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Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a 1973 Western film directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. Co-star Bob Dylan composed multiple songs for the movie's score and the album Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was released the same year.

The film was noted for behind-the-scenes battles between Peckinpah and production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Soon after completion, the film was taken away from the director and substantially re-edited, resulting in a truncated version released to the theaters and largely disowned by cast and crew members. Peckinpah's director's cut was released on video in 1988, leading to a reevaluation, with many critics hailing it as a mistreated classic and one of the era's best films.


The screenplay of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was written by Rudy Wurlitzer and was originally intended to be directed by Monte Hellman. The two had previously worked together on the acclaimed film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Sam Peckinpah became involved through the actor James Coburn, who wanted to play the legendary sheriff Pat Garrett.

Peckinpah believed this was his chance to make a definitive statement on the Western genre, and complete the revision he had begun with Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Working with Wurlitzer, he rewrote the script in order to create a more cyclical narrative, and added a prologue and epilogue depicting Garrett's own assassination at the hands of the men who hired him to kill Billy the Kid. In the original script, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid never met onscreen until the film's conclusion, and Wurlitzer reportedly resented Peckinpah's reworking of the narrative. Wurlitzer and Peckinpah had a strained relationship, and Wurlitzer would later write a book highly unfavorable to Peckinpah.

After having initially considered Bo Hopkins for the part of Billy, Peckinpah eventually cast country music star Kris Kristofferson as the outlaw. Kristofferson was 36 when the film was made, playing 21-year-old Billy. Kristofferson's band would play small roles along with his then-wife Rita Coolidge. Kristofferson also brought Bob Dylan into the film. Initially hired to write the title song, Dylan eventually wrote the score and played the small role of "Alias." Peckinpah had never heard of Dylan before, but was reportedly moved by hearing Dylan play the proposed title song and hired him immediately. Among the songs written by Dylan for the film was "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," still regarded as one of rock music's most enduring anthems.

Peckinpah deliberately cast his film's supporting roles with legendary Western character actors such as Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Barry Sullivan, Dub Taylor, R.G. Armstrong, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Paul Fix. Jason Robards, who had starred in Peckinpah's earlier films, the television production Noon Wine (1966) andThe Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), had a cameo appearance as the governor. The large supporting cast also included Richard Jaeckel, Charles Martin Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, Matt Clark, L.Q. Jones, Emilio Fernández, Luke Askew, Jack Dodson, Richard Bright and John Beck.
From the beginning, the film was plagued with production difficulties. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's President James Aubrey, for economic reasons, refused to give Peckinpah the time or budget required, forcing the director to rely on local crew members in the Mexican state of Durangomarker. Multiple technical problems, including malfunctioning cameras, led to costly reshoots. Cast and crew members also came down with influenza. Aubrey objected to several scenes he considered superfluous to the film's plot, and Peckinpah and his crew reportedly worked weekends and lunch hours in order to secretly complete the sequences. Aubrey began to send telegrams to the set complaining about the number of camera setups Peckinpah used and the time spent to shoot specific scenes. According to the producer Gordon Carroll, the movie's set was "a battleground."

Peckinpah was plagued by alcoholism, which he would struggle with for the remainder of his life. This, combined with his clashes with Aubrey and the studio led to Peckinpah's growing reputation as a difficult, unreliable filmmaker. Reportedly, when Dylan first arrived on the set, he and Kristofferson sat to watch dailies with Peckinpah. The director was so unhappy with the footage, he angrily stood on a folding chair and urinated on the screen. Dylan looked at Kristofferson with stunned disbelief. Similar stories began to reach Hollywood, prompting Peckinpah to purchase a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter mocking the rumors and the brass at MGM. Hollywood producers were not amused. The film finished 21 days behind schedule and $1.6 million over budget.

Controversy over post-production

By the time Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was in the editing room, Peckinpah's relationship with the studio and his own producers had reached the breaking point. Aubrey, enraged by the cost and production overruns, demanded the film for an unrealistic release date. Peckinpah and his editors were forced into a desperate situation in order to finish on time. Furthermore, Aubrey still objected to several sequences in the film which he wanted removed, forcing Peckinpah to engage in protracted negotiations over the film's content. Adding to the problems, Bob Dylan had never done a feature film score before and Peckinpah's usual composer, Jerry Fielding, was unhappy with being relegated to a minor role in the scoring process.

Peckinpah did complete a director's cut of the film, which was shown to critics on at least one occasion. Martin Scorsese, who had just made Mean Streets (1973), was at the screening, and praised the film as Peckinpah's greatest since The Wild Bunch.

This version, however, would not see the light of day for over ten years. Peckinpah was eventually forced out of the production and Aubrey had the film severely cut from 124 to 106 minutes, resulting in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid being released in a truncated version largely disowned by cast and crew members. This version was a box-office failure and was panned by most major critics, who had harbored high expectations for the director's first Western since The Wild Bunch.

The film remained something of an enigma for the next decade, with rumors flying about other versions and the nature of what had been left out of the release version. Peckinpah himself was in possession of his own director's cut, which he often showed to friends as his own definitive vision of the film.


In 1988, Turner Home Entertainment, with distribution by MGM, released Peckinpah's director's cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on video and laser disc. This version led to a rediscovery and reevaluation of the film, with many critics praising it as a lost masterpiece and proof of Peckinpah's vision as a filmmaker at this time. The film's reputation has grown substantially since this version was released, and the film has come to be regarded as something of a modern classic, equal in many ways to Peckinpah's earlier films.

In 2005, a DVD of the film distributed by Warner Brothers was released containing the director's cut as well as a new special edition which combined elements of the theatrical version, the director's cut and several new scenes left out of both versions. This third version of the film runs slightly shorter than the director's cut.



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