It has been clear for some time to all but the most dogged of cultists that Sam Peckinpah's reputation, based on the undeniable merits of Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, and The Wild Bunch, but inflated beyond all recognition by his auteurist admirers, had to be scaled down in the light of his last four films. From Ballad of Cable Hogue to The Getaway, from bad to worse, Peckinpah's talent seemed to have faltered, to have wandered from the material that engaged it most centrally, into a marsh of mushy masculine sentimentality. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid changes all that. It is a brilliant and perverse film. Part of its brilliance lies in its very perversity: its lack of plot; its collection of aimless, static scenes; its mumbled, whimsical, raunchy dialogue; its refusal to be coherent or conside. The remainder lies in the world of loss and limitation it evokes.
The landscape of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is familiar. It is one of male friendship and conflict, of casual and sudden violence, of slow motion shoot-outs, of children cavorting on the hangman's scaffold. Most familiar is the story itself, the story of the West growing old, of the passing of the western hero, a story that Peckinpah has told many times. It boils down to an exchange between Garrett and Billy. Garrett says, "The West is growing old, and I want to grow old with it." Billy replies, "Times change, not me."…
The structure of each of Peckinpah's westerns is defined by two men, brothers or close friends, whose differing responses to the closing of the frontier lead to a conflict which gives form to the moral dimensions of the films. (p. 1)
Pat Garrett is a pragmatist who bows to the inevitability of change and uses the tools that are his—his speed with a gun, his familiarity with the ways of outlaws—to gain employment and to survive, while his former friends, relics of a passing era, are rendered obsolete by the big ranchers who moved in behind them. If he is redeemed, he is redeemed by his awareness of his own equivocal situation. (p. 2)
The difference between the conclusion of The Wild Bunch and the conclusion of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is an index of the sense of pessimism and resignation that informs the latter. Pat Garrett is not redeemed but destroyed by the successful conclusion of his appointed task.
Billy the Kid, on the other hand, in rejecting Garrett's course, becomes the embodiment of values that are now obsolete. Not a hero in the old tradition of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, men of firm purpose animated by a high moral code, he is … a softer character, plump rather than lean, of some moral ambiguity…. The primary value to which he subscribes, and which distinguishes him from Pat Garrett, is loyalty to friends.
With regard to the story-line, then, this film differs only in detail and circumstance from Peckinpah's other westerns. What gives Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid its peculiar flavor is the elegiac tone of the film, the lamentation for a lost world, for a fugitive innocence and beauty. The characters are dominated by the past, by memory and recollection. We have stumbled in on the last act of a melancholy drama that is largely over. Everything of importance has already occurred. We view only the inevitable dénouement operating through passive characters who walk through their parts as if asleep. They are in the grip of an ineluctable necessity which they make only half-hearted efforts...
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to elude. The characters, like the man deputized by Garrett in the barber shop, are at the mercy of fate, of predetermined roles, of formulaic codes of behavior that have ceased to have any real claim on them, but which nevertheless refuse to relinquish them. (pp. 3-4)
This overwhelming sense of external fate distinguishes Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid from Peckinpah's other films, which portray men as freely willing agents, fully responsible for their actions. Peckinpah's characters are complex beings, frequently overwhelmed by the savage self-destructive impulses that inhabit the self. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, on the other hand, the autonomy of the characters is diminished, is subordinated to larger movements over which they seem to have little control. Interest shifts from interior conflicts, or even from conflicts between characters, to the relation of the characters to the vast historical and economic changes that are transforming the land. (pp. 4-5)
Peckinpah's heroes, at once the agents and victims of the "civilizing" process, the rationalization of western society, rebel against its consequences but enjoy no historical alternatives. They must resist or surrender. Either way, they are doomed. If Billy survives, he survives only as legend, in the eyes and hearts of the fascinated spectators who watch with frozen, fixed gazes as the grim drama is played out before them. (pp. 7-8)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is an extraordinary achievement and reestablishes Peckinpah's claim on our interest. (p. 8)
Peter Biskind, "'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'," in Film Heritage (copyright 1974 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 1-8.