Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

(Sam Peckinpah, USA, 1973): Of all the events recounted in such frustrating, fascinating and near-forensic detail in Paul Seydor’s The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the hardest one to digest is this: seven months after the film had opened to mostly middling reviews following the director’s prolonged but futile struggle to protect his movie from the concerted studio campaign to cut it to meet an insanely tight postproduction deadline, MGM production head Daniel Melnick invited Peckinpah to edit the movie to his own satisfaction and was turned down.

I had to read that about three times to make sure I’d read it right. Because it initially didn’t make sense. How could Peckinpah, who’d fought like a cornered wildcat to defend his movie from MGM head James Aubrey’s interference and avowed loathing of both the filmmaker and the film, have passed on a chance — according to Seydor, an unconditional and fully-resourced chance — to put his broken and beloved masterpiece back together again? For this was not only an almost unheard of opportunity in the pre-digital era when restoration was almost as daunting a challenge as production itself, it would have resulted in something whose absence has dogged Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for more than four decades: a complete version of the film signed off by Sam Peckinpah.

In context and through hindsight, it’s possible to speculatively account for Peckinpah’s otherwise utterly flummoxing decision, but it remains one of the harder facts of western movie history — of which even the non-Peckinpah-approved versions of the film, some six in all, now places Pat Garrett in lofty eminence — to walk away from without weeping. It could be that Peckinpah was simply tired of the fight and felt it time to move on. Or that he was just too ornery and pissed at MGM to get back in bed with the studio. Or maybe his alcoholism, which by late ’73 was reaching critical stages of poisoning Peckinpah’s health and judgement, made the decision for him. On a slightly more pathological but not inconceivable level, perhaps Peckinpah walked away from the opportunity to complete Pat Garrett to his own design because it was more important to preserve his image as a badass, piss-on-your-suit Hollywood outlier than it was to mend his own mangled bastard child. But now what I really suspect, and what Seydor also implies was the most likely explanation for Sam Peckinpah’s abandonment of his final western and arguably greatest achievement, was simply that he had no idea how to complete it and was terrified of reckoning with that hard truth.

Seymour’s own motivation for writing his remarkable, comprehensive and thoroughly reverential book was to set a record straight: the reasons why Seydor, a former academic, editor and dedicated scholar of Peckinpah’s work and life, assembled the contentiously squabbled-over 2005 ‘Special Edition’ cut the way he did. And, in a larger sense, why this movie has a power to haunt so in the first place. Just what is it about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that, having infiltrated the properly susceptible host, won’t let go?

To crib Christopher Frayling’s title of his indispensable spaghetti western study, it has something to do with death: if anything, Peckinpah’s valedictory western is an immersion in twilight. But while the certainty of imminent obsolescence, redundancy and ineluctable return of those roosting chickens has been a deep and defining undercurrent in the western at least since William S. Hart adopted the recurring role of redemptive sacrificial agent of atonement, in Peckinpah’s vision of the west it became foregrounded, ritualized and ceremoniously extended: death was not only a certainty but a destination, and knowledge of its imminence was what gave the movies their grandeur, power and shattering romantic conviction. The only honour left in Peckinpah’s west the the certainty of dying, and the only choice one had in the matter was how prepared you were to meet it and how nobly you went down.

But even with this already embedded in his art, and with the final moments of Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country, Jason Robards in The Ballad of Cable Hogue and, most spectacularly and resoundingly, the Bunch at Bloody Porch, Peckinpah had already elevated the process of foreordained extinguishment to a kind of generic raison d’être in itself. Even before he’d made Pat Garrett, which would soak itself in twilight like a reverse baptism, Peckinpah had made the coming of death as surely part of the form as a murder ballad or blues song. If anything, he envisioned the west almost purely as a place to go and face it with something like dignity. You want to enter your house justified? Then enter dead.

If this holds any water as a reading, it might also provide some justification for why, ever since I first saw it on original release at age fifteen, I never really understood it — in the literal, plot-wise sense, nor expected it to be any clearer than it was.  Because I never felt it needed to be. Quite apart from the fact that it was entirely common in those days to see movies — and yes, Hollywood movies — that ambled, digressed, sidetracked and took the time to pull off the road and hang out with interesting people just because they were interesting, there was a cumulative power to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that was not only transcendent of its individual elements and more potent than the sum of its parts, it obliterated any expectations I had that the damned thing needed to make any more sense. The sense, which I must have even realized at the time because I went back more than once and never missed it on TV, was what the movie was about. All I needed to understand was what I felt, and I felt this movie maybe as deeply as any western I’d ever seen.

Ironically then perhaps, there’s something actually bullet-proof and death-resistant in Peckinpah’s movie whatever in whatever form you find it. By focusing not on the pursuit of Billy the Kid (Kristofferson) by Garrett (James Coburn) but the avoidance and prolongment of the final engagement — which history has written for us as already inevitable and permits such otherwise purely stubborn lingering — Peckinpah’s movie assumes the perfectly reasonable and even heartbreakingly necessary form of a circular ride around the void. The moment that must come, when Garrett will wait for the kid in that dark room in the farmhouse, cannot be avoided but only postponed, but it’s worth postponing because what it will bring is the end of everything: the west, the past, the outlaw freedom, the sense that something was worth doing because it commended you to something else. All this, as Peckinpah’s movie asserts with potent eloquence in its passing flow of sequences held together less by the directed momentum of narrative purpose than the variously articulated re-assertion of the coming of the end — all those scenes that emphasize going nowhere, that insist on being regarded as moments of reflective contemplation — such as the family-bearing barge that passes Garrett by his riverside resting place; the resigned virtual suicide of the deputy Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) whom Billy lets finish his supper before killing; the infantile games and dalliances that preoccupy men with nothing to do but wait; and of course the stunning moment of the riverside death of Pickens, possibly the most simply beautiful image in all of Peckinpah’s movies, and maybe the western itself.

In whatever form it exists that I have seen, this power of Peckinpah’s movie, that comes from the cumulative passing of incidental sequences re-configuring the essential ritual of accepting death and seizing every final moment leading up to it, has risen above every specific articulation of the movie itself, and the funny thing is I actually do not have a preferred cut of the movie. What’s amazing to me is that I can feel something deep and strong in every version, and I believe it’s that something to do with death and the way Peckinpah wove it so deeply into Pat Garrett no amount of meddling, molestation or mucking about could get in its way. But that still doesn’t answer the question as to why the filmmaker might have walked away from the chance finish his masterpiece according to his own vision. Unless, of course, he was avoiding something. But the key to that might also be in the movie he somehow managed to realize so thoroughly without ever really finishing: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a movie about putting it off as long as you can. The end will come anyway, so why rush the inevitable? (Warner Home Video)