To Be Hunted by the Man Who Was Your Friend
This is a remarkable film that has long been among my all-time favourites: sometimes my number one. Not necessarily the very best film ever made but one that ticks off a lot of the criteria that make up a truly great film and which satisfy a whole lot more. It’s a bio-pic of the last three months of the life of William Bonney. It’s a death rattle flashback by the man who killed him. It’s a study of how lawful and legal often got tangled around the wrong side of ethical and decent. It shows a view of New Mexico in the 1880s that doesn’t hide the faults. It was made in an America of 1973; a country that had just been shaken to the roots by the Watergate scandal, the resignation of a president, the tail-end (and the messy tail end at that) of an unpopular and unsuccessful war. And all of this comes through. A country where trust in leadership, decency and honesty had taken quite a beating. It’s a film starring one A list rock star with another hors catégorie rock star slotted in so comfortably that you see only the character and not the legend playing him. If you prefer Delta Blues and country music you’ll catch a few more familiar faces in the cantinas and haciendas. And a film of carefully assimilated paradoxes that are so perfect that, for once, the English language fails to find the concept of paradox puzzling; instead it becomes a thing of beauty. It’s a film rich in binary opposition: opposites which oppose yet complete each other at the same time. A thing that is both itself and not itself. Two sides of the same coin. Looking up and looking down simultaneously. Age and youth, love and death, friendship and betrayal, freedom and confinement, natural against governed, clean against dirty, friend against friend and above all, life against death.
The story is simple. Those responsible for the enforcement of law and order around Santa Fe have hired ex-outlaw Pat Garrett to bring Billy the Kid to justice. It’s too well known to worry about spoilers. Garrett tells “the kid” what he’s going to do and asks him to leave the country. Billy initially stays, is captured by Garrett (and his posse), faces hanging but escapes. Garrett continues his pursuit and eventually shoots Billy dead. It’s an entirely one-way thing. At no point does Billy attempt to stop him, let alone attempt to kill Garrett. At the end of the very first scene of the film one of Billy’s gang asks “Why don’t you kill him Bill?” The answer appears simple but is redolent with meaning.
“Why? (long pause) He’s my friend.”
There is no coincidence that key roles are played by rock stars, By 1973 rock stars had come to hold a similar role in society that outlaws and gunslingers held a hundred years earlier. They live outside the normal rules of society, are perceived as glamorous, are able to break moral codes without attracting public opprobrium, and a very real expectation that their life will be spectacular and short. Billy is being deliberately compared to the musical heroes who had joined the recently deceased. In the few years before the movie was made Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and quite a few others had all died at the height of their fame and to the mass grief of hundreds of thousands. They encapsulated, in the minds of many, the hedonistic rush for pleasure and experience to be found in alcohol, sex and drugs and rock and roll. These cowboys are living a similar lifestyle. Whiskey is the drink of choice of all of the characters and it is always drunk neat and in large measures. They know that violent death is never far away. This is a ‘live fast, die young and make a beautiful corpse’ style of living. The lead actor, Kris Kristofferson had always been a good looking fellow on stage or on screen. Here he is portrayed as downright beautiful. His followers look like rock stars and in some cases are: and his camp followers are all chosen from the front section of the catalogue. (Including Kristofferson’s then wife, the singer Rita Coolidge).
Bonney was 21 when he was killed and already famous enough to have read fictionalised novels of his own life and to have been on the verge of being granted a reprieve by the governor of the Territory. (One Lew Wallace played in this film by Jason Robards). Some think the pardon should have been given and would have been given if the governor hadn’t been so busy trying to get his book published…the book was Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ… an unusual juxtaposition by any standards).
Garrett and Billy had worked together on both sides of the law. The older man is described at one stage of the film as having been like a father to the Kid. The West shown in this movie is one that is rapidly changing. As in Shane, Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, the gunman is seen as anachronistic; the age of the outlaw drawing to a close as fences, railroads and telegraph poles tame the country more quickly and more effectively than any pistol or rifle. Garrett has seemingly accepted the change whereas Billy refuses to believe in it. In reality Garrett has chosen the option that will keep him alive. He talks of this in scene after scene. It has involved not only betrayal of his former friends, but also acceptance of a corrupt form of law based on the wealth and power of cattle barons; notoriously John Chisum. Billy will have nothing to do with it. The real life William Bonney certainly found himself opposing the big ranchers but whether it was for altruistic motives is debatable. Opinion varies from psychopath to latter day Robin Hood. The film chooses both. A man who has a huge sense of honour and decency and yet quite capable of shooting someone in the back.
There are many reasons for finding this a good film and several for finding it a great film. The photography is stunning, the casting wonderful, the acting of an astonishingly consistent greatness and the Bob Dylan soundtrack is both ground breaking and brilliant. What makes this an outstanding film is the way the moral balance is played. It constantly changes, is never simple; almost impossible to say what is right and wrong at any point and impossible to hold an audience position of accepting the moral judgements of each scene. To achieve this requires writing and direction of the highest order and acting to match. Kristofferson and Coburn are simply outstanding. The ensemble playing, faultless.
We meet both of them in the opening moments of the film as currently edited. Two scenes, one in 1909 and one in 1882 are intercut. In the earlier scene we see Billy and friends entertaining themselves by shooting the heads off chickens in an act of casual brutality that somehow encapsulates the reality of their existence. This is a life of forced excitement caused by excessive boredom. In the other scene we see the demise of Pat Garrett as an older man being gunned down by the very men who had hired him 27 years earlier to kill the Kid. As the film is cut, the first bullet to enter the old lawman’s body seems to have been shot by a smiling Kristofferson. The ghost of the dead outlaw returning to avenge himself upon the unhappy old man.
As Garrett can be seen to have chosen life and Billy an inevitable death it is significant that the first death we are shown (of many) is that of the great betrayer. The question is asked throughout the film of what makes a life. Does living longer make a better life? Does fame or infamy? Does cramming excitement or experience or good deeds or bad deeds? Two things are mourned in the film and that is the betrayal of friendship and the loss of love. The most touching moment in the movie doesn’t involve either of the principal characters but is the death scene of Sheriff Baker, played by Slim Pickens (has there ever been a less likely looking or better Western actor?) who has walked off from a shootout, fatally wounded, to sit by a small lake where he is watched by his elderly, tearful Mexican wife (brilliantly played by Katy Jurado). The soundtrack is Knocking on Heaven’s Door. It is now one of the best known songs in the world but it is still a hauntingly beautiful accompaniment to the film. I’d never heard the song the first time I saw the film and I have rarely been so affected by a scene.
Death (often violent) is ever present in the film but this is far, far more than a feast of slow motion special effects shootings. Killings have the effect that they should have in films; they are shocking and awful. Not once do you feel any desire to cheer or blow out our cheeks in relief as someone is layed low. This is like Hamlet in terms of the rising bodycount heightening feelings of tragedy and waste.
The film failed to receive a single Oscar nomination. Like Heaven’s Gate in 1980 it was largely overlooked and like Heaven’s Gate has become to be seen as the masterpiece that some of us thought it was in the first place.