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Friday 7 January 2022

Burl reviews Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid! (1973)


Yaw-houyyy pardners, it’s Burl with a taste of the oat for you! Yes, here’s a movie made by that most pickled of productionsmen, Mr. Sam Peckinpah! He directed plenty of outdoor horse operas, great pictures like Ride the High Country and the unstoppable glory that is The Wild Bunch, but of them all, this one, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, is probably the one that gave old Sam the most headaches and the most morning-afters! Oh, he had to fight some battles, all right, and the different versions of this picture attest to the fact that he didn’t win them all! (The version reviewed here, by the way, is the 116 minute Special Edition!)

Like The Wild Bunch, the picture starts with an instance of animal cruelty that serves as a presentiment of the situation in which the characters will find themselves! In the earlier movie it was a scorpion stinging itself to death rather than be eaten alive by ants; here, rather more gruesomely and less elegantly, it’s a bunch of unfortunate chickens buried up to their necks and having their heads blown off for target practice by Billy and his gang! Ha ha, I’ve been known to chew on a drumstick, but I could have done without seeing that!

Mr. Patman himself, James Coburn from Hard Times and Eraser, plays Pat Garrett, a lawman in the employ of the Chisum concern! He’s pals with William Bonney, the Kid; in classic homoromantic Western parlance, they used to ride together! But no more, for Pat has been ordered to get that Kid, and after an opening scene in which he gives the Kid fair warning and advises he decamp forever to Mexico, we follow the two legendary figures as this pursuit plays out! Ha ha, it’s an oft-told tale!

Kris Kristofferson, the songsmith known for appearances in such pictures as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Trouble in Mind, is Billy, and the picture takes on an episodic quality as it bounces back and forth between the adventures of its dual protagonists! Bob Dylan, another popular recording artist, is Alias, a character seemingly inserted so Dylan could be cast to play him! Of course Zimmy also provides the excellent soundtrack material, and a great moment for me was seeing the scene for which “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was written, and how well the song works in that moment, and for once knowing that, in considering the lyrics, I was now seeing the same images Dylan himself had when he wrote the song, since those Peckinpah visuals were the ones that inspired it!

The cast in this thing is mind boggling! Ha ha, it’s as though Peckinpah decided he wanted to cast everyone he’d ever worked with before and make sure they all died bloody gunfight deaths! Why, familiar grizzled faces are popping up around every corner: we get gemstones like Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove and This House Possessed, who gets an amazingly touching death scene scored to the aforementioned Dylan tune! My longstanding fave, the great R.G. Armstrong from The Car and The Beast Within, is a Bible-thumping deputy who gets blasted with his own shotgun full o’ dimes! “Ha ha, keep the change,” quips Billy!

We get Richard Jaeckel from The Dark and Starman; Luke Askew from Rolling Thunder; Matt Clark from Buckaroo Banzai and The Horror Show; Charles Martin Smith from Herbie Goes Bananas; John Beck from Paperback Hero, Sleeper, and Deadly Illusion; and of course Harry Dean Stanton from Repo Man, UFOria and Christine - and these are only the relatively young guys! Bringing the grizz are old bars like Chill Wills from Fireball 500, and who was also of course the voice of the mule in Francis, and who here has his hat pulled down over his head and is frightened into a self-befouling; growly old Jack Elam from Creature From Black Lake as Alamosa Bill; Mapache from The Wild Bunch, Emilio Fernández, as an ill-fated member of Billy’s gang, who also gets a brutal and touching send-off; plus L.Q. Jones from White Line Fever, Paul Fix from Force of Evil and Jet Pilot, Elisha Cook Jr. from ‘Salem’s Lot, Gene Evans from It Happens Every Spring and many Sam Fuller pictures, and Dub Taylor from The Best of Times! And then there’s Barry Sullivan from Earthquake playing Chisum, and a special appearance by Jason Robards from The Paper as the Governor!

Phew! And that’s just the men! There are a few ladies in the picture too, though not many! There’s songstress Rita Coolidge, plus Rutanya Alda from The Long Goodbye and The Fury, and in the role of Slim Pickins’ wife, who deals out not a little carnage herself, Katy Jurado from Under the Volcano! I can hardly state it with greater vociferousness: this picture has a hell of a cast! And, ha ha, just listing it has practically doubled the length of this review!

So I’ll try to wrap it up quickly! It’s a marvelous-looking picture, and the old character pros who populate it, the terrific script by Rudy Wurlitzer (who later wrote Alex Cox’s Walker, which I should get around to reviewing one day), and the weird mix of tender and brutal left by Peckinpah’s singular touch, give it an emotional heft that might surprise you, and anyway surprised me! Gunfights erupt out of nowhere and character actors burst open in globs of red tempera, and boy howdy, it’s a good, entertaining oater! I’m pleased to give this iteration of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid three and a half cans of dried goods!


  1. The first time I saw this as a teen, I thought it was one of the worst movies ever made! Callow youth! On a revisit, I appreciated it more, and it does have a remarkable line up of character actors. Still not convinced what it's romanticising is really worth it, though.

    1. It didn't make a huge impression on me as a younger fellow either - I don't know if I had developed a proper appreciation of Westerns at that time (though I certainly never disliked them)!