Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Ten things I learned about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

The latest in my semi-regular series.

I stumbled across Paul Seydor’s book, The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (2015), while passing time between BFI screenings. Since it was 35 quid, I bided my time and purchased it from the morally reprehensible tax-avoiding online behemoth Amazon, which was selling it for just £16. The blurb promised an examination of Peckinpah’s final Western that would trace a line from verifiable fact through a deluge of fiction (beginning with Pat Garrett’s own ghostwritten book, published five years after he killed Billy the Kid) to the legendary, technically unfinished 1973 film.

It does that in a different way to how I expected – after a chapter on near-contemporary retellings, there’s little on treatments of the story besides the three which directly shaped Peckinpah’s movie – but Seydor methodically and often thrillingly examines the way that the project developed. Along the way, he sheds light on how metamorphosing Billys and Garretts play into different interpretations of philosophy, mythology and American history, offers a rare insight into the collaborative process that is moviemaking (through interviews and his own insights as a respected Hollywood film editor), and delivers a respectful but frank and unsentimental portrait of a master director who was also a tragic, tragically self-destructive alcoholic.

I embarked upon the book expecting a chronicle of how Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett have been portrayed in literature and cinema, culminating with a recreation of life on the set of the 1973 movie. Instead, I got a lesson in Peckinpah, movie editing and the endless evolution of a film that has never seemed greater – nor more flawed – than it does in Seydor’s telling. It’s more academicised than most of the film books I read, but it’s never pretentious, and if his chronicling of script revisions is only for diehard Sam fans and film nerds, those fans should find it invaluable, because of the way Seydor demonstrates that even small changes can disrupt a film’s balance or enrich its dualities. Regular readers may know that I was bored out of my wits by Todd McCarthy’s Howard Hawks biography, which managed to turn one of the most fascinating Hollywood careers into a dispassionate, insight-free collection of names and dates. Seydor’s prose style can get a trifle wearying (he loves a list of job titles), but at others it’s scintillating, and there’s no questioning his passion, intelligence and insight. The sections in which he responds to criticism on the internet are also delightful – he deals with criticism about as calmly and rationally as me (please don't get me, Paul, I liked your book).

Here are 10 things I learned:

1. Bloody well-educated Sam
I didn’t know much about Peckinpah’s background, and was surprised to learn that the hard-living, foul-mouthed, macho director studied drama at the University of Southern California, and began his career as a stage director, producing a well-received, hour-long version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie during his senior year, followed by the playwright’s Portrait of a Madonna for his master’s thesis. He was also a fan of foreign films – particularly Rashomon (above, Kurosawa), The Magician (Bergman), La Strada (Fellini), Red Desert (Antonioni) and Pather Panchali (Ray) – and, despite preconceptions to the contrary, a liberal Democrat.

2. Pat Garrett and Peckinpah the Kid
Peckinpah first approached the subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid when he was asked to adapt Charles Neider’s novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones – a barely-veiled treatment of the subject – in 1957. When Stanley Kubrick took over the project, he chucked out Sam’s screenplay, before leaving the project himself after clashes with his star, Marlon Brando. When the film eventually appeared in 1961 as One-Eyed Jacks, it had little of Neider and virtually nothing of Peckinpah. One of the few lines from Sam’s script to make the finished project was Brando’s “Answer me, you big tub of guts,” which is admittedly memorable but not representative of his remarkable and elegiac adaptation.

3. Blood and Gore
Arthur Penn helped usher in the New Hollywood era with the bloody Bonnie and Clyde, a new milestone in movie violence until Peckinpah far surpassed it with The Wild Bunch. Penn made his own Billy the Kid film in 1958, The Left-Handed Gun, which perpetuated one popular myth (William Bonney was right-handed, but the existing, mirrored portrait of him is rarely corrected) while offering more then-popular Freudianism than anyone can handle. Scriptwriter Gore Vidal brilliantly described it as "a film that only someone French could like".

4. Playing the Wurlitzer
Rudolph Wurtlizer’s script for Peckinpah was originally just called ‘Billy the Kid’, and detailed a man in decline, his shooting and his behaviour becoming similarly erratic as he slipped into alcoholic dissipation. As he had done with his Hendry Jones script, Peckinpah removed all scenes of Billy’s drunkenness – and in fact, all references to Billy drinking at all, bar two. Seydor argues convincingly that the director found the material too painful to deal with, being in 1957 a functioning alcoholic wracked by fears over his own self-destructiveness, and by 1972 fully aware of how his drinking was affecting his work and indeed his life.

5. 'Ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence'
Among the actors suggested for Billy were Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Don Johnson, though the two closest to getting the part were Jon Voight and Malcolm McDowell, whom Peckinpah had so much admired in if…. and A Clockwork Orange. Apparently he wasn't aware of how intense Peckinpah's interest was, as he prepared for and filmed O Lucky Man!. "I would have died to have worked with Peckinpah," he told Seydor. "He was a genius, one of the greatest directors who ever lived. It's a regret I will always have that it didn't happen." Marlon Brando, Jack Palance and particularly Rod Steiger were considered for Garrett, though Coburn was always the director's first choice.

6. Print the legend
There are many ludicrous myths about the film, from a lost four-hour cut that never existed, to the idea that MGM took the film out of Peckinpah's hands and re-cut it (actually it was recut by his own editors – more below – after he walked off the project), and the idea that it was a prototype Heaven’s Gate, going massively massively off schedule and over-budget. Production did run to 72 days, rather than the completely unrealistic 58 days imposed on Peckinpah and his crew, but 8-12 days involved Sam reshooting footage ruined by a faulty lens so the film could be properly finished, three were caused by a stoppage due to an influenza epidemic that killed a crew member, and several days were lost due to bad weather (under the idiotic, obnoxious James T. Aubrey, above, MGM had just removed the 5% budget overage intended to cater for inclement conditions). The extra $1.6m spent the production is about what it would cost for an extra 14 days of shooting. Editor Roger Spotiswoode sent a brilliant, pissed-off memo to production head Dan Melnick – reprinted in the book – which details a litany of impracticalities in the post-production schedule, ending with the hilariously wide-ranging and unequivocal: “Finally the schedule is totally unrealistic and impossible in all areas”.

7. The check’s in the post
The main reason for the film’s artistic failings – and indeed its commercial ones – was the ridiculous deadline imposed by MGM for post-production. For The Wild Bunch he had had a year, and in 1973 (as now), 40 weeks was considered comfortable, 30 weeks do-able and 20 tight but possible. Pat Garrett was given 16, and by the time scheduling conflicts had been resolved and re-shoots completed, it was 13. The last dailies arrived back from Mexico a week after the first cut was supposed to have been completed. MGM needed profits from the movie to help pay for their new hotel in Las Vegas so, unwaveringly committed to the Memorial Day release date supposedly (but not actually) perfect for Westerns, Aubrey threw money and staff at the project, but what it needed was time. Roger Ebert famously mentioned in his damning review that the film credited six editors: actually only three worked creatively on the film, two were hired due to union rules and a sixth helped to implement changes late in the process.

8. The first cut is the deepest?
There is no definitive cut of the film. Aside from a TV edit dictated purely by a two-hour run-time and a ban on nudity and ultra-violence, three different versions exist. The theatrical version wasn’t “butchered”, as many contest, but was carefully completed by Peckinpah’s three editors, each of whom was committed to protecting his vision, while managing the studio’s demand to lose a half hour of the running time. In the end, they compromised at 20 minutes, bringing in a cut of 106m. Wikipedia suggests that Peckinpah regarded the 122m version screened at the first preview (aka the ‘1988 Turner Preview’, after its US TV air date) as definitive, but this is nonsense. He shared it on video with friends simply because it was the only longer version of the film he had access to after walking off the project. That version is missing the scene with Garrett’s wife (excised by mistake, then returned for the second preview), has a flabbiness born of the hectic editing schedule (Peckinpah had requested fine cuts which weren’t done), features an instrumental version of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – sans Dylan’s vocals – over the greatest scene in the picture, and closes with an epilogue improvised in post-production, which (sort of) frames the movie as a flashback. In 2005, Seydor was asked by Warner Home Video to prepare a Special Edition, for free and with literally one hour at the controls (which just shows what contempt studios have for their audiences). He compiled a list of scenes which should be reinserted into the theatrical version to make it more complete, and recut the prologue so it was more clean, logical and thrilling, while turning the credit text yellow, as Peckinpah had wanted. None of the versions are finished, but it’s the 2005 one – which runs 115m – that I tend to watch, as it seems the closest to the director’s grand and complex vision (though who can really say).

9. 'Well there was this movie I seen one time/About a man riding 'cross the desert'
Bob Dylan, who contributes a sometimes majestic score and some of the worst line readings in movies, asked his friend Wurlitzer to get him on the project, as he was so interested in Billy the Kid. The decision was greenlit by producer Gordon Carroll, but wound up Peckinpah, who had his own pet rock star on set (Kris Kristofferson) and greeted Dylan by telling him that he was "big fan of Roger Miller". In fact, when Wurlitzer and Monte Hellman initially devised the film as a follow-up to their classic B-movie Two-Lane Blacktop, the idea was to tell a story of burnt-out rock stars using Garrett and The Kid as surrogates. Peckinpah's memos show that he thought Dylan's score needed "sweetening" (open to interpretation in a dozen ways), and on the advice of regular collaborator Jerry Fielding took the singer's vocals off the great death scene, because they were too on the nose. He later questioned the decision, but by then the vocals were back on the soundtrack, and he was off the film.

10. 'C’mon, you lazy bastard'
The book's most remarkable revelation is that when Charles Aubrey left MGM in November 1973, seven months after the film had disappeared from theatres amidst critical opprobrium, public disinterest and financial catastrophe, studio intermediary (and Peckinpah sympathiser) Dan Melnick offered Sam the chance to come back to the studio and create a definitive version. He let the chance slide, his collaborators suspecting that he knew there were unfixable problems with the film, and this way he had an easy out: he would have created another masterpiece, but the fucking studio wouldn't let him.


Thanks for reading.


  1. Sounds like a great read and reminds me I need to rewatch this classic again someday soon. I didn't know that about McDowell and Voight being considered but it reminded me of the writer of If...David Sherwin being approached by Voight in the 70s to come up with the ultimate Robin Hood screenplay. The proposed film - discussed in Sherwin's 1996 book Going Mad In Hollywood - was to star Voight as Hood, Mohammed Ali as Little John and none other than Bob Dylan as Alan a'Dale! Similarities and coincidences...

  2. Thanks for reading. That project sounds fascinating, a shame it didn't come to pass. I'll have to check out the Sherwin book, the reviews are conflicting, but make it sound even more tantalising.

  3. I love the GIF of the guy shooting, but as a school report as Pat Garrett, it don't give any useful info.

    1. Ya, Dude! That GIF!

    2. There's a full review of the film here: if that's what you're after. Thanks!