Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) is most certainly a Revisionist Western in every fiber of its being. As Joseph H. Kupfer correctly defines the sub-generic style, “Revisionist Westerns are viewed as questioning or attacking the structure and norms of the genre” (Kupfer 103) whereas “Traditional Westerns clearly demarcate the forces of good and evil and endorse expert gunfighting in the cause of justice” (Kupfer 103). The concept of Justice in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, therefore, becomes a complex one.
In Peckinpah’s film, we follow essentially two “heroes”: Pat Garrett (James Coburn), a former outlaw who is hired as Sheriff in Lincoln County, New Mexico in late 1880. Unfortunately, Governor Wallace (Jason Robards) wants Garrett to get rid of one of his former buddies, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), who continues his outlaw ways. When asked why he doesn’t kill Garrett on the spot after being warned that he has been hired to hunt him down, Billy the Kid says, “Why? He’s my friend.” “He ain’t no more,” one of his co-horts correctly responds.
Indeed, Garrett is a gun for hire, essentially, but with the law on his side. With the world changing around him and the escalating need for law & order in an increasingly violent and lawless frontier (“This country is growing old, and I intend to grow old with it,” he states plainly), Garrett has opted to abide by the rules and take out the rule-breakers – even if that means arresting or killing a good and true friend like Billy the Kid. He turns down the offer of money from the interests who want to see Billy the Kid dead and figure Garrett is for sale, but nevertheless elects to do his job in the capacity of Sheriff. But what does law & order really mean if it is, essentially, a commissioned assassination – even with a law badge behind it?
And yet look at the moment when Garrett arrests Billy near the beginning. Garrett dresses in all black like a classical Western villain while Billy innocently surrenders (albeit after a shootout), dressed in a white shirt, arms outstretched on either side, evoking somewhat the figure of Christ – although he is by no means a saint. As Garrett approaches, smoking his cigar and grinning, he doesn’t even so much as aim his gun. “You’re poor company, Pat,” Billy says. “Yeah, but I’m alive though,” responds Garrett, to which Billy replies, “So am I.” Garrett continues grinning. These two were friends once, and even now, on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves oddly respecting one another still. Is this Justice?
Upon surrendering himself, playing cards with various deputies, Billy is told by one of them (R.G. Armstrong), “You’ll learn to bleed before I’m finished with you.” This same deputy, doing as he’s told but also driven by some kind of Biblical sense of vengeance, has it out for Billy because all he sees is a criminal deserving of whatever violent karma he’s accrued. Garrett sees it as a job, and perhaps shows some semblance of mercy only because of their one-time friendship. Bob Ollinger (Armstrong), meanwhile, beats Billy mercilessly as gallows are constructed – further increasing the sense of Billy as a Christ figure, come to think of it.
It is not until Garrett sees Billy murder Ollinger with the help of a hidden gun supplied by one of his deputies – who considers himself one of Billy’s friends – that he (albeit reluctantly) seeks out new deputies and begins to make it his personal mission to hunt down Billy the Kid and see him suffer for his crimes. Meanwhile, Billy is aided upon his escape by a curious young man called Alias (Bob Dylan), who is a capable knife-wielder. At this point, the film turns into a Western-tinged chase film that cannot end well…for anyone…
As Kupfer writes, “Revisionist, alternative Westerns cut the larger-than-life classic Western down to size” (Kupfer 104). Perhaps then, Peckinpah’s take on Garrett & the Kid, written by Rudy Wurlitzer (Alex Cox’s Walker), exists to put an entirely different spin on history. Although it lacks the narrative structure underlining its storytelling, per say, Peckinpah and Wurtlizer’s film exists very much in retrospect (the opening tells us of Garrett’s fate before coming back to it at the end). Therefore, as Kupfer suggests, like Unforgiven (1992) or the like, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid may be a meta-narrative – a Western that is, in a sense, a story about the story surrounding the West – specifically that of Billy the Kid and the kind of person he may have been. In that sense it is most definitely a Revisionist Western by virtue of reconfiguring and deconstructing the mythology surrounding the Western anti-hero and his friend, the Sheriff.
Certainly Billy the Kid is a criminal, but like Butch & Sundance or Leone’s anti-heroes from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, in Peckinpah’s hands and through Kristofferson’s portrayal, Billy the Kid is basically a likable person and he certainly ought not to have been cut down in his prime by his own one-time dear friend Pat Garrett. Indeed, even Coburn is “cool and reliable” (Ebert) as Garrett – but certainly not unlikable or beyond redemption. When a Mexican woman says, “I hope he gets away,” she seems to be speaking for the audience while Garrett – who appears to be in a romantic relationship with her, it’s implied – states, “He won’t.”
Invariably, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid must come to some kind of showdown in which things are settled. However, Billy the Kid is denied even that sort of Old West dignity. Rather, Garrett finds Billy sleeping with a woman at Fort Sumner and waits outside on the porch before getting the drop on him and killing him. It’s almost as if he’s reluctant to do in his friend because he doesn’t see the Justice in it. Despite being elected Sheriff after a formidable reputation as an outlaw, and despite turning down a profit to murder his friend, it seems Pat Garrett nevertheless can barely bring himself to hurt or, indeed, even kill his friend.
Pat Garrett, however, hardly avoids the fuzzy end of the lollypop himself. He is, indeed, eventually betrayed by the very men who hired him as Sheriff to hunt down Billy the Kid in the first place. Perhaps, then, the message is that you cannot turn on the people you call your friends because ultimately it will come back to bite you. Is that Justice? Peckinpah and Wurlitzer seem to be suggesting that perhaps it is – although perhaps it would have been Justice if Garrett and Billy the Kid had never found themselves on opposite sides of this conflict.
The psychological motivation of Garrett throughout is a bit murky. It all goes back, it seems, to that grin when he manages to catch Billy the Kid near the film’s beginning. As Ebert writes, “Pat’s male-bonding with Billy is dime-story psychology, and he apparently admires the outlaw for acting out his fantasies.” Nevertheless, law & order must be done and Justice served. But is this Justice?
Like another Revisionist Western before it, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid utilizes two interesting tropes from that film: one is use of an ampersand (&) in the on-screen title card rather than the word “and.” This denotes a partnership and personal relationship between the two title characters, as in Altman’s film, rather than the contentious relationship we would expect in a Western between a lawman and the criminal he’s attempting to hunt down.
The other interesting thing that Peckinpah’s film does, like Altman’s film before it, is utilize anachronistic music to comment on and, in a sense, deconstruct the emotions beneath the surface of the seemingly classical Western plot. With a soundtrack of songs composed for the film by Bob Dylan (“They say Pat Garrett’s got your number / so keep one eye open when you slumber”), Peckinpah’s film, like Altman’s, takes on the elegiac quality of violent tragedy that, in a sense, travels inward and contrasts with the outward, operatic style of the Leone Westerns which came before.
Ultimately, Peckinpah’s film appears to be a parable about staying true to yourself and your friends in a world that is increasingly devoid of moral code in favor of so-called “law & order.” Even if your friend has done some bad things, is it right to turn on them? Apparently, if you are a Sheriff and they are a criminal, it is. But is that what Peckinpah and Wurlitzer are saying? It seems to me that they, like most Revisionist Western filmmakers, are repainting the history of the West with a kind of mournful, regretful eye toward how things shook out. The friendship of Billy the Kid & Pat Garrett was, perhaps – if these filmmakers can be believed – one of the great casualties of the time and place. And therein lies no Justice.