parables of history: if we spend all our time tearing away the memory of the violence America was built on, we will fail to notice the violence of the present.
This is an easy comparison, and a justified one. The presence of Bob Dylan is the discombobulating X-factor, however, however, and it is much more than mere stunt casting. Peckinpah, who was one of the few Western directors to transition from the classical era of the genre – when it was infatuated with dreams of Americana – to the dark days of revisionist ’70s, when the genre was interested in critiquing itself. When the Westerns of old died, the revisionist Western became a phoenix brought to life on the ashes of the gentle giant genre of American cinema. These tough, leathery new Westerns, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch chief among them, brought violence and brutality to the forefront to showcase the scorching, sadistic reality of Western life. But Peckinpah had more on his mind than mere “harsh realism”. His Westerns were certainly revisionist Westerns, but not breaks from the Western myth entirely. They weren’t a showpiece for “reality”, but the substitution of a new myth. The Wild Bunch uses old Western icons like Ernest Borgnine and William Holden to comment on the idea of the mythic Western rebels having outlived their days on the run from society. These men were about to be put to sleep, and The Wild Bunch was as much a requiem to the myth of the Old West as a rejection of it.
Pat Garrett is even more befuddling. Old Western character actors are in tow and torn to pieces by the film, although often with requiems of their own (cowboy comic actor Slim Pickens, who would comment on his own Western image the same year as Pat Garret with Mel Brooks’ Blazzing Saddles, is given a particularly searing, romantic death). But Dylan’s role is far more complex. His music, folky, rusty, and crestfallen, evokes timeless Americana, but its among-the-tombstones age and wither is also distinctly of the 1960s and ’70s tradition. It doesn’t sound like music from the Old West, but music about the Old West trying to sound like the Old West, and that modern-day interjection bends the film around itself and moves the film from “revisionist realism” to something more conceptually playful and aware of the fact that it is a film being made in the 1970s.
It is, as a Western, positioned halfway between Peckinpah’s 1969 the Wild Bunch and that year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by George Roy Hill. That later film, which shares a naming structure with Pat Garrett, is a Western that nods its head in the neighborhood of realism only to secretly give realism the slip, photographing its characters like models and gallivanting with them as they play around like actors and not genuine Western characters. It, like Pat Garret, is something of an interrogation of the idea that a realist Western is impossible, and that the way to evoke revisionism is to identify the artifice of the Western and supplant it with a new artifice. Just as Butch and Sundance fawns over the two biggest male movie stars of the late ’60s, so too does Pat Garrett address the infusion of ’70s music and ’70s music stars (remember, Kris Kristofferson was an outlaw country star in 1973, not an actor) into the Western. It is not a film about the Western, but about 1970s films about the Western.
The implication, specifically with Kristofferson, is that he was a modern man playing an outlaw Western character in his country music, singing songs about American myths in the modern day. Which is exactly what he is tasked with here (there’s a scene of him winkingly sliding into a Jesus pose, where Peckinpah cheekily rasps at the idea of the Western outlaw as a rebellious social savior). The audience, I suspect, was meant to look as Kristofferson and Dylan and question musicians who tried to evoke Old School Americana through the filter of the 1970s. Audiences were meant, and are meant, to realize that Pat Garrett is, itself, a product of the 1970s pretending to be a realistic Western. It is Peckinpah moving from realism to a sort of commentary on realism.
The laconic cool of James Coburn, meanwhile, rereads his visage and parched chill so that it no longer symbolizes outsider “alley cat” status, but the bitter shell of a formless man crammed into a suit to join the ranks of respectable society at the expense of his identity. He is the Western star of the ’50s and ’60s now turned curmudgeonly, destroyed by his past, and left destroying Billy the Kid, the type of character he might have played ten years before. He is essentially rejecting his own image as an actor, just as the character is destroying his own past outlaw days by destroying Billy.
More than any Peckinpah film, Pat Garrett is about performance, and what he does with these performances makes up for the film’s somewhat rough-around-the-edges lack of focus. It isn’t his best film, nor even his best Western, but it exists all to its own, and it is the sight of a genuine auteur pushing his own buttons and implicitly commenting on, and even worrying about, the effects of his older Westerns. It is a post-revisionist Western. Not the best one, but it paved the way for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and any film that got us there is well worth a viewing. Even if it hadn’t gotten us there, the feline and feral Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid still beguiles and fascinates as a thoroughly singular slice of early ’70s cinema.