'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' at 50: Sam Peckinpah's Troubled, Dylan-Fueled Western | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
MGM

‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ at 50: Sam Peckinpah’s Troubled, Dylan-Fueled Western 

A half-century ago saw the release of one of the most troubled and notorious films of the 1970s. It was a revisionist Western, directed by Sam Peckinpah, presenting a new take on the familiar, oft-depicted figures of the Old West.

 It also featured a soundtrack, as well as a small supporting performance, by Bob Dylan, which included the original usage of his famous, much-covered song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan was included in the movie even though Peckinpah had never heard of him prior to production. 



The 1973 film was made four years after Peckinpah’s seminal, ultraviolet Western The Wild Bunch, and features a battle between Garrett (James Coburn) and Billy (Kris Kristofferson, at the time 15 years older than the real Billy the Kid was when he was killed). A group of cattle barons has hired Garrett with a charge to kill Billy, his former friend. 

Featuring an expansive supporting cast featuring perennials of past Westerns, from Jason Roberts to Richard Bright to Slim Pickens to Harry Dean Stanton, most of the film entails a chase between the two men. 

Trouble Poduction

The film was a famously troubled production, with Peckinpah clashing with studio MGM — fights that famously led to the director urinating at the screen while watching the studio’s dailies. 

The studio took the film away from Peckinpah and released in compromised, butchered fashion in 1973, but a “preview version” — not quite a “director’s cut” — emerged in the late 1980s, after Peckinpah’s death, and was much better-received. It’s since had a couple of different home video releases. 

The film also featured Slim Pickens’ character’s slow death scene, the second most-famous death of that actor’s career (after only Dr. Strangelove). Breaking Bad paid tribute to the scene with the death of Mike (Jonathan Banks) in its final season.



Watching today, the film has a certain beauty to it. And Dylan’s music, a counterintuitive choice for a Western, absolutely works. The 50th anniversary, by the way, arrives the day before Dylan’s 82nd birthday. 

Young Guns II, in the early 1990s, was a far lesser film about the same people, and even starred Coburn as Mr. Chisum, a character also in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The film’s Dylan was Jon Bon Jovi, who had a small part in the film and also recorded a soundtrack that was a much bigger hit than the movie itself. 

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