Directed By: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Jaeckel
Tag line: "Best of enemies. Deadliest of friends"
Trivia: Kris Kristofferson fell in love with on-screen love interest Rita Coolidge and the two were married shortly after filming
I think the key reason Sam Peckinpah is my favorite director is that his films were so very personal, reflecting, in equal parts, the varying components that made up the man’s personality. In life, Sam Peckinpah was a complex individual. A descendant of pioneers and settlers, he was taught as a boy to hunt, ride a horse and herd cattle, leading to a love of the western frontier he’d carry with him the rest of his days. And yet he also had a creative side, which, apparently, was nurtured by his mother. In David Weddle’s excellent Peckinpah biography, “If They Move, Kill ‘em”, the director’s sister, Fern Lea, says she believes her brother’s creativity was a source of embarrassment for him, because, as she mockingly put it, “In our family, by God, the men were men!”. Peckinpah struggled with these conflicting facets of his personality throughout his career. It was machismo vs. art, with both usually finding their way into his films.
Nowhere is this duality more evident than in 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a movie that, aside from being one of the director’s most interesting westerns, contains my #1 favorite scene of all-time, a sequence that, along with the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, reminds me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
To set the scene up:
Pat Garrett (James Coburn) has been hired to hunt down his old friend, Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). His search has taken him many places, and pitted him against many people who both love and admire The Kid. Having just learned the whereabouts of Black Harris (played by Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones), a former member of The Kid’s gang, Garrett asks the local sheriff, Colin Baker (Slim Pickens), and his wife (Katy Jurado), who serves as his deputy, for help. Together, the three ride out to apprehend the dangerous fugitive, and knowing Harris’ reputation, are convinced he won’t give up without a fight. Sure enough, a violent shoot-out ensues. This scene has it all, evoking laughter (the sight of Katy Jurado bursting through a door with a shotgun is cinematic gold), generating plenty of excitement (the gunfight itself is expertly staged) and concluding with a moment of high drama that’s among the most heartbreaking I’ve ever witnessed. Aside from Bob Dylan’s mournful tune, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which delicately fills the soundtrack, the end of this scene plays out in silence, and when you see it, you’ll agree no dialogue was necessary. The looks in the characters' eyes, the realization that hits them like a ton of bricks, conveys a grief more devastating than words ever could.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid may, or may not, be a perfect film, but it does contain one perfect scene. Shifting from violence to deep emotion in about three and a half minutes, this sequence does more than carry its story forward; it echoes the persona of the man who created it.
And it does so brilliantly.