Tonight starting at 8pm, Turner Classic Movies will show no less than six back-to-back, wildly divergent movies touching on the legend of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (although one of them is without Billy). Warning: we always include spoilers.
8:00 pm (EST) Chisum (1970)
By the time of this film, John Wayne’s deification, percolating for three decades, has finally become complete. The picture begins and ends with Wayne actually posed in tableau on a horse like a Remington sculpture. He doesn’t have to do anything to be admired but EXIST. Set in New Mexico, 1878. John Chisum (Wayne) is a mighty independent rancher. Ben Johnson is his mumbling right hand man. Forest Tucker is the requisite crook who schemes to take over the whole territory: not just ranch land but the bank and the store too. Chisum and his friends fight him, legally at first, by starting their own bank and store. But finally it’s an all out war including a fistfight finale between the hero and the villain, in which the latter ultimately gets gored on a pair of ornamental bullhorns. The plot is paint by numbers, except for the interesting if ridiculous gimmick of introducing Pat Garret and Billy the Kid as characters and making the story partially theirs. But for a couple of tiny touches (the phrase “son of a bitch” and a couple of graphic deaths) the movie could have been made in 1955.
10:00 pm (EST) Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)
Sam Peckinpah’s version of the time honored tale is partially interesting yet ultimately boring and less than the sum of its parts. Great cinematography, editing, music, acting, art direction, cool lines in the script, but full of inertia. This is the trouble in a lot of Peckinpah films. They seem to be about pursuits, but a big part of the pursuit seems to be the stopovers and conversations along the way, which bore the hell out of this commentator! And for the most part, I am bored by shoot-outs, too, which is Peckinpah’s other major gear, so there’s not a whole lot for me to sink my teeth into here.
Set in Lincoln, New Mexico, 1881. Pat Garret (James Coburn) is now a sheriff and so must catch his old friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Pat gets it from both sides. To his old friends, he seems to have become corrupt, fat, less principled than a frank criminal because he is a hypocrite and now answering to a lot of fat-cats and the government. Yet to those authorities he is suspect because he seems to be taking his time about catching Billy. Other characters include Jason Robards as the governor (with Jack Dodson, i.e. Howard from the Andy Griffith Show as a moneyed constituent!) Harry Dean Stanton plays one of Billy’s gang. Slim Pickens as a deputy. Most interesting of all, no less than Bob Dylan plays a roaming, flitting figure named “Alias”. While Dylan has a very interesting screen presence and actually gives a good performance (at least good line readings), the part is an embarrassing add-on, plainly just scribbled in. Alias plays no central role in the plot or anything, he is just kind of there. Dylan’s soundtrack is very cool in some spots. Doesn’t work in others. The song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” comes from this film.
12:15 am (EST) The Left Handed Gun (1958)
Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot with all the gloomy seriousness of late 50s black and white. Paul Newman is a very “methody” (i.e. Strasbergian) Billy the Kid. He’s sort of a moody misunderstood youth — Hamlet with more resolve. Having been in some trouble in Texas (shot some guys for insulting his mother!) he takes up with a cow punching outfit outside Lincoln, New Mexico. His boss becomes a father figure. Doesn’t believe in guns, teaches him how to read. The surrogate father is assassinated by a quartet of crooks in the pay of a rival beef baron, one of whom is the sheriff. Billy makes it a point of hunting them down for revenge. Doing so takes him deeper and deeper into trouble. After killing a couple of them he goes into hiding for awhile, where he gets to become friends with Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At some point he violates a general amnesty by killing another of the guys, getting back into trouble. Then he alienates Garrett by killing the last one on his wedding day (and also despoiling the bride). Garrett becomes sheriff just to pursue him. Billy decides to go completely bad. In the end, he allows Garrett to shoot him just to end it all
2:15 am (EST) I Shot Billy the Kid (1950)
A straight-ahead B movie version starring Don “Red” Barry. I’ll be seeing this one for the first time!
3:30 am (EST) Billy the Kid (1930)
Despite the fact that this one is directed by cinematic genius King Vidor, this 1930 version plays surprisingly like a B movie. That old conflict of a bunch of peaceful homesteaders being terrorized by a local baron who raids their cattle etc. Billy the Kid (Johnny Mack Brown) turns out to be the hero! he is a hired gun to stick up for the homesteaders, along with his Mexican sidekick, one “Santiago”. Vidor gets many beautiful innovative shots, landscapes in extreme long shot, spectacular Arizona locations. A POV shot from a racing wagon. Wallace Beery is Pat Garret. He’s the deputy first, the sheriff is an awful, crooked character in the pocket of the baron. The traditional dilemma ensues. Billy and Garret are pals but on opposite sides of the law. One of the crooks is killed, a posse comes after the shooter, both sides square off in a shooting battle, decent folks vs. ruffians, with ruffians ironically on the side of the law . Garrett tracks Billy to the Mexican border and has to decide whether to bring him in. Garrett is a great part for Beery – rough but decent and fair. Roscoe Ates and Karl Dane are also in the cast.
5:15 am (EST) Badman’s Country (1958)
I’ll be seeing this one for the first time too, although it sounds like an explosion of insanity George Montgomery as Pat Garrett, Neville Brand as Butch Cassidy, Russell Johnson (of Gilligan’s Island) as the Sundance Kid, Buster Crabbe as Wyatt Earp. And the other characters include Bat Masterson, and Buffalo Bill Cody. The movie seems to have everything but John Carradine as Dracula, but of course another well known western already has that. But despite all these legendary characters running around, there’s no Billy the Kid. I’ve got to see this cockamamie thing and find out what gives.