James Coburn and director Sam Peckinpah talk on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973.
James Coburn and director Sam Peckinpah talk on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973.
Credit: Everett

A lot can be said about Sam Peckinpah's western 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,' on this, the 40th anniversary of its release, but you have to start with the fact that the story behind this startling, savage movie is just about as startling and savage as the film itself.

Like the time a camera lens got damaged without anyone realizing it while they were shooting in Durango, Mexico. Looking at the ruined dailies, an enraged Peckinpah, known for his alcoholic furies, stormed out of his director's chair and pissed all over the screen – leaving on it an S-shaped stain like the brand on a steer.

"Sam was drunk, of course," recalls Kris Kristofferson, who plays Billy. "By the end of the day that bottle had taken over. I'll never forget Bob Dylan turnin' and lookin' at me like, 'What the hell have you gotten me into?'"

Dylan wrote the songs for the movie, including "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." He also has a small role as the mysterious printer's assistant named Alias, who joins up with Billy and his gang. Rita Coolidge, Kristofferson's girlfriend at the time, plays a Mexican woman whom Billy/Kristofferson makes sulfurous love to just before he's gunned down by Pat Garrett (played by James Coburn), his erstwhile friend and mentor.

Peckinpah would start drinking on the set first thing each morning, and by the afternoon he would be loaded and walking around firing a revolver into the air. At night he'd lie in bed shooting at his reflection in the mirror, a drunken outburst that made its way into the movie when, after killing Billy, Garrett, in a bout of self-hatred and disgust, shoots to pieces his own reflection in a mirror. At one point, "I had to take a pistol away from Sam," says Kristofferson. "He was worrying some people."

It was that kind of production – and that kind of film, too: a twisted, paranoid tale of Billy's onetime outlaw friend, Garrett, becoming a pawn of the West's new commercial interests, and then hunting down Billy and killing him. Twenty years before Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' mixed white hats and black hats into a murky gray sombrero, Peckinpah was throwing Molotov cocktails at the Hollywood western's conventional view of the upright American male.

A product of the Vietnam and Watergate era, when life and art danced and shrieked together in the streets, Peckinpah's film transformed the classic story of Garrett's viciously turning on young Billy into a tale of generational conflict. The middle-aged Garrett is the figure of the rotting American establishment, while Billy, by contrast, is vital and uncompromising, though just as vicious in defending his integrity as Garrett is in selling out.

At one point, Billy and another outlaw who has been deputized by Garrett step outside for a gunfight. They agree to face each other at 10 paces, but after his first step, Billy whirls around, waits for the other man to turn – at eight – and fatally shoots him.

Billy saunters toward the dying man, towering over him with a sad, rueful smile. "That wasn't 10, hoss," he drawls. The dying cowboy, played by the famed western character actor Jack Elam, replies, "I never could count." Like the movie itself, the scene undermines the romantic gunplay of the classic western, emphasizing instead the reflexive amorality and essential illogic of human nature.

Kristofferson felt the film's subversive power from the moment he read the script. Inspired by Peckinpah's vision, he helped bring Dylan into the project. That created an entire new set of problems.

"The whole thing was kinda weird for Bob," Kristofferson says, "because Sam was a pretty volatile character." To make matters worse, Peckinpah had never heard of Dylan. "Sam wasn't really that well-informed about music," Kristofferson says, joking that "he would just as soon have had Roger Miller or something."

In the end, though, Dylan's involvement all but guaranteed the film's immortality. "Sam was lucky that I made him use him," says Kristofferson. "The music that Dylan came up with was a major part of what made that film great." Despite the derangement of making 'Pat Garrett,' he fondly remembers Dylan sitting down at the piano after they wrapped each day, and "Bob and Rita doing music for hours, just singing song after song."

And in the end, for all the differences between Peckinpah and Dylan, the moment the tormented director heard Dylan sing, Kristofferson recalls, "he was in love with it."