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Tony Grist

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Billy, They Don't Want You To Be So Free [Feb. 11th, 2008|08:53 am]
Tony Grist
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!

[User Picture]From: sovay
2008-02-11 05:29 pm (UTC)
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.

Have you seen I'm Not There? One of the character threads is woven around Billy the Kid.

It sounds like an extraordinary movie.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-11 05:53 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen it yet- but I very much want to.
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[User Picture]From: goddlefrood
2008-02-11 09:58 pm (UTC)
The Wild Bunch is my equal top western with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Great stuff, quite a bloodfest too.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-11 10:22 pm (UTC)
Those gunfights in The Wild Bunch are quite extraordinary.

I like Leone. My favourite film of his is Once Upon A Time in America.
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From: senordildo
2008-02-12 06:31 am (UTC)
The studio exec behind the butchering of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" was James Aubrey, known in the industry as "The Smiling Cobra," which should give you an idea of what Peckinpah was up against. Peckinpah reportedly got so fed up that he asked a friend to hire "a couple of pistoleros" to come in from Mexico and kill Aubrey. As for His Bobness, from what I've heard Peckinpah really didn't have much of an idea who Dylan was when he hired him for the film. But he liked Dylan's demos and hired him. Dylan later said he'd simply acted as one of Peckinpah's "pawns". By the way, have you seen Cross of Iron? That's another knockout.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-12 08:05 am (UTC)
I didn't know about the pistoleros. Probably just as well Sam didn't go through with that one.

I've seen Cross of Iron. I thought it was good in parts. I didn't really buy the James Coburn character. He was just too all-round super. Sam's patch was the American south-west; when he wandered away from it his touch faltered.
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