922. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Sam Peckinpah)

2005 "Special Edition": screened Sunday May 6 2007 on DVD in Weehawken NJ1988 "Turner Preview Edition": screened Tuesday May 8 2007 on mp4 on video iPod en route to Washington DC TSPDT rank #797 IMDb

Title screen from the Turner Preview Edition:

Title screen from the 2005 Special Edition restored and edited by Paul Seydor.

Information and comparison on the three different versions of the film

Peckinpah's final film set in the historical West was edited to distribution without his participation; for years he kept his own preview version, which was made public after his death, but a recent re-edit commissioned for the film's 2005 DVD release further complicates the issue of an authoritative version.  The latter two versions are both available on the DVD, and as narratives, neither of them are fully satisfying.  There's less a sense of a developing story as a series of slight variations on the well-worn myth of uncompromising gunslinger Billy vs. his ex-buddy Garrett set to sell him out.  Kristofferson's Billy is an impenetrable amalgam of approaches fumbled between the script, direction and acting (though it still looks favorable to Bob Dylan, with whose character Peckinpah seems to be toying reproachfully).  Coburn's chiseled, grim performance as Garrett gives his unsavory character a fair degree of dignity - he's a much more human and compelling a presence than the pedestalized legend he's pursuing.  But the real star of the film seems to be the dirt-pigmented settings and gristled supporting characters that give the film the immensely pleasurable texture of mud-splashed leather.  At times Peckinpah seems to actively resist advancing the story for the sake of lingering on sparse, idle chatter and indolent moments among his exemplary company of Western stock characters (Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, L.Q. Jones, etc) before the majority of them succumb to violent ruin.  It's a vision of the West falling apart at the seams, and all he can do is bid each stich and swath an adoringly self-destructive adieu.  As with his other films, the ideology on display is as highly problematic as it is seductively eloquent. Here's an analysis of the film's best scene:


The same scene, played at half-speed, if only to linger upon it further:


Want to go deeper?

As many of the following links will attest, opinion on the film is generally divided between Peckinpah diehards who seem to express unconditional adulation for the film as an "incomplete masterpiece" suggesting a Western equivalent of The Magnificent Ambersons, and less-invested viewers who see it as a mess of a film with striking visual and tonal elements. The best online writing I've found on the film can be found in this piece by Tom Block (part of this extensive Peckinpah Blog-a-thon from a while back), which is tough-minded enough to assert some thoughtful critiques of the film while attempting to account for their causes (most notably, the characterization of Billy the Kid) but still conveys a savoring sense of enjoyment over all the particulars of this irresolute picture. He's especially good at describing the fine points of James Coburn's performance, and musing over just what the heck Bob Dylan's character is supposed to be about.

. Maximilian Le Cain for Senses of Cinema offers a more unconditionally laudatory assessment of the film, surmising the many elements of the Peckinpah myth along the way.

The Wikipedia entry on the film gives a succinct overview of the production and post-production problems that plagued the film. Garrett Chaffin-Quiray, also writing for Senses of Cinema, offers more juicy details on the film's undoing, honing in on the meddling of MGM studio head James Aubrey, aka "The Smiling Cobra".

Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer offers a poignant, ever so slightly embittered account of the writing of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He had written it with Monte Hellman slated to helm the production (they had collaborated on Two Lane Blacktop [TSPDT #669]). One gets the sense of the story's personal relevance to Wurlitzer (which parallels its likely relevance to Peckinpah as a maverick Hollywood careerist):

Garrett's decision to sell out in order to survive, to live rather then die, to abandon obsolete descriptions of courage and freedom for a more complicated if more corrupt sense of order, began to resonate more and more with the writer, not only because he found himself in Hollywood faced with the usual compromises of being used and courted like a nineteenth-century woman and then inevitably discarded from the hierarchy of power, but Garrett was actually more interesting than the Kid. The killer of freedom is often the true subject of freedom.

He also offers his evocative musings on his intended aesthetic philosophy for how the film would look and feel -- which in my view remarkably carried over into what eventually ended up on screen:

On a more abstract level, the writer, holed up in a Sunset Blvd hotel, suspended in a weird floating world of his own, became consumed with philosophical questions about the phenomenology of Western space, of establishing a continuity outside of cultural time, and of trying to work the dialectics of interior and exterior space. In other words: of experiencing the present outside of language; of being alone without historical direction. The way it probably was in the West- action without exposition- a rider riding, a man dying- all these considerations the writer kept to himself, of course, such peripheral indulgences being anathema to the Industry, death to the project.

For historical reference, here are the unflattering first-run reviews of the 1973 original release by Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert.

"grandpa_chum" offers an exhaustive Comparison of the three versions, weighing decisively in favor of the 1988 Turner Preview Cut:

"The version the studio hacked to pieces and Peckinpah wanted to be removed from became the theatrical release which was canned by critics and fans alike, which I have seen on television, and I must say is the worst version, but not a horrible film. Even hacked up it's still a great movie, I mean it is all peckinpah footage. The third and most recent version is the version Paul Seydor(hollywood editor of such 'masterful' editing such as that of "turner and hooch", "tin cup", and "barbershop 2"... he also wrote a book on Peckinpah and is actually quite knowledgable on the subject) put together called the 2005 Special Edition Cut for the dvd release. Unfortunately because the Preview Cut is the only cut Peckinpah ever had a hand in Paul Seydor simply speculates what would constitute a final definitive cut of the film and on the dvd commentary he defends most of the changes as simply being choices he made based on what works in hollywood and what doesn't, because he's a hollywood editor. Worst of all, for some reason, Seydor believes this is in line with what Peckinpah would have done had he been able to make a final cut. Yet in my opinion he couldn't be farther from what Peckinpah would have done with this film and he only takes large bounds back from the '88 Turner Preview Cut, which is the best of the bunch."

Mike Sutton's effusive review at DVD Times comes down hard against the 2005 Special Edition.

DVD Savant seems to favor the 2005 Special Edition - though he seems less enraptured of the film than Sutton or grandpa_chum

DVD Beaver offers yet more comparisons between the 1988 and 2005 versions, and as always a very thorough spec scan.

DVD Verdict offers some more anecdotal information taken second hand from Weddle's book, and details on the supplementary materials on the Warner 2-disc DVD

DVD Journal

Here are some higher resolution images from the sequence I analysed: