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Blues on the Western Front

Three great films by Sam Peckinpah.

Many of us were first introduced to the director Sam Peckinpah when The Wild Bunch was released in 1969. We were shocked to see a Western with unsoftened profanity and the heavy measure of blood that Arthur Penn first brought to the screen in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. Following that movie, Peckinpah used slow motion to render gunbattles with a fresh and terrible authority. He intensified their mythic quality by creating two narrative velocities. Two events seemed to take place in as many tempos. This is very close to actual experience: An endangered person in a car accident sees things moving quite slowly because the brain speeds up perception and magnifies all events for survival purposes—but the safe onlooker perceives the same events happening at great rapidity.

That expansion of narrative rhythm proved that Peckinpah was a technical genius, but that was not all he had to offer. The new DVD collection The Classic Westerns of Sam Peckinpah contains, besides The Wild Bunch, one inarguable classic featuring Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, Ride the High Country, and what many consider an elegiac mess, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but which is actually an extraordinary character study. It was the last Peckinpah Western and the final great tale of the West before the miniseries Lonesome Dove, which was superior to all that came after it and much that went before.

McCrea and Scott were at the ends of their film careers in 1962 when Peckinpah, only 36, made his debut as a filmmaker after about seven years of writing Western scripts for television. McCrea and Scott had many mythic Hollywood Westerns behind them, but in Ride the High Country, they play outdated men, either bewildered to the point of corruption or doggedly maintaining their integrity as the world in which they had made their reputations dissolves into lies, fraud, and contrivance. As the two recall the past, the audience believes that youth was both sweet and cruel to them; but most of all, they have reached the stage at which most situations are quick studies. They perceive the meaning of a context much more quickly than a young person would. Even so, their decisions, as well as the consequences of those decisions, are complex, stirring, and tragic.

Richard Jaeckel and James Coburn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Many people claim that Peckinpah did not understand what Sergio Leone was doing in languorous Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, but Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid proves that assessment wrong. It is a Western set at a slow blues tempo in which melancholic introspection is paced by vengeful or offhanded violence. Garrett takes his time hunting the Kid, hoping the fugitive will leave the United States for Mexico but knowing that’s doubtful. Frustrated and progressively alienated from everyone, Garrett builds up and focuses his rage incrementally. James Coburn, in perhaps his most impressive performance, portrays him as a lonely man whose doubts are drowned in alcohol. Full of painful guilt and self-disdain, Garrett finally does the bloody deed and rides away alone, with a child throwing rocks at him. He’s mournfully resentful of his circumstances and his choices, having taken the assignment from men for whom he had no respect and called “big pecker heads” to their faces.

The men in question, wealthy land- and cattle-owners, didn’t need to inspire loyalty with charisma, like the Kid. If there was a problem, they just raised the price. This is not a romantic picture of the West, which Bob Dylan’s sometimes distracting score would lead you to believe. Neither Billy the Kid nor his gang are depicted as victimized innocents just seeking freedom. No matter their abundant human qualities, they are, finally, scroungy killers whose lives are walled in by boredom. For fun, they shoot off the heads of chickens, attend cockfights, drink bad whiskey, eat beans for breakfast, and go to bed with interchangeable whores. For work, they steal cattle or murder people. The presence of pigs and flies about them is not accidental.

No less corrupt than the big guys, the Kid and his gang are just less organized. Peckinpah was probably more sympathetic to small-time freelance criminals than he was to those with bigger designs and more power to impose their high-collared self-interest. But he was also aware of the bitter irony of the Old West that civilization follows the latter, not the former. The brilliantly selected cast includes Kris Kristofferson, who will surprise many with the subtlety and gravity he brings to Billy the Kid, who is no more than an overgrown boy made dangerous by his willingness to kill out of spite or desperation. In his small, dusty world, perfectly captured by the grimy sets and the surroundings, the Kid has the status of a free spirit, a man of honor and elemental codes. In fact, he is no more than an outlaw who will lose that status if he goes to Mexico, where he will become just another drunken gringo defecating chili peppers and “waiting for nothing.”

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is lyrically photographed with superb attention to the oceanic space of the West. Peckinpah also personalizes Leone’s conception of both the close frontal shot and the profile as monumental architecture. Such faces, as Quentin Tarantino says, are the back story. All that was enjoyed, lost, or foolishly attempted in a very lean world is made clear in the amplifying reaction shots. Tiers of meaning come from Chill Wills, Jack Elam, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens, Gene Evans, Richard Jaeckel, Elisha Cook, Dub Taylor, Harry Dean Stanton, Jason Robards, Barry Sullivan, and the astonishing Katy Jurado, who, were it not for the ethnic provincialism of her time, could have been America’s answer to Anna Magnani.

All of these actors bring to Sam Peckinpah’s last Western a somber regality as well as a crude poetry of laconic and hilarious dimensions. A perfect example arrives in two masterfully paced scenes with Chill Wills. At first, Garrett treats Wills’ saloon owner amiably, with wit and camaraderie. But we gradually see that Garrett is, as Will tells him, “Sitting there with all that law crammed inside of you, just busting to get out.” As Garrett’s drinking progresses, the lawman becomes ominous, paranoid, surly, and finally homicidal as he finds a target, focusing his bitterness and anger on a member of the Kid’s gang. With its fresh meditative pace, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid acknowledges the ongoing American blues that comes of having to choose between a rock of disorder and the hard place of business.