For my first post I’m doing an under-appreciated classic western, and a film I consider the definition of flawed masterpiece. That’s why I describe it as a film I love–much like actual love it’s as much about accepting the flaws as it is about the adoring the merits. But we’re here to talk about the merits (though a flaw or two will surely creep in). Anyway, here we go…
Though sometimes uneven, Peckinpah’s talent for western dialogue is in full display. In fact, I think this is the best dialogue in any western I’ve ever seen. Examples:
- “Yo’ant yo’self a wo-man?… One come in there from Albuquerque around the cat house over… name is Bertha… got a ass on her like a forty dollar cow ‘n’ a tit – I’d like to see that thing filled full o’ tequila. You know something? You can’t beat that, can ya’?”
- “I got my shotgun full of 16 thin dimes. Enough to spread you out like a crazy woman’s quilt.”
- “Why don’t you take your money, shove it up your ass, and set fire to it?”
I could go on, but I won’t for risk of spoiling some of the films payoffs. So moving on…
Not One, But Two Folk Legends In Acting Roles
Various incarnations of the script/studio/director had others musicians in lead roles, including James Taylor and John Denver. Peckinpah had originally wanted Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch) to play Billy but it did not pan out. A newcomer to acting, Kris Kristofferson had three previous film roles (starring in 1972’s Cisco Pike) but what he lacked in onscreen experience he made up for with a wealth of performance experience, charm and charisma galore. Donnie Fritts, a member of his backing band was also brought in to round out Billy’s gang. But the really interesting addition is a certain Bob Dylan. Peckinpah had originally wanted Roger Miller to do the soundtrack for the film, but Kristofferson suggested instead his friend Dylan. Peckinpah had never heard Dylan before so Kristofferson arranged for a private concert at Sam’s house. Peckinpah was impressed and signed Dylan on not only for the soundtrack, but created the role of Alias for him to get some screen time–his first film appearance. Kristofferson shines as Billy, providing a playful likability necessary to create an attachment to the character. And Bob Dylan kills a man by throwing a knife into his throat.
Peckinpah’s Signature Violence
They didn’t call him “Bloody Sam” for nothing. Peckinpah is THE guy who made slow motion and freeze frame violence a thing, flavoring his films liberally with these techniques to enhance the impact of paint can size squibs. Though not to the degree of The Wild Bunch (but really, what is?), there are some outstanding examples of Sam’s flare. In particular, the opening sequence crosscuts the death of Pat Garrett in 1909 with a flashback shooting contest of the Kid and his gang in 1881. There is also the expertly executed payoff to the shotgun loaded with 16 thin dimes mentioned above. And I cannot spoil the scene, because it is one of my favorite scenes in any western, but there a shoot out where one of Garrett’s men takes one to the gut and stumbles off to die.
This is probably Sam’s most beautiful film. He uses water as a bit of a motif, all the more striking because of the arid setting of the film. There is a great shot of Garrett riding his horse at sunset with the shadows reflected in the water. There is the aforementioned death scene of one of his compadres set next to a river as the sky clouds over. There is a brilliant scene of Garrett camping next to the river and playing a little game with a man on a raft drifting by. The use of water and sunset lends an autumnal feel to the film, underscoring Peckinpah’s tragic version of the oft-told tale–a man (Garrett) must compromise his beliefs to survive in changing times by killing a friend (Billy) who refuses to compromise his vision.
Finally, the biggest reason to love this film is the heart. Not many westerns have an emotional core–Leone’s feature cool but very amoral/immoral characters that one doesn’t particularly relate to–but Peckinpah’s westerns always do. The crushing moral dilemma mentioned above plays out in a way such that it’s as much Garrett killing himself–or the better part of himself–as it is him killing the Kid. The Kid is very likable, even while being very violent, and we relate to Garrett’s position, especially when we look upon life with older eyes.
There’s a lot more this film offers, but I’ll leave it at that.