Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, Barry Sullivan, Jason Robards, Bob Dylan, Jack Elam, Harry Dean Stanton directed by Sam Peckinpah Movie Review

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

The Ballad of Pat Garrett

"Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" is a surprisingly good movie which may sound a rather daft thing to say seeing that it is a Sam Peckinpah movie and with that come high expectations. But with a production which was dogged by Peckinpah's heavy drinking, arguments between Peckinpah and Kris Kristofferson that bordered on the physical and interference by the studio when it came to the final cut it is a miracle that it turns out as good as it does. "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" is by no means a classic, it is disjointed and strange in places and even the various versions which have been released since the studio's original feel incomplete but maybe this is part of what makes it good because it is different, snappy and not bogged down with padding.

Having been friends with Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) for a few years, Pat Garrett (James Coburn - Charade) pays the outlaw a visit to warn him to leave the country as in 5 days he will become the law and charged with ridding the territory of Billy and his outlaws. Despite ignoring Garrett's advice Pat manages to bring Billy in alive despite the attempts of his men to kill the outlaw. But when Billy manages to escape from Lincoln jail Pat has to get tougher as he tracks him down, doing what ever is needed to get his man.

Bob Dylan as Alias in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

Of course the names Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the western genre, and alongside these names there are also other familiar names such as Chisum which crop up in Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid". It means for those who do not know there story but have watched westerns will have a sense of familiarity which works. But this isn't a movie about familiar names, this is a movie about Garrett becoming County Sheriff and ordered to bring in Billy either dead or alive and it enters the story 5 days before Garrett takes on the law enforcers' role with him visiting Billy and suggesting he leaves the country before he has to go after him. Actually it starts with a flash forward which actually sees Garrett's own demise but that is not what "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" is about.

So we have this story of Pat and his band of law enforcers going after Billy to bring him dead or alive and as Garrett is a friend he would rather bring him in alive. We watch as Billy is caught but escapes and so Garrett hits the trail to go after him, discovering more about Billy than he realised. And at the same time we have Governor Wallace demanding Garrett get the outlaw by any means and also the businessmen who want rid of the outlaw.

As such this story is a series of events as we get to know more about Billy and Garrett, their friendships, their loyalty and secrets and we also get a sense of double crossing when it comes to Billy's gang. Now I don't know how much truth there is to the story, I don't know whether Garrett did visit a brothel and sleep with several women at the same time, I imagine the scene in question which features several topless women has been thrown in for entertainment value but it does entertain. And the irony of "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" is that whilst it is a troubled movie and feels very disjointed it does entertain as it jumps from one scene to the next. I am sure Peckinpah's vision must have been a longer more complete story but what we end up with thanks to brutal editing is this breezy story of one big scene after another.

Alongside the brutal editing Peckinpah also delivers a sense of brutal violence and there are numerous explosive scenes of gun fighting usually featuring at least one person spurting blood by the end of it all. It's very visual and not just when it comes to the gun fights as alongside plenty of nudity there is suggestion of sexual violence as well which has the desired result of disgusting. By today's standard "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" stands up remarkably well with the only thing really dating it is the authenticity of the effects.

Now whilst "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" features the established talent of James Coburn as Pat Garrett and he brings that sense of menace which he did so well it is a case that all performances are equal. Kris Kristofferson delivers a lightness to his Billy the Kid so that whilst you get a sense that Billy enjoyed a charmed life he's not a comical character of other westerns. And even Bob Dylan as Alias, a part with minimal dialogue, delivers this wonderfully mysterious character who we are never entirely sure off, which side he is one. Plus when you look through the cast it has many recognizable names such as Jason Robards, Katy Jurado, Chill Wills, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton and Richard Jaeckel all putting in solid performances.

What this all boils down to is that somehow "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" is a good, above average western despite a surprising amount of issues. The most obvious issue is that it is disjointed going from one big scene to another but ironically it works because it makes it a livewire movie with one big moment after another never allowing you to settle. You do have to wonder how good it would have been if Peckinpah hadn't been drinking heavily during its production or if the studio hasn't interfered so much.