If movies were geometry, Westerns would be vectors, moving in a trajectory forever into the horizon. Whether they include wagons, trains, or the Pony Express, they signify the direction and velocity of forward momentum.
Along this unstoppable line of progress, history clings like a barnacle. According to Robert Warshow, the Western argues that our modern beliefs originate in the past and reemerge in stories in the present. The American character, its morality and views of violence, is seeded in the dust of our frontier heritage. Despite the inevitability of change, certain ideas are immutable and endlessly recurring.
We often use the term revisionist to describe the modern Western. Stories of the Old West express the evolution of our moral sentiments beyond the context of established myth. For example, the nobility of the pioneer is transferred to the Native American “savage”. The wildness of the outlaw is transformed into a virtue, while lawmen become cowardly and duplicitous. White becomes black, up goes down, but the moral thrust of the genre remains intact, even when the signifiers switch roles.
The cinematic legend of Billy the Kid (William Bonney) exemplifies this cycle. A minor figure in New Mexico’s Lincoln County Range War of the early 1880s, he supposedly killed 21 men over the course of his 21 years, personifying a scourge that the law, in the form of Pat Garrett, had to gun down in order to tame the frontier. His yellow journalism-based legend represented the social unrest being necessarily suppressed in the wake of American expansionism, like immunizing yourself from a childhood disease. Over the years, and in films such as Charles Vidor’s Billy the Kid (1931), he evolved into a populist anti-hero, sympathetically defying cattle ranchers’ nefarious attempts to drive farmers off the open range by barbed wire or hired guns. By the 1950s, in movies such as The Left Handed Gun, he evolved into a neurotic juvenile delinquent whose expressions of anger result in tragedy.
Despite its troubled production history and poor initial reception, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has, through the power of film geek revisionism, become the 1970s’ most paradigmatic version of the story. Shorn of oedipal angst and populist self-righteousness, the film is a bitter, boozy, and melancholic rumination on the violence and machismo inherent in the myth of self reliance. This is not a West where a man does what he’s gotta do: it’s a West where independent, idiosyncratic individuality is constrained by barbed wire and the railroad, with sheriff and outlaw showing no concern about the historical significance of their conflict. This is not a movie that moves in a straight line representing progress, but in a narrowing circle representing closure.
The picture begins with Garrett arriving at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, as a newly minted sheriff, to warn his friend, Billy (Kris Kristofferson), to leave the territory. Although the order, and Garrett’s appointment, comes from cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan), it is demanded by a ring of railroad investors out of Santa Fe seeking to rid the land of rustlers, small time dirt farmers and other miscreants who might resist partitioning of the territory for land grants.
Feeling that “Old Pat” lacks the sand to execute the threat, Billy stays put, resulting in a bloody takedown when Garrett’s posse arrests him on an old murder warrant and takes him to the jail in Lincoln. After Garrett departs to make his tax rounds, Billy finds a pistol in the prison jakes (possibly planted by the reluctant sheriff) and escapes, killing two of his jailers in the process. From this point, the paths of outlaw and lawmen progress circularly, with the final encounter occurring on the spot where their friendship turned to antagonism.
There is no sense of forward historical movement culminating in violent regeneration, only the fulfillment of a pointless destiny initiated by Garrett’s decisions to borrow Chisum’s money and to kill Billy as interest on that debt. Lincoln County’s history is a closed system, a place slowly impacted by change foisted upon its inhabitants, not a harbinger of America in the process of becoming. The Kid’s death isn’t a catalyst for frontier communities’ transformation from desert to garden, but a consequence of Yankee capitalism’s expansion.
The film presents Lincoln County as a landscape rife with a violent history predating the movie’s start. Its dialogue contains multiple reminiscences of the brutal demise of friends and family at each others’ hands. Men came to this territory predisposed to compete for their honor aggressively, killing each other over soiled boots or personal insults. After taking lives and suffering familial losses, men ultimately accept the viciousness of their nature, accepting the lives they made and the community they subscribed to.
It is also a place where murder is a matter of public spectacle, where no one expects repercussions to result from the witnesses to their criminal behavior. Billy riddles jailer Bob Olinger (R.G. Armstrong) with a shotgun full of quarters on a busy public street, and spends almost ten minutes singing and sauntering before making his getaway. The body lies there for days until Garrett comes back to town and orders its removal. Communities bear witness to the chaos caused by ruthless men with an air of resigned acceptance. The community’s subjugation to violence is not transcended, it is a condition whose wildness is part of a natural order.
There is also no sense of personal allegiance to legal authority. Garrett and Billy were once on opposite sides of the law when Chisum grabbed power for the local ranchers. Likewise, Alamosa Bill Kermit (Jack Elam), a former rustler, is reluctantly deputized despite his shady background. The characters define their political loyalties by a pragmatic moral calculus based on shifts in the political winds. Nobody sees their role as related to the advancement of civilization, and as Garrett discovers, acting as an agent for change exacts a heavy toll.
It’s not just criminality that this society observes and ignores. Billy’s crew enjoys conjugal visits from Mexican and Native American women in full view in their bunkhouses. In the film’s most notorious scene, Garrett partakes in the company of four prostitutes. Although 70s Western toe a rather progressive line in terms of economics and race, they were often regressive in their treatment of women. Female agency, outside of a comic yet poignant appearance from a shotgun-wielding Katie Jorado, is non-existent here. Billy’s ill-fated decision to remain in Lincoln County is problematically forged in a self-righteous desire to avenge the murder of his friend Paco and the rape of his daughter by Chisum’s thugs, although he callously abandons her in her moment of distress to do so. These shortcomings, in an otherwise meticulous sociological rendering of the mores of frontier community, reinforces the popular perception that the West was civilized by the force of masculine will. This myopia is often found in Peckinpah’s work.
The narrative and stylistic laxity marring some of Peckinpah’s later films are also displayed here. The pacing and editing lacks the precision of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. Yet the director clearly reveals himself through the film’s unevenness. Billy’s actions are often perfunctorily filmed, missing key beats clarifying his actions and behavior. Kristofferson’s laid-back physicality and gravelly voice make an initial impression, but Peckinpah’s lack of interest in displaying his motivations or explaining his psychology reveals a profound disinterest in the character. To paraphrase Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues, Billy is a blithe psychopath, and Peckinpah displays no interest in stoking the viewer’s empathy with him.
Artistically, this move seems counterintuitive. This film arrived in an era when rock artists from Graham Parsons to the Eagles expressed a fascination with the West. Besides Kristofferson, the film’s cast also boasts prominent roles for Bob Dylan (who also composed the movie’s folk-influenced acoustic rock score), Rita Coolidge and Donny Fritts. One might expect the “voices of America’s Youth” to make a more heroic stand against civilization’s encroachment on this untamed land (which is how Roger Corman would have framed it), but Peckinpah is uninterested in clothing his outlaws in the vestiges of righteousness.
Coburn’s Garrett, on the other hand, receives the full scope of the director’s attention to characterization. The film introduces him as a smiling, charming badass, wearing a red and white poncho and engaging in a bit of playful gunplay with Billy’s gang. As he assumes the role of lawman, he dons black costuming, and his demeanor becomes sterner, more authoritative. Billy’s persistence and relative youthfulness (even though Kristofferson was 34 when the film was shot, almost 60% older than his character) ultimately grate on Garrett, and that rigidity turns to cruelty and meanness as the search progresses. He also begins loathing his decision to grow old with the territory and compromise his own wildness for the security of a ranch. Unlike Billy, his oath is his honor, and the cost of fulfilling that pledge will make him a bitter drunk and a social pariah. This might represent Peckinpah himself, a man sworn to finish a film that was much compromised from its original vision, and bound to be condemned by critics and fans for his effort.
For all of its melancholic lyricism and occasional lack of focus, the decades-long resuscitation of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’s reputation rests on this unique aspect of Peckinpah’s work. He could not gild his attitude towards the material he was adapting under the mantle of artistic professionalism, and he could no longer romanticize a vision of the American frontier that he found increasingly toxic to his country’s ideal of masculinity. For all of its beauty, ugliness, misogyny, and artistic faults, the film is emotionally, rather than abstractly, invested in its critique of the role violence plays in America’s collective mythology. Maybe this is what Pauline Kael refers to as the director’s nihilist poetry, his ability to mourn the loss of a wildness in his soul that he has nevertheless come to hate.