I know, in a civilized society, we are not supposed to idolize criminals, but with this 1973 movie, we revisit the final days of the dangerous Billy the Kid, a legendary American gunslinger dead very young at the hands of his former friend Pat Garrett.
Ironically, the great director Sam Peckinpah surprises us by starting with the end beyond the end, the death of Garrett himself, massacred in an ambush by some thugs who had never forgiven him for Billy’s murder.
Indeed, Garrett was once a criminal, while Billy, at that time, was on the side of the law and responsible for catching him. However, they eventually agreed to make common cause by fighting in the Lincoln County War.
Afterward, these two friends lost sight of each other, except Garrett, meanwhile became sheriff and began a relentless hunt for his old friend, whose gang was a source of constant trouble for New Mexico’s governor, Lew Wallace.
After tracking him down in an isolated shack, Garrett arrested and bring him back to town, where authorities were to hang him for the murder of Sheriff William J. Brady.
However, Billy successfully escapes and gets together with the gang’s survivors, recruiting new allies such as the young and knife-skilled Alias, preparing an escape to Mexico where it would be much more difficult to catch him.
Meanwhile, to assist him in rooting out Billy’s criminal friends once and for all, the governor pairs Garrett with the ruthless John W. Poe, who will later be the same man who will bring him down in the deadly ambush we saw at the beginning.
By now, Billy knows very well Garrett is on his way, so he gives up fleeing to Mexico and waits for him for the inevitable showdown at Fort Sumner.
No good or bad guys, just men
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of Sam Peckinpah‘s masterpieces, doubling in 1973 the movie legend already achieved in 1969 with The Wild Bunch.
A heartbreaking and violent poem about the Wild West’s ultimate dissolution, besides being the last Western by this great director, where the last gunslinger outlaws would leave the landscape to the entering of a whole different kind of bandits in the new upcoming society.
John Coquillon‘s magnificent, timeless cinematography points to the same faded colors as the “wanted dead or alive” posters, thus enhancing Peckinpah’s slow, dirty, bloody style.
Although death hovers in every scene, there is always the sweet sadness for a sense of friendship that will never return, the last days of these straggling gunmen destined to fade with the advance of so-called progress.
“This country’s getting old, and I aim to get old with it“, so says Garrett himself, played by a superb James Coburn, embodying the ruthless law, who drinks, kills without remorse, and mistreats women and old men, becoming a parody of the battle between good and evil.
Because evil is actually in all of us, as he will reply with the words “Times have changed, maybe. Not me” from Mr. Henry McCarty, better known as Billy The Kid, who instead has the face of the young, proud and fearless of Kris Kristofferson.
Two battle buddies who respect and esteem back and forth because they know neither of them is better than the other; just the fate on their path in life made them enemies.
Finally, Bob Dylan‘s cameo as the young Alias is remarkable, with the singer also composing the famous “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door“, which transcends the simple movie and becomes pure myth.
The dirty faces of Western myth
All the windswept and dusty faces of the cast rightfully become part of the legend beginning with the outstanding James Coburn, perfect in the role of the silent, cunning, and violent Pat Garrett.
The great actor is as confident in his every move as he is equally conflicted with completing the job the governor has assigned him.
Small note for Governor Lew Wallace, played by the great Jason Robards, who a few years earlier was instead the ferocious thug Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West, another masterpiece about the twilight of the gunslingers by Italian master Sergio Leone.
Quite different is the character of Kris Kristofferson, infusing Billy the Kid with great energy and seeming to respect friendship and love with more honesty, although he doesn’t hesitate for a second to draw his gun with lightning speed when necessary.
Although he has no intention of giving up, we perceive he understands his defeat from the moment Garrett sits down to drink with him at the movie’s beginning.
You may succeed in escaping or killing those who come after you. Still, others will always arrive hunting for your head to collect Governor Wallace’s rich bounty, so one day, your defeat’ will be inevitable.
Equally good is the rich supporting cast, such as the previously talked Bob Dylan, the cheerful rogue Alias, smiling even when he sticks the knife in the throat of a man trying to kill Billy, thus becoming fast friends.
We can then mention former Mexican star Katy Jurado, here to help Garrett as the mercenary Mrs. Baker (she will help more than partner John W. Poe, played by John Beck), who is a mature lady equally deadly with her rifle as the other gunslingers in this story.