Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Bob Dylan’s heavenly music elevates Sam Peckinpah’s final Western into a haunting elegy on the death of the old-West

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan is legendary director, Sam Peckinpah’s final Western. Dylan also provided the music for this film, which includes the very popular song, “knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

There’s guns across the river about to pound you
There’s a lawman on your trail like to surround you
Bounty hunters are dancing all around you
Billy, they don’t like you to be so free.

Camping out all night on the veranda
Walking in the streets down by the hacienda
Up to Boot Hill the like to send you
Billy, don’t you turn your back on me.

They say that Pat Garrett’s got your number
So sleep with one eye open, when you wander
Every little sound just might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun.

The businessmen from Taos want you to go down
So they’ve hired mister Garrett, he’ll force you to slow down
Billy, don’t let it make you feel so low down
To be hunted by the man who was your friend.

So hang on to your woman, if you got one
Remember in El Paso once you shot one
I’ll be in Santa Fe about one
Billy, you’ve been running for so long……..

Bob Dylan from the original soundtrack of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Year: 1881

Location: New Mexico

William Bonney aka Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) has just busted out of Lincoln County Jail. Sheriff Pat Garrett was not present at the time; he was out collecting taxes. Only his two deputies were there to guard Billy. But they were no match for the young Outlaw, who managed to shoot both of them dead and escape- Billy was to hanged the next day. Pat is charged by Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) – a puppet for the powerful and corrupt ‘Santa Fe Ring‘ – to capture Billy. Pat and Billy are old friends, and they had rode together a lot- both inside the law and outside of it. But now, circumstances have put them on the opposite sides of the law. An aging Pat, realizing that the times are changing, has opportunistically aligned with the corrupt authorities, and even though he doesn’t want to kill his old friend, he realizes that he has no way out. After recruiting another outlaw-turned-lawman, Alamosa Bill Kermit (Jack Elam), as the new deputy sheriff, Pat sets out to capture Billy- who by the way has returned to Old Fort Sumner to resume his free-spirited outlaw life with his pals. Pat meets up with Sheriff Colin Baker (Slim Pickens), hoping he can provide information on Billy’s whereabouts. But Baker, who has grown tired of his job, doesn’t do anything anymore unless ‘there is a piece of gold attached to it.’; he’s planning to buy a boat and sail away through the Pecos river. After Pat throws a gold piece his way, Baker and his wife (Katy Jurado) go with him to arrest some of Billy’s old gang. In the resulting gunfight, the gang members including Black Harris (L. Q. Jones) are killed and Baker is mortally wounded. Realizing that he’s going to die, Baker walks away from the gunfight to the banks of Pecos. As he stands by the river, gutshot, looking into the horizon that’s slowly darkening, Baker’s wife (whom Baker calls ‘mama’) races towards him, but she herself is paralyzed by grief and could not get close to comfort him. At this moment, on the soundtrack, comes Bob Dylan’s immortal music, vocals and words: “….Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door, Knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door.…”

There are several instances in American films where a brilliant marriage of songs and visuals were achieved; the way Jim Morrison’s songs were used in “Apocalypse Now (1979)” may be the greatest. The above mentioned moment from Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Western, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is right up there with it. Coppola’s Vietnam epic and Peckinpah’s elegy to a dying old-West has other things in common as well. Both films deal with the long journey undertaken by a morally ambiguous protagonist to kill a legendary folk hero (who has gone rogue) at the behest of the authorities. Coppola’s film was a counterculture war film, Peckinpah’s is a counterculture Western. Both films feature the music, voice and words of two of the gods of counterculture- Jim Morrison there, Bob Dylan here. Dylan was considered the intrepid guiding spirit of the counterculture. His songs like “Like a rolling stone” were the first to be dubbed ‘Hippie music.’ Peckinpah, here, is making a Hippie western, with Billy the Kid portrayed as a sort of proto-Hippie , with his long hair and free-spirited attitude; his little commune in Old Fort Sumner resembles a ’60s Hippie community- free love, free sex, free drinks; and, to top it all, Dylan himself plays a key role in the film (in his acting debut). He’s playing a mysterious character who calls himself ‘Alias.’; a character very much in awe of Billy the Kid. He see Billy break out of jail, and then follows him to Fort Sumner to become a part of his gang. He even saves Billy’s life when the latter is ambushed by bounty hunters. Though one can debate endlessly about how good\bad Dylan is as an a actor, that’s not the point of his casting. Dylan’s iconic presence is the tie that binds Billy the Kid and other free-spirited outlaws of the old-west with the rock stars of the ’60s. Billy and Jesse James were the rock stars and most influential personalities of their times. Dylan is, of course, one of the most influential figures of twentieth century; he’s considered the greatest songwriter ever lived; someone who was even awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Getting back to that scene, and Dylan’s great great song- which was dubbed as an exercise in splendid simplicity; which goes like this:

Mama take this badge from me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s getting dark too dark to see
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

Knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock-knock-knockin’ on heaven’s door, eh yeah

Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door

It’s just 8 lines , with one line repeated many times, but the emotions that he convey through his singing and the music is so overwhelming, it could really be one one of the greatest songs ever. Look at the way he used the word ‘Mama’; on one level it relates to the Katy Jurado character in the film- it could be a song Pickens’ character is singing in his mind as he’s about to die; but the word also makes the song universal. And when combined with that scene, with the performances of Pickens and Jurado, and the ‘magic hour’ photography of John Coquillon, it’s pure magic. The scene encapsulates the gist of this film, which was Peckinpah’s final Western. The man who redefined the Western genre with the “The Wild Bunch” was actually putting in his last word on the genre with this film. It’s about dreams crushed, spirit extinguished, faith betrayed. Pat Garett, in his opportunistic quest to kill Billy, is going to destroy everything around him including himself. After this scene, we get an even more poignant scene which shows how empty and pointless life in the West was (or has become): later that evening, Pat sitting on the banks of Pecos, watches a barge floating down the river with a man shooting bottles in the water; Pat too starts shooting at the bottle; and then the man in that barge starts shooting at Pat; Pat ducks for cover and returns fire; finally, both lower their rifles and the barge floats away.

Pat is soon joined in the hunt by John W. Poe (John Beck), who works for the Santa Fe Ring. Meanwhile, Billy has decided to go to Mexico, but on his way he stops at a trading post owned by an old friend, who, by chance, is hosting Pat’s new deputy, Alamosa Bill- an old acquaintance of Billy’s. And just as Pat and Billy can’t avoid their date with destiny, so does Billy and Alamosa; after dinner and some small talk, both Billy and Alamosa step outside for a duel at ten paces; both tries to cheat, but Billy is the bigger cheater and he coldly shoots Alamosa dead. Billy’s journey to Mexico is interrupted when he comes across his friend Paco and family being tortured by businessman, John Chisum’s henchmen. Billy shoots the henchmen dead, but by then Paco is dead. Billy decides to return to Fort Sumner. Meanwhile, Pat visits a whorehouse and finds out from one of Billy’s regular girls where Billy is hiding. He enlists another (most reluctant) Sheriff friend of his to track down Billy; and he, Poe and the Sheriff sets forth for Fort Sumner. It’s late in the night when the threesome reaches the place. Pat finds Billy making love to his girlfriend. He waits till they are finished and then sneaks into their room and shoots Billy dead. And just to complete his own self-destruction, he shoots the mirror showing his reflection, breaking it into a thousand pieces.

“Pat Garett and Billy the Kid” maybe the only ‘Sheriff chasing an outlaw’ Western,’ where the Sheriff delays the capture of the outlaw as much as he can, and the outlaw himself is in no hurry to get away. People who were enthralled by Peckinpah’s kineticism in “The Wild Bunch” and “Straw Dogs” would be shocked by the somber, reflective tone of this film. The film still has Peckinpah’s trademark violence- all shot in slow motion and rapidly edited together with buckets of blood flowing all around, but the dramatic portions of the film are so stately, and sometimes painfully meandering that it demands a lot from the audiences. Some (or most) of the slow-paced, meandering nature of the film might be by design; Peckinpah was aiming here to make a very different film from “The Wild Bunch”; albeit still dealing with his pet theme of friends turning foes, with one hunting the other. But he also wanted it to be a melancholic send off to the old-West and the ‘Western’ genre; a visual tone poem that mixes images and music in a very elegiac way. This is where Dylan’s music becomes so important in setting the mood of the film; the film is really about the old-West (and the Western) and its maverick, individualistic heroes ‘knocking on Heaven’s door.’ Though film critics at the time had criticized Dylan’s music in the film, watching it today, you cannot separate the film from its music\songs. Even the title song, “Billy…” which someone as respected as Roger Ebert had dismissed as godawful, helps in setting the mood of this film. The song is not as poetic as “knockin’ on heaven’s door,” but it looks like something Dylan’s ‘Alias’ would sing in the film; an ode to his hero Billy the Kid.

Both James Coburn (aged 45) and Kris Kristofferson (aged 36) were too old to play Pat and Billy- who were 31 and 21 respectively when the real Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid on July 14, 1881. But Peckinpah’s film is not about the real historical figures or events; except for the manner in which Billy escapes from prison, the rest of the film is pure fiction. The characters of Pat and Billy are more ciphers representing two kinds of men of the American old-West; one, represented by Pat, that got tamed and adapted with changing times; and the second, represented by Billy, that refused to conform and adapt and thereby perished as the west got civilized. The aged Pat Garrett is hunting his virile, idealistic, younger self all through the film, and he must kill it before he can settle down in the new West owned by businessman and lawyers.

Coburn and Kristofferson were Peckinpah’s regular collaborators; they’ve done multiple films with him; and they are perfectly cast here. Coburn brings his usual cynical, hard-edged, hard-bitten quality to the role of Pat Garrett. Pat is a guy who’s dead inside; he’s made a deal with the devil to secure his future, and he knows it and he despises himself for it. He has a Mexican wife and owns a Victorian style house in the middle of the dusty street. But he can’t bring himself to enter it, and once he’s inside he can’t wait to escape. He’s not able to connect with his wife in any way, and he believes that once Billy is dead he could straighten out his life. On the way to killing Billy, he gets repeatedly drunk, indulges in group sex with a bunch of prostitutes, and ruthlessly manipulates every past acquaintance into joining him up in the hunt. One scene set in a saloon is particularly chilling: Pat forces one of Billy’s outlaw pals, Holly, to get drunk at gunpoint, so that he would divulge the whereabouts of Billy; at the end of the lengthy scene, Pat shoots and kills Holly, after the latter, even in his extreme drunken state, pulls out a knife and tries to kill him. Pat then tells Alias, whom he had reading labels on items kept in the saloon, to give Billy a message that they had “a little drink together”. Coburn’s rugged & towering persona, his booming voice, and his tightly controlled acting adds both menace and melancholy to the role. This is definitely Coburn’s best performance, with Pat Garrett being the most nuanced and fully realized character in the film.

Kristofferson, on the other hand, plays Billy as a flashy, outgoing, Christ-like figure. When he surrenders, or is finally shot down, he holds his arms in a crucified pose. The role is not that well defined, and certainly lacks the intensity and danger that Billy the Kid needs. The real Billy was a vicious and violent killer, but in this film he is a romantic figure; who kills the bad guys and protect the good guys; even when he cheats and shoots somebody in the back he is shown to be charming and heroic. This is keeping in with Peckinpah’s revisionist ambitions for the Western, where the bad guy\outlaw is the hero, and the hero\lawman is the villain. This was one of the early starring roles for Kristofferson, and he would go on to make two more films with Peckinpah. He was instrumental in bringing in Bob Dylan into the project as well as his wife Rita Coolidge- who plays his girlfriend in the film. Peckinpah has stuffed the film with some very famous supporting actors, many of them his stock-company actors and Westerns veterans. Apart from the ones mentioned, the film features Barry Sullivan, Chill Wills, R.G. Armstrong, Charles Martin Smith, Emilio Fernández, Harry Dean Stanton, Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook Jr. Director, Peckinpah himself makes an appearance in the climax of the film as a coffin-maker, who tells Pat Garrett that “You’ve finally figured it out.” and goads him on to kill Billy the kid and get it over with. From that it’s obvious how personal a film this was for Peckinpah.

But it’s also true that like a lot of the post-Wild Bunch films, this film too suffered from the director’s erratic on-set behavior; induced mainly by his alcoholism, substance abuse and paranoia. The film was a notoriously troubled production, with Peckinpah and the MGM studio at each other’s throats all through its production. Ultimately, Peckinpah also lost final cut of the film, and a badly butchered version supervised by the studio was released that was met with critical derision and commercial failure. One can’t blame the studio alone for the issues in the film; there’s an unevenness to the film that reflects the capricious nature of its director, with scenes of great beauty coexisting with scenes that are banal. Some of the scenes , like the one where Garrett visits a whorehouse, or the scenes with Billy and his pals at Fort Sumner goes on and on for no rhyme or reason. The dialogue also, which used to be pretty sharp and acidic in Peckinpah’s films, is rather cliched and ordinary- except for the “Keep the change Bob” delivered by Kristofferson as he kills R. G. Armstrong, there’s not a single memorable line.

But whatever is good in the film is truly great. Peckinpah was actually going for a very dense, loopy narrative: the film beginning with Pat Garrett being shot dead by the same people who paid him to kill Billy the Kid; and even as this shootout is going on, the film flashes back 3 decades earlier to Fort Sumner; and makes it appear that Pat and Billy are shooting at each other. We then realize that Billy and his pals are shooting at chicken’s buried in the ground; soon, Pat also joins them in shooting out chicken-heads; it’s an opening scene very similar to the opening scenes of kids torturing a scorpion inside an anthill in “The Wild Bunch.” This is a good indication on how Peckinpah looks at these characters and their violent\homicidal tendencies. In the beginning of the film Pat and Billy looks very similar- clean shaven and similarly dressed; but once they break off their friendship and Pat becomes the Sheriff, his dressing style changes, his appearance changes – he keeps his moustache on, like a lot of the high-class businessmen and land barons. His gait also undergoes a transformation, as he starts moving slower and slower, and finally he sits on a swing as if paralyzed, waiting for Billy to finish his lovemaking. Even when he finally shoots Billy, he’s sitting on Billy’s bed. The film ends with Garrett riding out into the dawn alone; he’s riding into a new world now, but as the film’s opening suggests, Garrett himself would prove unfit for this world, and would be killed the same way he killed Billy. A lot of these ideas did not come through in the original release cut, the studio used some six editors to hack Peckinpah’s movie to pieces. But, Thankfully, Peckinpah had his original director’s cut in his possession, which he kept hidden from the studio. That became the basis for the 115 minutes director’s cut that was released on home video almost 3 decades later, and it resurrected much of the film’s greatness. Anyway, despite the film being a box office flop on its release, Bob Dylan’s soundtrack was a superhit, with ‘Knockin’ on heaven’s Door‘ becoming a worldwide success.


3 thoughts on “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Bob Dylan’s heavenly music elevates Sam Peckinpah’s final Western into a haunting elegy on the death of the old-West

  1. I like reading your reviews – they are very thoughtfully done; however, hippy is spelled hippie – there is quite a difference


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