Bob Dylan learned everything he knows about film-making on the set of Sam Peckinpah’s "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid".
That’s not to say that Dylan is a good film-maker and certainly not to imply that he is the equal of Peckinpah. But the episodic nature of Dylan’s two feature films is drawn from Peckinpah’s masterpiece. Dylan appears as the mysterious and enigmatic "Alias" in the 1973 Western – a film where there is no narrative and our understanding of the film’s plot requires the outside knowledge of the Billy the Kid story to help us follow the plot development. In Dylan’s two cinematic efforts – 1978’s messy "Renaldo and Clara" and 2003’s beautiful mess "Masked and Anonymous" – we do not know the progression of the story and so we go away with more questions than answers.
James Coburn’s magisterial performance as Pat Garrett is at the heart of so much that is good about "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" which I viewed once more this evening as part of the British Film Institute’s Peckinpah series. His Garrett is a man in transition. In his younger life, he has trod the same road as William Bonney (Billy the Kid) but now as the West is changing, he has taken the shilling of the rich landowners and become a sheriff on their behalf to track down Bonney, played here by Kris Kristofferson. It is Garrett desire to survive the changes that is society is going through and to live to a good old age but he has failed to calculate how much this will cost him. At the culmination of the film when the Sheriff shoots Bonney in cold blood, he is panicked and also shoots at his reflection in a mirror as he sees something move. The inference is obvious – in killing Bonney, he has killed himself. We see nothing else of his life but know that he, himself, is ambushed and killed in like manner several years later. The landowners’ tolerate murder and rape and something inside of Garrett has died long before he takes that bullet. Garrett has become their man, their servant, their hired hand.
This is seen in two telling scenes near to the conclusion of the film. In short span, we see Garrett in bed with four prostitutes in a scene that is titilating but without love. A sexual longing is fulfilled but there is nothing more. By contrast, Bonney is involved in a scene of real tenderness and passion with the woman he holds dear. He is true to himself and still able to feel.
It is a film where the Sheriff doesn’t wear a white hat and the villain is not in black. The West is inhuman and murderous but Bonney is the one with some signs of redemption still sparking within him. Garrett will be the one to survive for a time but he has ceased to live.
This is a tour-de-force of a film which whilst you are unlikely to catch it in a cinema as I had the pleasure tonight, is well-worth picking up the Director’s cut on DVD. It is one of the truly great artistic moments which reflects on the transition from civil war to the Old West. In rock and country music, there is the Eagles’ Desperado and Paul Kennerley’s White Mansions and Legend of Jesse James (which interestingly both feature prominently the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon). On TV and much more light-heartedly, there is Alias Smith and Jones which can now be found on DVD. In film, there is Gods and Generals (for the Civil War) and …. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (for the Old West).
Meanwhile, watching carefully and observing is the curiously out-of-place figure of Bob Dylan, who produces a soundtrack which has all the sentimentality for the Old West which the film lacks. Perhaps, the actor goes away and broods until the day he can produce his own cinematic vision…. albeit with less consistency and recognition.