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Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; Special Edition

Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection

In the DVD business, the "director's cut" has become an abused privilege — something that's less likely to restore crucial film elements as it is to include extra minutes (or sometimes seconds) of indifferent material, allowing the entire package to be labeled "unrated." However, with the exception of Orson Welles, few directors had their films tampered with more often than Sam Peckinpah, who never had the opportunity to get the second chance DVD now offers. His 1965 Major Dundee was bastardized by the studio, only to be restored in 2005 for home viewing, while 1969's classic The Wild Bunch was streamlined and shorn in theaters, while now it exists (almost exclusively) in a longer cut that improves the film. Peckinpah's most difficult masterpiece to codify is 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, if only because it is likely to never feel complete. Like Welles's Touch of Evil, it exists in three versions: the theatrical cut (which has since been abandoned and rarely shown), a compromised extended cut, and a posthumous "special edition cut," which tries to faithfully restore the director's vision as best can be expected, given that editors are approximating what he might have wanted. However, as the commentators note, even the most recent cut has some scenes that are imperfect, and Peckinpah was already starting to lose his own personal battles. Nonetheless, in any version (the latter two are included in this DVD set), what Peckinpah was trying to say about the end of the old west is both striking and brilliant.

Taking some of the facts from the story of Billy the Kid (né Henry McCarty), and using many icons of western cinema (including — but not limited to — Slim Pickens, Chill Willis, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Katy Jurado, Matt Clark, and Paul Fix), the film begins with Pat Garrett's (James Coburn) death, tying it to the last time he got to be friendly with Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). A former outlaw Garrett has since turned respectable, while Billy is still out there having fun with his friends. Garrett has to tell Billy he's going to arrest him if he doesn't leave town, but Billy doesn't listen and is eventually apprehended. But after Garrett leaves his prisoner with his underlings, Billy finds a gun in the bathroom and escapes. From there, the film becomes a lackadaisical chase as Garrett makes deputies of John Poe (John Beck) and Alamosa Bill Kermit (Jack Elam), while Billy makes the acquaintance of the no-named Alias (Bob Dylan, who provides the score and soundtrack, but whose character amounts to little in the end). Billy skirts Garrett's pursuit, and the two seem engaged in some kind of dance — Garrett doesn't seem to want to complete his mission as the two try to avoid the gravitational pull that must lead to their unavoidable showdown.

*          *          *

Sam Peckinpah's life was always fraught with troubles (some of which the director brought upon himself), and Pat Garrett came near the end of his career — everything after 1974's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is compromised by studio interference or Peckinpah's substance-abuse problems. But here, he's still got the command of his talents, never more evident than in the scenes of violence (which rightfully earned him his reputation) that are often absurd or amusing, somewhat haunted by the American experience in Vietnam, but always tinged with the tragic. There's a melancholy to the proceedings — Billy is very much the antihero of his era, partly a Christ figure (arrested at the film's beginning, he outstretches his hands in a familiar pose), partly a hippie, and also a representation of a sort of freedom of youth that must be extinguished. But though Peckinpah idealizes Kristofferson's Billy, his heart is more in line with Coburn's Garrett, who is a servant to his masters, recognizing his own sense of compromise and whoredom — which isn't far from how Peckinpah felt about working in Hollywood. As is almost too obvious by the end, after Pat Garrett shoots Billy, he shoots a mirror, symbolically killing himself and bringing the narrative full-circle. In this, Peckinpah sees the characters as a Janus figure, making the film a sort of war between youth and responsibility. Still, because of the confusion that exists among the film's numerous cuts, it's hard to suggest any is the absolute perfect version of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which despite this remains the most painfully elegiac of Peckinpah's work — a feeling that's oddly re-enforced by the film's own incompleteness.

Warner Home Video presents the two-disc Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Special Editions with two versions of the title on board, the 1988 "Preview Version" (122 min.) and the 2005 "Special Edition" cut, which trims the preview version by seven minutes. The newer version removes some of the weaker elements of the Preview version (which was first aired on the Z Channel) that the restoration team felt would have been cut by Peckinpah after a test screening (the Preview version is more of a first assembly than a director's cut). Both versions are presented in very sharp anamorphic transfers (2:35.1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Also included on both — with only a little bit of repetition — are commentaries by Peckinpah scholars Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. Disc One includes the 2005 cut and also features a Peckinpah trailer gallery and a bonus trailer, while Disc Two features the 1988 cut along with the rest of the supplements. These include the featurettes "Deconstructing Pat and Billy," which interviews Katy Haber and Seydor and gets to the changes made for the 2005 version, and offers a general overview of the film's production (15 min.). "One Foot in the Groove: Remembering Sam Peckinpah and Other Things" offers commentary by Kris Kristofferson and Donnie Fritts, who also appears in the film (28 min.), and finally Kristofferson performs two songs he wrote about Peckinpah, "One for the Money" and "Sam's Song" (6 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—DSH



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