After 15 years, Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” which its director once said was the best movie he ever made, has at last been restored to its original 121-minute running time by the Turner Entertainment Co.
It will commence a series of airings, presented in a letter-box format to preserve the original scope aspect ratio, on the Z Channel (cable) on Saturday at 9 p.m.
Even when shortened by 15 minutes, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” was pretty wonderful, one of the most deeply felt of the elegies to the passing of the Old West that were being made in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, most surely in response to the moral confusion and growing bitterness of the Vietnam era. To see it again in its original form after 15 years is to be convinced that it belongs among the great classic Westerns.
The crucial restorations are the black-and-white prologue and epilogue set near Las Cruces, N.M., in 1909, which involve Pat Garrett (James Coburn) in an ironic fate that adds an entire and crucial level of meaning to what happened between Garrett and his old friend and one-time fellow outlaw Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) at Ft. Sumner, N.M., in 1881.
Also, Bob Dylan (who has a small role as one of the Kid’s followers) sang only twice in the original version, whereas in MGM’s release version his lyrics were repeated constantly throughout the film.
The other restored bits and pieces round out the film more fully. It has a deliberately leisurely pace, essential to the intentions of Peckinpah and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer, which surely made it vulnerable to studio fears that it was too slow or too long-winded.
Enhancing the film immensely is Dylan’s seductive guitar score, underlining the ritual quality in the thrust-and-parry of the friends-turned-adversaries and the inevitability of their final, decisive confrontation.
Can the actual Old West have ever had the irresistible dusty frontier elegance that cameraman John Coquillon and art director Ted Haworth give it? The film is rich in visual textures, from its beautiful vistas and shadowy interiors, to its great-looking clothes. It’s as if Peckinpah graced everyone in front of the camera with the sense of style he himself possessed so deeply as a film maker.
Of course, Coburn and Kristofferson have always been stylish actors, but Chill Wills and Slim Pickens? Indeed, the film’s long roster of players boasts a lion’s share of Hollywood’s great male character actors--plus a memorable turn by Katy Jurado.
Actually, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is absorbing from start to finish. It’s a big, romantic macho fantasy, not self-conscious yet aware of what it is, reveling in its masculinity with good humor but recognizing that the bravado of fast draws always end in a slough of corpses.
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is not against law and order but quietly asks whom it serves. And in asking this, Peckinpah defines violence at its most foolish as that which occurs when men have allowed their sense of honor and self-respect to be exploited for unworthy purposes.
Finally, beyond evoking the passing of the old order and questioning the quality of the new one, Sam Peckinpah asks us to ponder what civilization is itself.