Part of the reason I enjoy the Western genre so much is because of how free it makes me feel. Like I’m the one who is out exploring wild uncharted territory. The old west is whatever you want to make of it, so when we get see men who take advantage of that by manipulating the setting to their own benefit that is when it feels like the Western is at its best.
“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” exemplifies that more than most other Westerns and does that spectacularly through the way its two lead characters use the wild west as their own personal playground. Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is a famous outlaw who has seen that, as he gets older, the world around him seems to be changing. So he decides to quit being a criminal and becomes a sheriff, using his first bit of legal power to hunt down his old friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Billy won’t go down without a fight though, and the two spend most of the movie chasing each other, while Pat comes to terms with his new morality and world view, and Billy drinks, shoots, and screws his way through New Mexico with a huge smile.
The film was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who was known for his over-the-top violence in films like “The Wild Bunch.” While this movie has a violent moment here or there, it does take its time to build the rambunctious yet nostalgic world of the old west. It paints the actions of the characters with a longingness for a simpler time and how beautiful it must have felt to own the world if you were good enough with a gun. Pat Garrett longs to be apart of that world again, but knows that it will be ending soon and so he has to change if he’s going to fit in it. Billy still lives in that world and will fight for it to his dying breath.
The film is perfectly summed up near the beginning when Billy asks Pat how it feels to be a man of the law now. Pat responds with, “It feels like times have changed.” Billy follows this up with a big drink of whiskey and says, “Times maybe. But not me.”
These two don’t share much screentime together, but from that exchange you get how they have built an undying friendship while also establishing an ideological conflict between the two that must come to clash.
From what I understand, the film isn’t accurate on how Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid actually acted, and that might make some people angry, but I see the film as more of an appreciation and love for the old west and the type of lives these men chose to lead. Sam Peckinpah loves the myths these men created and wants to make them legends from a bygone era.
Overall, I adore “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” It is fun, emotional, beautifully-shot and has the best sense of longing for the west than any other Western I have seen. The film takes a simple like cowboys vs. outlaws and turns it on its head, creating a conflict that never gets tiresome, especially when you have two charismatic no-nonsense actors playing your leads.
Final Grade: A-