Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

There are three versions of this classic Sam Peckinpah Western.

  • The theatrical version was 106 minutes long, and was produced by the studio's editing team, not Peckinpah's.
  • Four years after Peckinpah's 1984 death, some film scholars tried to create a director's cut, which is 122 minutes long.
  • Last year (2005), some Peckinpah associates created another, rival director's cut by interviewing a lot of people and trying to get the version as close as possible to what Peckinpah wanted the film to be. This one is 115 minutes long.

There is a lot of confusion involved in the deconstruction of Peckinpah, and one of the most egregious misunderstandings involves "what Peckinpah wanted the film to be." There was no such thing. Peckinpah had no idea what to do with this film, so he simply abandoned the editing process in his usual drunken, paranoid haze. The debate over what to release theatrically was not between the studio's cut and Sam's cut. It was a matter of the cut produced by the studio's team of editors versus the one produced by Sam's team of editors. Over the years, Peckinpah has been lionized and romanticized, and his rough edges have been sanded over so much that people seem to think Sam had some clear-cut vision of what to do with this film, but the fact of the matter is that he walked away from the film, and he did so with film critic Pauline Kael in the room!

Pauline Kael, in the Austin Chronicle:

"It seems to me that for those who write about his work the martyrdom has sometimes served as blinders. I was there when Peckinpah told the producer that he was walking out on the editing of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. As I see it, the film has no motor impulse, no drive. It's a woozy, druggy piece of work. But it is now widely regarded as a mutilated masterpiece. I saw it assembled before Sam left the editing; he may have left it partly because it was too shapeless for him to attempt to pull it together. It's very likely that on this film, as on several others, his imagination was distracted by his financial embroilments. Usually elegies come at the end of a career; Peckinpah's elegies were followed by confusion -- sometimes within the same film."

Sam didn't know what shape he wanted the film to take. The only thing he knew is that he did NOT want the version officially sanctioned by MGM's Jim Aubrey, aka "The Smiling Cobra." Since Sam himself had no idea how to make this film work, any evaluation of the film's three avatars must be based on the opinion of the viewer, and not what was "true to Peckinpah."

I'll give you my thoughts. I saw the theatrical version in 1973 and have never watched it again. It was incoherent, pointless, and boring. There's a pretty good consensus on those points. Sam himself had a similar opinion, and wanted his name removed from the film. Pauline Kael was a great fan of Peckinpah's work, but not of this film. Kael's future successor as the world's most influential critic, Roger Ebert, called the theatrical version of the film "one note," "boring," and "simple-minded," and said that "the title song by Bob Dylan is quite simply awful." As it turns out, I agree with all of those points, although I would offer that Dylan's crappy title song was amply redeemed by a great Dylan song, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which was also part of the score for this picture.

I have just watched the two re-created versions of the film, and they are much, much better than the theatrical release. I especially like the 2005 version, in which the narrative flows smoothly and most of the pointless and confusing digressions have been removed. If you are interested in the complete overview, you have to watch both "director's versions" because the 2005 version includes lots of additional never-before-seen material (including additional nudity), even though it is some seven minutes shorter than the 1988 cut. The 2005 cut economized by removing the framing story which takes place in 1909, 28 years after Billy's death, when Pat Garrett himself is killed. The 1909 scenes are replaced by a scene between Garrett and his wife, and a much longer version of Garrett's bordello visit, which now includes a scene in which Garrett beats some information out of a prostitute friendly to Billy.

The story behind the making of this film is far more entertaining than the film itself, and the most entertaining account I have read was offered in quintessential Gonzo fashion by E. Jean Carroll in Rocky Mountain Magazine:

1973, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid comes apart. Happens like this. Peckinpah wants a 5x-day shooting schedule. MGM wants 36. He gets 50. Peckinpah wants to shoot in New Mexico for authenticity. Metro wants Mexico to cut costs. He loses. Peckinpah wants a Panavision repairman in Durango, Mexico, to fix the cameras. The studio says nothing doing. The first footage is sent to L.A. to be processed. The lab calls Peckinpah. Says the film's out of focus. Panic in Durango. Downtime. The camera is fixed and the paranoia sets in. The actors get sick. The crew gets sick. Peckinpah is puking every day. They fall behind schedule. James Aubrey, president of MGM, wants to save time and forbids Peckinpah to shoot a raft scene. Peckinpah shoots it. The scenarist, Rudy Wurlitzer, starts complaining. Says Peckinpah is rewriting the picture with the help of his old TV scripts. Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah's music composer can't work with Bob Dylan and quits. Dylan's unhappy. Kris Kristofferson (the Kid) says Rudy's dialogue is corny. Rita Coolidge (Maria, the Kid's lover) says all that remains of her role thanks to MGM is that of "a groupie." James Coburn (Garrett) says Peckinpah is a creative paranoid who generates tension to give everyone the same experience to feed on during the film. A fight breaks out one Saturday night. Two guys. One is on the phone ordering a couple of gunmen to Durango. Wants the other guy killed for threatening Peckinpah's life. Whitey Hughes, Peckinpah's stunt man, says they always have a good time, but on this film they aren't having a good time. The hit is canceled at Peckinpah's insistence. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is brought in 20 days over schedule and $1.5 million over budget. MGM's building a hotel in Vegas and needs cash. The studio moves the release date up and gives Peckinpah only two and a half months to edit. On the sly MGM duplicates the work print and employs another cutter. Peckinpah's version runs between 122 and 126 minutes. The studio's runs 106. The producer, Gordon Carroll, negotiates day and night. Gets nothing restored. The picture's released. Peckinpah sues for $1.5 million. Orders all the cuts put back or his name taken off. Nada Nada. Nada.

(That article also offers many other insights into the world according to Sam. I recommend reading the entire article if you are into Peckinpah's life or his films)

A great deal of the Pat and Billy story in this film is completely fictional, but the scene I like best, Billy's jailbreak, is told almost exactly as it actually occurred. (There are actually two common versions of the story, but they vary only on one detail - how Billy obtained a gun in the outhouse.) That scene develops the characters thoroughly and economically, follows the action smoothly, has some great dialogue, leads up to a solid pay-off, and is both fast-paced and entertaining. If the rest of the movie were that good, this picture could be the masterpiece that some people claim it to be. But it isn't. The jailbreak is followed by Pat Garrett's pursuit of Billy, with Pat's rambling story told parallel to Billy's equally rambling and half-hearted attempt to flee. The pursuit includes too many digressions and too many undefined minor characters with nothing interesting to do or say. This portion of the movie does, however, provide work for just about every Western character actor in Hollywood, and that's fun to watch. There are also some excellent (if marginally relevant) scenes within the listless and static pursuit. Some examples:

  • Jack Elam creates some bittersweet comic relief as a desperado-turned-lawman who is forced to get into a showdown with Billy. The two men like each other and neither of them wants to fight, but they can't come up with a way to avoid it, so they eat some supper and head outside for the duel. They both cheat, but Billy wins the gunfight because he cheats more! That's a Peckinpah trademark - the dismantling of the Western cliché.
  • Slim Pickens embodies a Peckinpah archetype - the world-weary Westerner - as a sheriff who joins Garrett for part of his mission. Pickens is an old man who loves the water and is building a boat so he can sail away from the violent frontier. You can guess how that's going to work out, since sympathetic movie characters who are just about to retire always get lured in for one last fatal job. Pickens is mortally wounded in the gun battle, and walks off quietly to his favorite river where he dies in peace as he dreams about sailing. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" accompanies his death-walk.
  • Disc One: 2005 Special Edition (115 mins.)
    • Commentary by Special Edition Producer Nick Redman, Supervising Editor Paul Seydor and fellow Peckinpah biographers/documentarians Garner Simmons and David Weddle
    • Peckinpah trailer gallery
  • Disc 2: 1988 Turner Preview Version (122 mins.)
    • Commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle
    • 2 New Featurettes:
    • One Foot in the Groove: Remembering Sam Peckinpah and Other Things
    • One for the Money: Sam's Song. Kristofferson sings and remembers.


  • Rita Coolidge: breasts
  • Four unnamed hookers in the bordello: breasts from all, and buns from two of them
  • Three unnamed women in Billy's hide-out: breasts
  • One unnamed rape victim - breasts
  • Rutanya Alda - breasts (a very long scene in the 2005 version)
  • Kris Kristofferson - buns and a look at one testicle and part of his penis

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for a Grammy for best original score written for a motion picture.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 67% positive. That score means very little. Some people are rating the terrible theatrical cut, while others are rating the 1988 version.

The People Vote ...

  • The-Numbers It was budgeted at $4.6 million. It grossed $8 million in the USA and $3 million overseas. 

Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C. It's about in the middle of the barrel as Peckinpah films go, but its energy level is much too low for those not already predisposed to like Peckinpah's films and revisionist Westerns in general. Fans must watch both the 1988 and 2005 version to get the whole picture.

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