February 11th, 2008

Billy, They Don't Want You To Be So Free

I bought an Audrey Hepburn boxset and I bought a Sam Peckinpah boxset.  Sam was £8.99 and Audrey was £9.99 (or the other way round).  Silly prices. Clearly the recession is beginning to bite.

I was watching Sam's own rough cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid yesterday afternoon. There aren't many movies I can watch over and over again, but Sam made two of them - Pat and Billy and The Wild Bunch.  I don't know why this is.

Yes I do. It's because I grew up watching westerns. I love that place and that time- those images- the lone horseman, the desert landscape, the gun fight.  There are two great masters of the American western- John Ford and Sam Peckinpah- and sometimes I wonder whether Peckinpah wasn't the greater of the two. 

The Wild Bunch is the finest thing he did. The best- yes- the best western ever made. He was on the slide-mentally, physically-  when he got round to Pat and Billy.  It was a film maudit. Everyone on set got sick from breathing the poisoned dust of Durango and of course the studio bosses hated the result and Sam- who was just that kind of a guy- frantically self-destructive- made things worse by alienating them all he could. The film was released in a mutilated version. Only now- twenty years after his death- can we see it in a reconstructed version that's close to what he wanted. It's awesome that, wasted, broken-down and near-psychotic as he was, he still had enough left in him to make this beautiful thing.

It's a film about growing old and selling out. That's what Pat has done. He hates himself and he hates his new corporate bosses but a man has to live. Or is it really living when they ask you to kill the thing you love? Pat goes riding round in a circle- chasing Billy through the desert on a futile quest that ends up right where it started. But maybe Pat is buying time. So long as Billy remains above ground Pat is still living the dream. When he shoots Billy- murders him rather- the dream is over. We don't need to see him shoot his own reflection in the glass to know he's just committed suicide.

A small boy chases him out of the fort- throwing dirt. Dirt is what you throw on a dead man. But Pat is beyond dead, he's damned to the lowest circle of hell with Brutus and Judas- the traitors, the killers of their friends.

At the time it seemed sort of indulgent to have Dylan in there, mooching about, pretending to be a knife-fighter- but now this quirky piece of casting seems like a stroke of genius- because Dylan's reputation has just grown and grown and If there's a legendary American who has a right to appear- more or less as himself- in a movie about Billy the Kid it's him. He's on the soundtrack too- the great American mythographer observing the great American myth. Maybe Sam was prescient here or maybe he just got lucky. He deserved a little luck when it came to his art because he wasn't lucky in life. 

Pat and Billy is full of the sublime. Pick one high point and it'd have to be the scene where Slim Pickens as the semi-retired sherrif (an add-on character, not integral to the plot)  staggers off to die by the river- gut-shot- with Katy Jurado- as his loving wife- dogging his footsteps. Here's Slim with that look on his face and the sunset behind him and here's Katy watching with grief and applause- like it was the dying Christ- and what's that on the soundtrack? It's Dylan's Knocking on Heaven's Door- which he wrote especially for the two of them- oh man!