Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973): That Long Black Cloud is Comin’ Down

illustration by Rachel Merrill

It started with bloodshed and fast cutting. In the first scene of The Wild Bunch (1969), a band of aging outlaws’ bank robbery goes wrong and the film erupts into hyper-violence, the bloody ending of Bonnie & Clyde expanding out in every direction. But underneath the formal and physical assault, Sam Peckinpah wasn’t really changing the Western; America’s deepest rooted genre had long been its most conflicted. You don’t need to look any further than its most famous director, John Ford, who understood precisely the way this new mythology was built, and in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the film where this process is most clearly laid out, it’s built on a lie. Statehood is only brought to the small unincorporated town of Shinbone because its people believe that it was James Stewart’s gentle attorney who shot the eponymous savage bandit rather than John Wayne’s gun-toting cowboy. 

The Wild Bunch wasn’t trying to revise anything; rather, it’s a dirge for the Western as its relevance faded alongside people’s faith in American mythology as such. Its heroes were darker and crueler, but Peckinpah managed to invert the genre right back to its most romantic origins. The outlaws, led by a sad-eyed William Holden, are increasingly fragile and compromised, but they get to make a choice when the sadistic General they had resigned themselves to working for slits the throat of one of their men, and they shoot him as revenge. Both sides freeze, a tense acceptance that an eye for an eye is fair enough. The outlaws, wildly outnumbered, could just walk away, but they choose to die for some kind of principle. If their way of life is doomed anyway, they might as well burn all this down with it. It’s a nihilistic choice, leading to an endlessly violent climax that feels viscerally, if not at all morally, heroic. 

Four years later, after that fire had long burnt out and the blood in the sand turned black, Peckinpah made Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The film is like a death dream for its genre and its lead character, the opening scene foretelling the titular Garrett’s death though it’s shot like a memory in sepia. Maybe it’s already happened or is simply doomed to. It’s hardly glamorous next to The Wild Bunch’s self-righteous blaze: Garrett (James Coburn) is caught off guard without much of a chance to respond, though it’s interlaced with the film’s present many years prior, as if everyone is contained in those final moments, in Garrett’s final glance back at the world. 

The film still tells a familiar story, and not just because Billy the Kid had long been mythologized in countless films, comic books, radio plays and so on. Garrett is the Sheriff, the force of law chasing out Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and what’s left of his gang, the last stragglers of the old ways. The titular Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid echo Stewart and Wayne’s characters in Liberty Valance and many others; the conflict between civilization and wilderness is one of the Western’s core themes and standard variations. But here they aren’t so archetypal, they aren’t even really opposed. Garrett was a part of Billy’s gang before he turned heel and convinced enough people that he’d changed to get a badge. He tries to convince himself too, hemmed into a tight black suit that looks as stifling and false on Garrett as it does sharp and flattering on his actor, James Coburn.  

Peckinpah was an often backwards-looking and sometimes deeply conservative artist—it’s hard to argue with the reactionary credentials of Straw Dogs, with its savage view of sexuality and human nature—but unlike the ultimately tragic The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett is much more lucid about the world it’s mourning. The principles of the cowboy are a post-hoc rationalization imposed on their brutality and law is much the same, not a necessary illusion but a justification of force like any other. Just one that’s a little more reasoned out, and written down on paper. 

Stewart and Wayne’s characters created a mythology in small, a lie that was both a great foundation and an original sin, but here, no one believes that shit. When another law-man is all but sent to his death by Garrett, he has no illusion of legacy. He hopes the paper spells his name right only to be spared another indignity. Even those who ended up in the history books, smudged into legend, don’t pay it any mind. Why worry about being remembered when there might not be anyone there to do it?

Whether or not anyone believes in them, the rules of this world are still codified. The chaos and violence are pushed into certain shapes, as brittle and stupid as they may seem. When the fleeing Billy runs into a Sheriff’s deputy, another old friend and aging Western character, they both feel that they have no choice but to fight. The ten steps they take before turning around to shoot feels as absurd and pointless as the polite turn-taking gunfight in Barry Lyndon. They can’t imagine anything different, and when Garrett tries to, by making a little house and a family, it looks pathetic and impotent. His one quiet, immensely uncomfortable scene with his wife ends with her telling him that he’s “empty inside”; their white house with its little picket fence looks so dumb in a place like this. Nothing grows here. 

* * *

Billy might seem a more charming alternative to Garrett, with Kris Kristofferson’s big, goofy face and a smile that falls on the warm side of corny. He’s freer from these zombified ideas, to an extent, but inside he is similarly empty. After his initial arrest, one of his guards acted not only as a friend, but protected him from the wrath of a piously sadistic deputy when he was chained and helpless. But when it comes time for Billy to escape, he shoots him in the back. He says he doesn’t want to, but he hardly flinches. At least he takes a little less joy in killing him than he does the deputy. 

This petty and small deputy, Bob Olligner (R. G. Armstrong), is typical of Peckinpah’s religious characters, sitting comfortably alongside the comically corrupt preacher and comically perverse Reverend from The Ballad of Cable Hogue, the Comedy-Western he made between Pat Garrett and The Wild Bunch. If Ollinger’s contradictions ever threaten to become scary, a sense of God-given righteousness that can justify any cruelty, then they are quickly revealed to be pathetic when Billy completely ignores his preaching. He doesn’t bother to look up from the game of cards he’s playing with Garrett and his guard while Ollinger rambles on about him meeting God at the noose; the whole idea of a God isn’t even worth considering to them, nor to Peckinpah. 

Without a history to look back on or a Heaven to look forward to, the characters are all stuck in an eternal present, the past they seem to carry long out of reach, a memory slowly fading away and gone forever once they are. It’s a literal world of flesh and blood; Garrett isn’t doing anything except trying to murder Billy. The long trails of death they both leave in their wake don’t represent anything and don’t mean much for the film either. Most of these scenes of violence are self-contained and lead to little else. 

After a fairly tight opening, in which Billy is caught and then escapes, the structure loosens, unfurling into mostly episodic sequences. Garrett chases after Billy and there’s only one way that can go. If you don’t already know how the story ends, then you can read it in the sense of doom that moistens each character’s eyes. None of them are in a rush to get there, to this ultimate end, but inevitably, they wander in that direction while Bob Dylan’s soundtrack loiters around the edges. Never too concerned with following the action closely, as if it’s played by a character sitting in the corner or recorded live while Dylan’s attention drifts to and from the movie.

Maybe this is a product of the editing process, as per If They Move… Kill ‘em, David Weddle’s biography of Peckinpah, the director was given only two and half months to edit the three and a half hour rough cut—longer even than the epic-scale The Wild Bunch—down to just over two hours. (Further cuts were made for the 106 minute theatrical release.) But that doesn’t explain the striking choice to place the emotional peak, the point where the weight of the tragedy rises above the bleakly banal, about half-way through the film, and pretty early in Garrett’s chase. 

Garrett recruits a past-his-prime Sheriff and his wife—played by Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado, two more veterans of the genre—to pick off some stragglers from Billy’s gang, and in the low-stakes crossfire the Sheriff is hit. He’s a character we only half-know from a scene or two of fairly functional conversation with Garrett, but his death somehow feels like it means something when it’s suddenly accompanied by the grand sparseness of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” He walks down to the river he’ll soon return to and his face turns from pain to a kind of acceptance. His wife tries to hold back tears but they shine bright in her eyes. The sky hangs over and gives a sense of its impossible scale. It’s overcast, but behind the Sheriff and a bent, half-formed tree, light blasts through and you could almost believe there was a Heaven to knock on the door of, that someone was looking down on this cruel spectacle and making some meaning out of it.

But just as soon as this feeling comes, it goes. Garrett looks on, but this hardly relates to him and he’s only affected enough to conjure a self-pitying frown. There’s nothing more he cares to do, so his close-up fades quickly—a noticeable few beats too early—into the next scene where Billy and his friends are trying to catch a turkey as banjo music jangles along, jaunty and carefree. 

A lot of Westerns are about the end of an era, a train line coming through to bring civilization to a wild town, or literal statehood in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But few capture our current sense of decline like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: a diffuse and indirect collapse where the line between ending and ended is blurred by the fact that no new era is on the horizon to replace this one. That long black cloud isn’t coming from a train. And that can almost feel liberating, Garrett seems to think he can avoid reaching the end while lost in such a winding and directionless structure, many threads left strewn and unfinished. Even when he finally catches up to Billy, he sits outside for a while, waiting, as if a few moments more will make a difference. 

He has to shoot him, of course he does. He did it in 1881. He’d passed the point of no return long before hunting down this last cowboy of sorts. Just as we have, or are soon to with little sign of turning. In that historical moment, Pat Garrett catches a glimpse of a mirror and shoots his own reflection too. He can’t bear to look, as so many can’t, in those rare moments when the collapse becomes vividly clear, or simply impossible to deny. 

Today is a day like that. The complacency of living in a world heading obliquely, but inevitably towards (climate) collapse is cut through. I’m writing this during one of the UK’s increasingly common and harsh heatwaves, the longest and warmest of any September. Last year many records were broken on July 19th, when temperatures reached the highest the country has ever recorded. On that day, like today, it didn’t seem so hard to imagine this once gray and rainy country as something like the physical and moral wasteland of Peckinpah’s West.