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

In fact, Dylan's presence, from his gorgeous songs to his wry, gnomic face, lifted Pat Garrett far above what could have become another conventional installment in the Billy the Kid franchise.

The tired myth sorely needed a fresh approach. By the time Peckinpah snatched up the script for Pat Garrett, composed by a young screenwriter named Rudolph Wurlitzer, the inflated adventures of William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, had been the subject of nearly 50 movies and dozens of stories, poems, and biographies. Years earlier, Peckinpah himself wrote a screenplay for a Billy the Kid flick to be directed by Stanley Kubrick. But both he and Kubrick got fired, and Marlon Brando eventually directed and starred in what became the equally powerful masterpiece 'One-Eyed Jacks.' Scenes from Peckinpah's script were used in Brando's movie, without credit, and the frustration of that experience must have helped drive him to make Pat Garrett.

Fabulous and weird – Peckinpah turns the legendary cowboy character actor Slim Pickens' death from a gunshot to the gut into a moment of beatific tranquility – unsparing in its psychology, searing in its incineration of the Hollywood western's starry-eyed morality, Pat Garrett has through the years been either unfairly dismissed as a deficient by-product of Peckinpah's self-destructive anger and drinking, or buried under the faintly praising epitaph: Here lies a film that was panned at the time but is now considered a classic.

Both judgments miss the mark. Pat Garrett's bracing originality shines through its sometimes shaky plot, and its spectacular brio repels the embalming status of "classic." The film explodes with the hallmarks of Peckinpah's noir-western style: the easy coexistence of virtue and violence; the fluidity of character, as Billy slips from romantic hero to cold-blooded killer and back again; the caprice of circumstance; the fascination with how and why people die violently. Peckinpah's film is a final twist, both astringent and loving, on a gasping genre. It wasn't merely a nice coincidence that the archetypal American cowboy John Wayne was making a movie at the same time right nearby. It was too good to be true.

Yet if the movie is an elegy for the western, it is also a lyrical demonstration of why the genre will never die. As Billy cuts off his shackles after killing his jailer, he sings a little song about all the places he's been, including the one he's escaping from. In the street, Dylan's Alias hears the tune and his face brightens with the slow dawn of revelation.

Suddenly a movie about the legend of Billy the Kid becomes a legend itself, a kind of ballad-movie, as actor/singer Kristofferson croons to singer/actor Dylan, the two young men sharing a common aspiration of finding their own destiny.

That small moment captures the movie's essence. Pat Garrett is about the timeless American showdown, that moment when an American youth can either choose responsible manhood or smuggle his boyhood into maturity in the attempt to fulfill his dreams. When asked if it was hard to stop being Billy after the movie was done, Kristofferson's answer is, "Shoot, I may still be." The toy pistols of our childhoods may have become PDAs, but the same goes for many of us, too.