"Movies, especially genre pieces, are rarely unique; so one has to look at this film as a magnificent achievement, if only for its extraordinary originality and the manner in which it achieves that originality without demolishing the Western genre. Unlike Sergio Leone, who signaled his love of the genre even as he deconstructed it; PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID seems to spontaneously erupt out of Peckinpah's unconcious. I don't think he ever made a film before or after which speaks so effortlessly and so beautifully in the voice of its author. The result is a Western which is not only unlike any other Western ever made, but completely unlike any other film ever made, including Peckinpah's own.
Firstly, this film moves in an entirely unique manner, avoiding the three-act structure of the conventional film in favor of a cyclical arc which inexorably propels the film towards its violent climax. The film, quite literally, ends where it begins, both chronologically and geographically. Secondly, the film's dialogue is simply extraordinary. Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (most probably in collaboration with Peckinpah) invents a patois which, for all intents and purposes, amounts to an artificial period dialect. The film essentially invents its own language. This, combined with John Coquillon's bleached-tan cinematography, creates a world so self contained that one begins to understand how its inexorable forces push against its characters, rendering them helpless before their fates.
This is also, without question, a masterpiece of acting on the part of James Coburn. His performance ranks with John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS as a towering pice of film acting. Coburn's Garrett is a weak-willed yet ferociously tough outlaw who is smart enough to realize that the outlaw's time is almost over; like Pike Bishop in THE WILD BUNCH, he wants to start thinking beyond his guns, because those days are closing fast. Indeed, the darkness is closing on everyone in this film. Its characers seem to appear like memories, ciphers out of a dream. They are lost souls who history has abandoned, and are left only with their fading memories of the West when it, and they, were once young. Coburn captures Garrett's tragedy, the tragedy of a man who cannot avoid his fate and yet fights desperately to do just that, in a performance of marvelous economy and subtlety. He barely raises his voice until the film's final moments, and yet one can almost see the forces tearing him apart inside. There are a handful of moments where this humanity bursts through to the surface - when he watches, with a look of pity and compassion, as the gutshot Sheriff Baker wanders to the river to die, his weeping wife silently at his side; or when he almost shoots a perfect stranger on a riverboat and suddenly realizes the absurdity of what he is about to do; or, most especially, the split second look in his eyes the moment before he pulls the trigger and kills Billy the Kid, a look halfway between weeping and despair - and these moments are marked by Peckinpah's unrelenting camera as beautifully as John Ford's shattering closeups of Wayne's face, contorted by rage and sorrow, in THE SEARCHERS.
The rest of the cast, while not as magnificent as Coburn, nonetheless provide an extraordinary array of grotesque and tragic characters, simultaneously ugly and unforgettable. Kris Kristofferson's Billy is essentially a child, incapable of seeing or understanding the forces with which Garrett is reckoning. He too cannot escape them, yet he has no conciousness of his own doom.
The films' elegiac sense of inevitability is underlined by the presence of a myriad of aging Western actors: Chill Wills, the extraordinary Katy Juarado, and, most especially, Jack Elam, who turns in a shockingly moving performance as Alamosa Bill Kermit. It is simply astonishing to think that the man who played a monosyllabic thug in the opening scenes of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST has here been transformed into the sad, good-hearted old man doomed by merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Peckinpah's skill with actors is rarely mentioned, even by his supporters, but it must be noted that the performances in this film (many by non-actors) are, even in the smaller parts, universally moving and memorable.
The Bob Dylan soundtrack, often cited by the film's detractors, is also quite unique. Like Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack to SUPERFLY, the soundtrack does not enhance the film so much as add another dimension to it, acting less like accompaniment and more like a chorus keeping watch over the proceedings and signaling to us the complexities its characters cannot grasp. More than anything else in the film, Dylan's score provides the sense of tragedy and loss, the tear-jerking inevitability of the passage of time, which raises this film out of its genre origins into the realm of cinematic poetry. (Legend has it that when Dylan first played Peckinpah the film's signature theme "Billy", the icon of cinematic machismo - who had no idea who Dylan was - was reduced to tears, blubbering "goddamit, who is that boy? Sign him up!")
A word has to be said here about PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID's place in the history of the Western. It is, in my opinion, THE oustanding masterpiece of the later Westerns; begun by John Ford himself in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and culminating in Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN; an era in which the Western was looked at for the first time in a concious manner and its conventions were subverted and, ultimately, re-mythologized. This film must stand alongside ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as one of the most extraordinary reimaginings of the Western ever put on film; but whereas Leone's film is an operatic fantasy, Peckinpah's film is a dusty folk song, an elegiac, late-evening ballad laced, perhaps, with a bit too much Mexican tequila but, nonetheless, suffused with that sense of sadness and loss that has marked all the great Westerns of its era. It is a film whose violence, dirtiness, and occasional sadism only underline its wounded heart, the heart of its director, who loved the Western and its conventions even as he blasted them to pieces in slow motion. Peckinpah might have occasionally reveled in blood, but there was method in his sadism, perhaps summed up in the line of one his characters, who only wanted to enter his house justified. None of the characters in PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID can hope for such a consummation, but the same cannot be said of its creator. Whatever accolades may yet come Peckinpah's way, and he is long overdue for a reassessment, this film proves that every one of them is, unquestionably, justified.
*This review refers to the long version of the film, included on the second disk of this DVD package. The new Special Edition, while interesting, is ill considered in my view. The added scenes are superfluous and the trimming removes some of the films best lines and disturbs its measured pace. Quite frankly, it plays like a two hour preview. The reconstruction seems to have been done by people seeking to impose their own ideas of what Peckinpah intended rather than allowing the longer version to stand on its own. While it is true that, given the abscense of its creator, there is and can be no truly definitive version of this film, the longer version is, in my view, clearly the masterpiece its shorter counterpart is not. A wounded masterpiece, perhaps, but even wounded masterpieces are, generally speaking, better left alone."
Turner version 5 stars. The rest of this is a pain though.
Raimundo de Berg | 06/08/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"There seems to be a lasting discussion, or even a consensus, about why this movie is flawed in one way or the other and worse than the Wild Bunch, especially amongst US audience. A discussion I frankly can't quite follow even though it is belabored at considerable length in the commentary tracks. The issue apparently also motivated Mr. Seydor to throw together a so called 'special edition' with scenes taken from either the Turner version or the theatrical release, in an attempt to produce a version he feels Sam Peckinpah might had been striving for, given the troubled production circumstances. This 'special edition' is the one version coming with this package, and if you are like me you might consider this wasted space, as at least I'm not at all interested in what Mr. Seydor feels might be great. The idleness of this whole attempt is mirrored in the commentary tracks, where most of the time is wasted with repeated explanations about what a directors cut and a fine cut are, why the theatrical release is more of the latter and the directors cut is flawed in various respects etcetera etcetera, in an obvious, lengthy and tiresome attempt to justify that very 'special edition'. Thoroughly painful to listen to, and I had rather watched the theatrical release and judged for myself. Something Mr. Seydor and his production staff apparently think I am resp. we are not able to, or else they simply would have included the theatrical release and spared us their cut.
That said, the other version coming with this package is the Turner version, also known as the director's cut, and it's a blessing this version is finally available on DVD. In spite of all the blabber about supposed flaws this movie is a true classic. The story, the core of which is the conflict Garrett's going through, most of the acting, production design and score are outstanding. The story alone could have carried the whole movie with ease, but on top of this it's loaded with gems not found elsewhere. Anyone appreciating e.g. the jailhouse sequence, it's dialogue, Ollinger's character and his peculiarities, the wonderfully bleak production design and ingenious pace leading to a unique climax, making it an almost complete story within the story, knows what I'm talking about - sheer poetry, profoundly entertaining sarcastic humor and an incredible bunch of talent assembled into a unique masterpiece.
Bottom line? Highly recommended due to the Turner version. Both thumbs down though for the 'special edition' and commentary tracks."
One of the great westerns...
Jules | Birmingham, England | 03/14/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"...in fact it's my personal favorite. Slow and majestic, yet gritty and tough with plenty to say about how the times were/are a-changin' (there's certainly parallels to be drawn with Peckinpah and the studio system). This director's cut is an improvement in many ways over the studio-butchered original, but, sadly, we do lose the scene where Slim Pickens' character dies to the soundtrack of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door". A pity.Dylan, by the way, gives an enjoyably eccentric (Chaplinesque?) performance, but the real stars here are Kristofferson and Coburn (which, as they're playing the title roles, is as it should be). Both are first class.Highlights include the Kid singing to the townsfolk of Lincoln after he's tricked the guards, and the scene where Garrett makes Alias read out the labels of a whole shelf of canned goods. And the inevitable finale still manages to be wonderful cinema."What you want and what you get are two different things!" - Well, Peckinpah certainly found that out when the film was first released, but this cut is something else. Rent or buy as soon as you can."
Nobody does 'em like Peckinpah!
Joseph H Pierre | Salem, OR USA | 06/07/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
" This is the Director's Cut, which they tell me is far better than the movie which was released. I don't know, because I never saw the version that was released theatrically. But, this one is very good!They say that 16 minutes of the Director's Cut was taken out of the released version. I'll take their word for it..Kris Kristofferson plays Billy, James Coburn plays sheriff Pat Garrett, and, in the best role I've ever seen him in (in fact, I've never seen him in anything else, come to think of it), Bob Dylan plays a character who recurs throughout the movie, called 'Alias,' who is very handy with a knife.The theme is that the West is changing, and there is no room anymore for the wild, carefree violence and the gunslinging cattle wars. Law and order have taken over at last. Garrett sees the trend of the future, and changes, becoming the sheriff. Billy refuses, maintaining his old ways, with the predictable result.History aside (any resemblance to actual historical events is purely coincidental) this is a great movie.I particularly liked the scene in which Jack Elam, who had crossed the Kid, meets his doom. They are on neutral ground, eating dinner in a mutual friend's ranchhouse, and it is obvious that they will have to shoot it out after dinner. Jack Elam, with a doleful expression, asks for "another piece of that fried pie." In the face-off which follows dinnner, knowing that the Kid is faster, instead of waiting for the count of ten to turn and fire, Elam turns early, only to be shot by the Kid...who had anticipated the move, and turned earlier still.This is a good one. I loved it. Probably you will, too.Joseph Pierre,
Author of THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS: Our Journey Through Eternity"
A Masterpiece That Can't Seem To Escape Controversy
Brandon L. Houser | Kentucky | 09/26/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am very conflicted in praise for this special edition.
First of all does the "special edition" hurt the film? It doesn't. It does a service to the muddled theatrical cut (which Peckinpah did have a hand in). It is a tighter film & the best things about the film are still there. I would gladly go back & forth between this version & Peckinpah's Director's Cut. But let's be honest, and I'm speaking mainly to the Peckinpah "experts" on the DVD; whether some people want to admit it or not, the Peckinpah Cut Is the Director's Cut. Whoever heard of this "preview version" nonsense before this came along? Why would he show it to people over the years without apology for it? It is the closest thing we will ever get to his cut. Like it or not.
And that version is essential viewing. I feel even more so than the special version. The pace is slower yes, but that is part of the film's style. There is a sadness more evident in the longer cut that is still in the special edition, but harder to see. I don't think Peckinpah was going for something subtle here. And certain lines of dialogue from this version will also be missed by those who grew used to Sam's Cut all these years.
The unfortunate thing, that brings back the controversy of the film's handling, is how the "preview cut" was handled. It's not as cleaned up as the "special edition" & it even has skips in the film. Plus, if they could put the scenes with Garrett's wife & Ruthie Lee back in the special cut, why couldn't they put them back in Sam's cut too(They were taken from that cut to be put in the TV version because so much was edited from it)?
The irony is that Paul Seydor & Co., while being of the best intentions, are no better than the MGM executives that helped damage one of the great films of our time. If you listen to the commentary, Seydor pretty much confesses that it was done the way HE always thought it should be done. While I don't think his version is bad by any means, I don't think his reasonings were grounds enough to tamper with the film. I will give him one shout out for not taking the Paco sequence out. It obviously pained him to leave it in.
Either way though, this film is worth having. It's the reason repeated viewings were made. The performances are just right (Even Dylan isn't so bad. He's not so good either, but he's no Keanu Reeves) & scene after scene is brilliant. This is a film that you won't be able to get out of your mind. Even long after the final frame."