Acid Westerns: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Jonathan Rosenbaum is the critic who, in a book-length investigation of the movie "Dead Man," codified the idea of the Acid Western, and he gives a lion's share of the credit for the genre to a single author and screenwriter, Rudy Wurlizter. Specifically, Rosenbaum says the Wurlitzer is "the individual most responsible for exploring this genre, having practically invented it himself in the late '60s and then helped to nurture it in the scripts of others."

Rosenbaum gets to make that claim, of course, because he was essentially creating a sub-genre in retrospect. He grouped the films together, identified their similarities, and felt they were all leading to "Dead Man," which, in his original review, he called "the fulfillment of a cherished counterculture dream, the acid western."

Wurlitzer plays an important role in the creation of "Dead Man," not just because it hearkens back to Wurlitzer's countercultural Westerns (only two were filmed, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and "Walker," but because Wurlitzer wrote an unproduced screenplay called "Zebulon." Arguably, Jim Jarmusch, who wrote and directed "Dead Man," lifted story elements and themes from "Zebulon" for "Dead Man" — he had read the script previously and met with Wurlitzer to discuss it.

As much as I like "Dead Man," I'm don't have the same goal as Rosenbaum, although I am basing my essays on the films he identified as Acid Westerns. So "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" strikes me as being less significantly an Acid Western than, say, "El Topo."

The film was directed and largely shaped Sam Peckinpah, and feels more a piece with Peckinpah's body of work than with other Acid Westerns; Peckinpah himself saw it as the conclusion to a series of revisionist Westerns he had begun with "Ride the High Country" and "The Wild Bunch." The film is very Peckinpah in a lot of ways, including galling images of graphic violence (the film opens with Billy the Kid and his gang shooting the heads off buried chickens; it looks unsimulated), ambiguous friendships, and a vision of the West as a free-for-all of shifting, selfish morality.

But "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" can make a credible claim to being an Acid Western. It was originally scripted for director Monte Hellman, who invented the Acid Western with "The Shooting" and "Ride in the Whirlwind," and so this film could have been part of that cycle, rather than Peckinpahs.

The film has an undeniable feel of the 60s counterculture to it, thanks to the star, Outlaw Country singer Kris Kristofferson, and thanks to the fact that Kristofferson had brought Bob Dylan along to write the soundtrack. Dylan also acts in the film, which I will discuss in a moment.

The script is also full of absurd and apocalyptic moments, which Wurlitzer excels at and is one of the really defining features of the Acid Western. Wurlitzer's vision of the old Southwest is one in which everyone shoots at each other all the time, and, when they aren't shooting at each other, they are telling stories of shooting at each other. Pat Garrett, played with near-total exhaustion by Peckinpah favorite James Coburn, at one point sees a man on a ramshackle boat idly shooting at a bottle in the water. Coburn also takes a shot at it, and the man starts shooting back at Coburn. The point their guns at each other in silence, both seemingly uncertain about why they are shooting and if they should continue, as the boat continues floating downstream.

The film is set in the brief few weeks between when Billy the Kid was arrested for murder in December of 1880, when he escaped in April of 1881, and when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him to death in July of 1881. This telling is largely fictionalized, fabricating a friendship between Garrett and The Kid, as well a reinventing many of the details of the story. As an example, in this telling his prison escape is facilitated by someone leaving a pistol for him in a privy, while, in fact, the actual Billy the Kid simply slipped out of his handcuffs, beat a deputy with them, and grab his gun.

Still, I don't want to dwell on historical inaccuracies in a film that cast 36-year-old Kris Kristofferson as a 21-year-old gunfighter. The real history of Billy the Kid was obviously just a framework that Wurlitzer and Peckinpah hung their ideas on, and those ideas are often contradictory.

Peckinpah is fascinated with the changing of circumstance. He has reversed the usual structure of a Western, in which the development of townships and the rise of law represents a taming of the West. Instead, he represents it as an end to an era of freedom. So-called civilization is represented by Land Barons and corrupt military men, played by older character actors like Jason Robards, who played governor Lew Wallace (who, weirdly, is best remembered as the author of "Ben Hur.")

These were the same men responsible for the range wars that created men like Billy the Kid, and it seems like The Kid's only failing is that he was on the side of the losers of the range war; the winners want to hang him for it. Pat Garrett has managed to move on from this, to embrace the new world by becoming sheriff, which the film presents as representing a contemptible moral failing on his part, one he despises himself for. The Kid, who has no interest in this new world, is everything Garrett isn't: popular, virile, and free.

Kristofferson is a charming lead, and the film presents him as an outlaw hero, but he's also frequently awful, with no compunctions about shooting a man in the back or cheating at a duel.

Worse still, he's gregarious and seems to know everybody, including the people he kills. Because Kristofferson was so much older than the real Kid, these relationships seem old, and so you get the sense that The Kid is someone who could be friends with you for a decade and then shoot you in the back just because circumstances changed.

One suspects this is Wurlitzer's influence, or a residue of Hellman's as it seems consistent with a view of the West as an amoral wasteland, and as Western stories as being slow, grim marches toward death, with a high body count along the way. The film repeatedly uses Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," told from the point of view of a dying lawman, which gives you a sense how many lawmen die. They are largely played by character actors with a long history in the Western, including Slim Pickens and Jack Elam, so one starts to get the sense that Billy the Kid is actually murdering everyone who ever showed up in a Western.

The Kid's gang is younger, including Charles Martin Smith, who had just played a teenager in "American Graffiti," and Harry Dean Stanton, who never looked young but tended to show up a lot in counter-cultural films targeted at younger audiences. In fact, there was a book in the '90s called "Baked Potatoes" that identified films that stoner's might like, and they included little icons to represent elements in a movie that would guarantee a high audience's approval. One of those icons was Harry Dean Stanton.

And then there is Dylan, of course, looking both somewhat out-of-place and unexpectedly cool (he turns out to have unexpected skills with a knife), which was always Dylan's look. In some ways, the film seems perfect for its time, 1973, when many of the heroes of the 60s counterculture had died or been murdered, and when hippies seemed to have turn feral, both in the psychosis of the Manson family and in the political terrorism of the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction.

By placing countercultural characters like Kristofferson and Dylan and Stanton in an Acid Western vision of the Wild West, and making them part of an apocalyptic vision of old friends murdering each other for the sake of absentee cattle barons, the film seems to capture the defeated spirit of the era. The would be no countercultural revolution. All there would be was a new, heightened version of the madness that came before, a new iteration of cruelty and violence.

At least Dylan's songs seem to have sympathy for its characters. Otherwise, there is not much sympathy to be found.


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