After we finished shooting WALKER, a handful of the crew remained in Nicaragua: me (the director), Lorenzo (the producer), Carlos (the editor) and his assistant Edgar, and Joe, the composer.
It rained a lot in the evenings during that time, and Joe would come over to my place, where I had a video player and two cassettes: Kurosawa’s RAN, and Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. We watched both films many times. RAN gave us an approach to sound design in battle scenes, and showed us how the obsessive hero must be always be front and center, in the story.. PAT GARRETT seethed with violence and irony and political cynicism. It seemed, and still seems, the most political western of them all (though Kirk Douglas’ POSSE ain’t far behind). Joe, of course, imbibed Bob Dylan’s score, and during those weeks composed a score of equal brilliance, and greater variety.
Rudy Wurlitzer had told us that he took Dylan to meet Peckinpah, in the hope that the director would cast Dylan as Billy. Peckinpah, manically contrarian, pretended never to have heard of Dylan, said Roger Miller was his favorite musician, and went with Kris Kristofferson for the Kid. Rudy and Dylan wrote the words for “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” on a stormy night flight from Durango to Mexico City. In his first version of the the story – written for Monte Hellman to direct – Pat Garrett and Billy didn’t meet until the very end. Whereas, for Peckinpah, this was – like RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and THE WILD BUNCH – a tale of old buddies, one of whom betrays their code…
Who’s to say Peckinpah was wrong? The result of his collaboration with Rudy, and his actors, and his crew, Mexican and gringo, and his locations, is a masterpiece. But which version of the masterpiece did Strummer and I watch?
When I first saw PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID in 1973 it was quite short, missing its opening and ending, and lacking various other scenes of some importance. This, rumor had it, was the work of villanous studio head Jim Aubrey, who had fired Peckinpah and cut his own truncated version of the film. Something similar had happened on Peckinpah’s earlier Western, MAJOR DUNDEE.
In fact, the situation seems more ambiguous. Aubrey was a bad man, reputed to hate directors. Peckinpah was spoiling for a fight and couldn’t resist provoking the studio head. His drunkenness was reported in the American press, and he was photographed being carried to the set on a stretcher, drip-fed from a whiskey bottle. According to his friend Max Evans, the first cut Peckinpah showed the studio was three and a half hours long. Shortly after that, it appears he was fired. Or quit. He left the cutting room and did not return. Yet he retained his office – the Marilyn Monroe Suite – on the MGM lot and continued to hang out there, drinking with his cronies and throwing knives at the door.
What was going on? If Peckinpah had time for that, why didn’t he sneak back into the editing room and finish the film? Worn out by the usual vices, our director died in 1984, at the age of 59.
When we were cutting REPO MAN, the editor, Dennis Dolan, told me a remarkable thing. He had been an assistant of Roger Spottiswoode – the editor of PAT GARRETT. And when Peckinpah was fired, they sneaked a 35mm copy of his cut out of the studio, on the floor of Dennis’s VW bug. So that version was not lost, and, thanks to Spottiswoode and others, Peckinpah’s original cut was restored and a new print made. I saw it at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles, in 1986. Coburn and L.Q. Jones introduced it, and the unwonted appearance of the deleted scenes gave the screening a dream-like quality. I’d thought I already knew the film. Now it was different…
Which version did Joe and I watch on a small portable TV, smoking spliffs on that rainy patio in Granada? This was 1987, so most likely we were relying on an old, truncated VHS for inspiration. The longer version of PAT GARRETT was quite magical. But on a second viewing, there was also something… long about it. The beautifully-photographed scenes often played for more time than they should have: say, five minutes instead of three – as if the director had rough-cut his picture and then departed the cutting room.
In the early 1990s, Ted Turner acquired the MGM film library. Possessed of a fine cowboy moustache and a herd of buffalo, Turner naturally paid for a new restoration of PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, which premiered at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival in 1995. This included all but a couple of the long version’s many scenes, but sped up the languid pace. Again, Spottiswoode was involved, and the editorial choices he made were, I think, spot on. This third edition is the best.
There are still problems with the film, as regards a coherent narrative. Emilio Fernandez (who had so memorably portrayed Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH) appears out of nowhere and is swiftly dispatched. Other interesting characters – L.Q. Jones’, Jack Elam’s, Rudy Wurlitzer’s – don’t receive enough screen time: they lurk in the background, say a few lines, and are dead. And at one point, Peckinpah presented his editor with a choice of scenes, both set in a whorehouse. In the first, seeking information, Pat Garrett, slaps a prostute across the face, whereupon she insists he slap her again, to make her reveal Billy’s whereabouts. In the second, Pat is found in bed with several prostitutes: we assume he has acquired the necessary information via his amorous skills and delightful personality. As I recall, the excellent Spottiswoode chose the second option.
Rudy wrote a scathing introduction to the paperback edition of the screenplay. Copies are hard to come by now, and very expensive. His descriptions of Peckinpah ditching his script, and reverting to scenes from his early episodic TV westerns, like The Rifleman and Zane Grey Theater, are most amusing. But, over time, I think he’s come to appreciate the finished film. Either way, as the author of the most political western ever made, he was the one and only screenwriter for WALKER.
This year Criterion will release a new disk of the PAT GARRETT. Which version(s) it will contain, I don’t know. But I’m excited to ride that morphing, magical trail again.
(Modesty forbids me to mention that Criterion also brought out a new bluray of WALKER.)
(Edit — and WALKER is now available for streaming here!)