James Coburn (whose eyes say a lot here) is Pat Garrett, a former gunslinger turned lawman by Gov. Wallace (Jason Robards Jr.) and corrupt cattle baron John Chisum (Barry Sullivan, in a role Coburn himself played later in “Young Guns II”) and hired to track down his one-time partner in crime, William H. Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid, and played by Kris Kristofferson. Has Garrett sold out or simply moved with the times, realising his old life was somewhat incompatible with long-living? (The film indeed seems to be the death knell for the Western outlaw way of life) Billy, for his part, stubbornly refuses to budge, and the two are obviously headed for a showdown that frankly neither really wants. Aiding Garrett are the likes of Sheriffs Baker (Slim Pickens) and McKinney (Richard Jaeckel), God-fearing deputised prison guard Bob Ollinger (a volatile R.G. Armstrong), another deputised prison guard named J.W. Bell (Matt Clark), and Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam). Billy’s cronies include Black Harris (L.Q. Jones), Charlie Bowdre (Charles ‘Charlie’ Martin Smith), Luke (Harry Dean Stanton), Holly (Richard Bright), and Eno (Luke Askew). Veteran character actor Chill Wills plays foul-mouthed bartender Lemuel, whom Garrett tries to pump for information. Katy Jurado plays the feisty Mrs. Baker, Bob Dylan turns up as a guy named Alias who hangs out with Billy and his crew, while Dub Taylor and Elisha Cook Jr. also have cameos.
Acting like the Wild West’s grim final hours, this 1973 offering from director Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”, “Straw Dogs”, “Convoy”) is never quite as good as you want it to be. Scripted by Rudy Wurlitzer (“Two-Lane Blacktop”), but apparently largely re-written, it’s a rambling, shambling mess of a movie with a harsh tone I appreciated, but the revisionist approach to the story was not to my liking, and no matter which cut of the film you see, it’s a disjointed and unsatisfying affair. This, despite boasting one of the greatest western casts ever assembled, and especially fine work by James Coburn (for once charmless and grim as a lawman who frankly seems law in badge-only), a surprisingly profane Chill Wills, and a grim-faced R.G. Armstrong in particular. There’s also good, smaller turns by Jack Elam (who gets the film’s best scene as a man who clearly doesn’t want the job he’s been assigned), Charles Martin Smith (in the role Elisha Cook Jr used to play), Matt Clark, and L.Q. Jones. If you love your western character actors, you’ll find pretty much every one of them in here somewhere, even if some of the best like Slim Pickens (whose brief cameo is a head-scratcher), Elisha Cook Jr. (not given nearly as much screen time as Mr. Smith), and Dub Taylor barely get a look-in. The only actor who really disappoints (aside from maybe Jason Robards Jr., who looks like he’d been out drinking the night before with Peckinpah- and likely was) isn’t even an actor, it’s Bob Dylan, whose appearance here never feels organic, nor necessary. His songs are also wildly uneven, though everyone surely loves ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, which plays in the background to Pickens’ one scene. Still, it has to be said that the man is most certainly no actor.
There’s some worthwhile stuff here, but it doesn’t end up hanging together and it’s awfully lethargic in pacing. I mean, for a film about Garrett’s attempt to pursue and Billy’s attempts to flee, neither seemed to be in any damn hurry. Part of that is because neither guy really wants to kill the other, one assumes (though in Garrett’s case, he’s somewhat annoyed and exacerbated by Billy making the job hard for him), but that’s only part of it. It just meanders for a seemingly unending amount of time for something that really only begins in the middle (i.e. The story begins with the Garrett and Kid relationship well past its used by date, perhaps not the right decision).
I also took exception to Peckinpah re-writing this with a far too geriatric Billy the Kid. It just doesn’t work. Clean shaven or not, would you believe then 37 year-old Kris Kristofferson as someone named Billy the Kid? The laconic actor/musician nearly pulls it off, to his credit, but no. Apparently the then-31 year-old Bo Hopkins was the director’s initial choice, and might’ve looked a bit more convincing. Peckinpah’s seeming disinterest in telling this story straight just annoyed me. I mean, even “Young Guns” and “Young Guns II” come out looking like models of historical accuracy compared to this film. If that doesn’t bother you, you might like the film more than I did. Worth a look, especially if you’re into darker and harsher westerns, but it’s not entirely successful. Being that the director was a raging alcoholic with marital issues, who according to Coburn was only coherent about four hours a day, perhaps it’s somewhat understandable that the film isn’t what it could’ve been. Then again, given the same circumstances, it could’ve been even worse.