Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: Born under a bad sign

Sam Peckinpah's 'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid' was panned by the critics. But, says Geoffrey Macnab, it contains moments of dark magic
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The Independent Culture

Of all the many lurid tales about "Bloody" Sam Peckinpah at work, the story about the lighter fuel is surely the cruellest. Peckinpah was in Durango, New Mexico, during the shooting of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). An early sequence set in 1881 shows Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) relaxing with his desperado friends. Fifteen chickens are buried in the sand in front of them. Every so often, by way of recreation, the Kid takes aim and blows the head off one of them. The scene was hellish to shoot. The chickens had wires and explosive squibs tied round their necks, but the sand made them torpid. As they fell asleep, their heads flailed. Peckinpah instructed an assistant to run along the line and squirt lighter fuel in the birds' eyes. This woke them. The moment they perked up, the special effects team blew their heads off.

"The most painful thing was watching it during the dailies, when you had hours of slow motion of these headless chickens just writhing. I remember Bob Dylan looking over and saying: 'What have you got me into here?'" says Kristofferson.

It's symptomatic of Peckinpah that he was ready to push to such extremes to get throwaway shots of tiny chickens being blasted to oblivion. Anyone who worked with him was expected to share the same mad zeal. "He was always trying to make something great," says Kristofferson. "What attracted people to him was the quality of his work and the passion with which he defended his freedom to make the vision that he saw."

Unfortunately, on Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the then-MGM boss James Aubrey wasn't ready to indulge him. The ruthless Aubrey wanted the movie in theatres by Memorial Day weekend, only a few weeks after principal photography was completed. MGM was saddled with huge debts after venturing into hotels and casinos and needed money on its books - hence the decision to rush Pat Garrett into circulation. Aubrey wasn't much interested in Peckinpah's sadistic brand of lyricism. Slow-motion sequences of chickens being killed or the famous interlude in which Pat Garrett (James Coburn) and a passing homesteader drifting downstream on a raft take pot shots at a bottle and then at each other just for the hell of it weren't on MGM's agenda. Often, Kristofferson recalls, the cast and crew had to film such moments on the sly, on their days off, without "the people in Hollywood knowing what you were doing."

Critics and film historians are all agreed that MGM's 105-minute 1973 version was fragmentary to the point of being unintelligible. Aubrey and his henchmen wanted the movie shortened, but their bid to make it more audience-friendly backfired. Despite the totemic presence of Dylan (who also wrote the music), the film stuttered at the box-office.

"It's a movie that exists almost entirely on one note - a low, melancholy one - and achieves what I thought would have been impossible for Peckinpah: he's boring," the influential US critic Roger Ebert wrote. But there are moments in the film that rival and even exceed the very best of his masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. "He was just as I was - drunk!" Kristofferson remembers. "But he wasn't always [drunk] and he did his best work in spite of that stuff, not because of it."

Peckinpah, Kristofferson recalls, was obsessed with Billy the Kid. "He [Billy The Kid] represented a spirit of wild freedom. That's why Sam so identified with the Kid. For him, Pat Garrett represented the law - the money people Sam had to fight all the time. The story of Billy the Kid, the notion of someone fighting to go his own way appealed to a lot of people."

When Kristofferson first met Peckinpah, he found the director "throwing knives at this door he had propped up in his office". Despite the strange introduction, they got along well. "Sam liked my songs. I'd worked when I was a kid as a labourer near Peckinpah Mountain in California. That intrigued Sam - and he identified with any rebellious spirit he saw in me."

Perhaps surprisingly, Peckinpah was less enthused with Dylan. The director saw the singer as someone the producers had foisted upon him, to make the project more commercial. Dylan's character in the movie, Alias, was, Kristofferson says, loosely based on a real historical figure. Kristofferson argues that Dylan was underused and that it would have made more sense to have him as "the one who explained the legend."

Now, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is about to re-emerge. The film was first "rescued" in 1988, when it was released by Turner Television in a 122-minute "Preview Version". While this was cut to the director's orders, it was not as polished as it would have been had Peckinpah been allowed to refine it in the way he wanted. The latest cut is shorter, but is more finely tuned and incorporates some key scenes removed by MGM.

Kristofferson hasn't studied the various editions of Pat Garrett in great depth. Yes, he says, the shoot had its darker moments, but he and Dylan relished being in New Mexico with Peckinpah and his team. A few years later, Kristofferson worked on another misunderstood western masterpiece, Heaven's Gate. "It ain't for sissies," he reflects today on appearing in such troubled films. "A lot of times the things you believe in are not received in the same way by audiences - but that's just part of the business that we're in."

'Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid - the Special Edition' is released on DVD by Warner Home Video on 14 August