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Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

O My Friends There Is No Friend

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a great film of honour, but it seeks to find in the western code a set of values that nevertheless appears quite far removed from the classic western. Andre Bazin and others saw the western as a moral genre, one in which American principles could be explored even if modern viewers watching the films might have problems with the way the Indians are represented, women are utilised and the West was carved up. “The western is in the epic category because of the superhuman level of its heroes and the legendary magnitude of their feats of valor.” (What is Cinema? Vo.2) Peckinpah’s film is clearly a revisionist western (Ulzana’s RaidLittle Big ManThe Hired HandBuffalo Bill and the Indians) that wants to discover the honourable but not without at first fully acknowledging the dishonourable. This isn’t so much about how the West was won, but how civilization was compromised into existence. Billy here is neither invulnerable nor full of valour.

Near the beginning of the film Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and Pat (James Coburn) are talking in a bar. Garrett tells Billy that times have changed; Billy replies “times maybe, but not me.” Garrett has in Billy’s words sold out to the Santa Fe Ranchers: he is about to become sheriff of the county and Billy has five days to disappear off to Mexico. “Are you asking me or telling me?”, Billy muses. Pat replies that he is asking him, but in five days he is making him. Few watching the scene would be inclined to side with Pat in this exchange, but that isn’t the same thing as saying Garrett is presented villainously. Equally, any heroism on Billy’s part is tempered by a value system that is pragmatically honourable. If a man in a classic western always has to do what he has to do, then a man in a Peckinpah revisionist western has to do what he has to do aware that others will act less honourably than him. In one early scene, not long after the moment with Pat, Billy is jailed, with one of his former cohorts amongst the jailers. Billy disappears into the toilet and his fellow gang members have left a gun in amongst the newspapers. Exiting the toilet with the gun hidden, a minute later he points it at his former friend. The ex-colleague says: “you wouldn’t shoot me in the back Billy”. But instead of coming towards him as Billy asks, Bill runs down the stairs and Billy shoots him from behind.

Later in the film Billy gets into a duel, and as the Kid and his rival take ten steps, Billy takes none at all and waits for his adversary to turn round. He turns at eight and Billy shoots him dead, well aware that the man wasn’t going to play fair. In each instance we see that Billy is justified but not morally; he does what he needs to do to stay alive, but he hardly passes for a role model. The film sometimes invokes the image of Christ in Billy’s stance, but this is a man far from Christian values. We may see him just before he gets arrested stretching his arms out as if resembling Christ on the cross, but this is ironic symbolism: Billy isn’t someone to turn the other cheek. In the duel he has already turned round before his adversary has counted to one.

However, we wouldn’t claim at all that Peckinpah’s is a cynical film, and we could compare it usefully with Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye released around the same time which also focuses on friendship. In both instances the films conclude on the leading characters killing their friends, but where Terry Lennox has mucked Philip Marlowe around and he kills in a moment of ironic resignation, Pat shoots Billy with a very different form of reluctance. Both Altman and Peckinpah have often been perceived as cynical directors, with Altman taking the western (McCabe and Mrs Miller), the film noir (The Long Goodbye) and the musical (Nashville) and turning their values around. Peckinpah, working mainly in the western and its variations (Straw DogsConvoy), also didn’t want to take all-American values for granted, but to say they are cynical filmmakers would be like insisting Woodward and Bernstein were cynics determined to undermine America. Altman and Peckinpah believe that the US needs a counter-optimism manifest in the form of critique. The films don’t end on an up-note, but in very distinct ways they arrive at a significant ethos. Like many an American film of the decade (Midnight CowboyDog Day AfternoonScarecrowMean Streets), that ethical system lies in the importance of friendship. Philip kills his friend not out of great anger but quiet frustration: he kills the man as another might tell his friend he doesn’t want to hang out anymore. There is no victory evident in the killing; only a sense that, in a pragmatic world of self-serving human contact, Terry is the chancer who used and lied to his friend: Terry asks for a lift to Mexico; when Marlowe returns to LA he is arrested after Lennox’s wife is found murdered. The gist of the story resides in Terry sleeping with another man’s wife, Eileen, hoping to remove the husband just as Terry’s wife has been dispatched, and keeping the money of their wealthy former spouses. Philip is the man in the middle of a muddle, but what he can see clearly enough is that for Terry the friendship meant nothing: Marlowe was a convenience. Though the film tag line was: “nothing says goodbye like a bullet”, The Long Goodbye is a melancholy account of a man’s best friend being his pet. When Marlowe shoots Terry dead after Lennox calls him a “born loser”, Marlowe adds: “yeh, I even lost my cat.” The puss went missing during Marlowe’s time in jail.

We devote space to Altman’s film to try and understand that like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid many seventies movies weren’t cynical accounts of the pointlessness of traditional American values, but films seeking to find, within the assumptions of an ethos, a deeper one that could incorporate betrayal, resignation and despair. By the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid we are unlikely to claim that these weren’t very real friends; just as at the end of The Long Goodbye we still assume that Marlowe values friendship. He killed Terry chiefly because his apparent friend didn’t. Both films end pessimistically but that doesn’t make them amoral; we might claim they are more deeply moral than many a traditional Hollywood film that concludes on friendship’s optimistic acknowledgement, like Shane and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. In both instances friendship is proved: in Shane the title character knocks his friend Starrett out knowing that he hasn’t a chance in the gunfight with hired gunslinger Jake Wilson. Shane will fight Wilson himself, even though it is Starrett the homesteader that Wilson is after. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it is the cowboy Doniphon who takes out the eponymous character even though it is the lawyer Stoddard that Valance takes on: Doniphon shoots him from across the street, though everyone in the town assumes the bullet was fired from Stoddard’s gun. These are films unequivocally confirming friendship in the acts of friendship. Both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Long Goodbye end with friends dead by the central character’s hand. How can friendship possibly be asserted out of such negative conclusions?

In Jacques Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship he works from a comment by Montaigne attributed to Aristotle, “O my friends, there is no friend”, and through the course of the book looks at the phrase from various perspectives. In one of the chapters, On Hostility, Derrida says: “one can infer symmetrically that there is no friend without the possibility of killing, which establishes a non-natural community. Not only could I enter into a relationship of friendship only with a mortal, but I could love in friendship only a mortal at least exposed to so-called violent death, that is, exposed to being killed, possibly by myself.” In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Shane the enemies are killed by friends; in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Long Goodbye the protagonists kill someone to whom they have been close. In a homicide data report for 2009, the report states that well over half (53.8 per cent) were murdered by people they knew, suggesting that while cinema often presents death as a question of strangers presented as hero and villain, this doesn’t chime with reality. Rather than seeing Altman and Peckinpah as cynics; better to see them as realists, or better still (since we don’t at all want to underestimate Shane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance‘s significance) as revisionists. Just as Derrida tries on for size the numerous possibilities evident in the Aristotle/Montaigne remark, so it is as though various seventies directors wanted to do likewise.

But let us now return more specifically to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. At the beginning of this piece we insisted Peckinpah’s film, written by Rudy Wurlitzer, was a great film about honour, and part of that greatness resides in not affirming friendship but questioning it, asking important questions about where loyalties lie. Even though Garrett has swapped his outlaw existence for a job as Lincoln County sheriff, this doesn’t mean he is on the side of the establishment; more that he is liminally placed between his past life and his future one. He is compromised: he knows Billy’s ethos is closer to his own than the values he is expected to espouse. These are values expressed by John Beck’s character Poe, someone who works for the Santa Fe Ring. Poe says at one moment as Pat and Poe sit around the makeshift fire that “I answer only to the governor”, and a couple of others with power. In the following scene, as the two ride together in search of Billy, Poe says: “Chisum [a cattle baron] is a fine man. Time’s over for drifters and outlaws….” Pat says that while he intends to grow old with America, this doesn’t mean he is a better man for it; maybe Billy is that man. As we notice Pat astride a black horse wearing dark colours, and Poe riding a white one while his clothing is beige, we can’t read too much into the colour coding here: this isn’t a value system contained in the symbolism, but a code constantly being negotiated by the specific ethos. Ostensibly Poe is the good man, determined to establish the law in the county, but he does so with none of the subtlety or nuance evident in Garrett’s words.

When earlier in the film, at Governor Wallace’s (Jason Robards Jnr) house, Pat says he will capture Billy but isn’t simply interested in the thousand dollar reward a couple of powerful figures in the country offer him (they suggest he takes five hundred now and he tells them where to stick it), we see in the tension evident in his body that he isn’t comfortable at the compromises he will soon be making, but anybody coming away from the film doubting his integrity would be missing the point and purpose of Peckinpah’s value system. As we watch contrasting scenes of Billy and Pat, we see Billy relaxed and playful, a man at home in the world and in his physique. Garrett isnt quite at home even in his house. We see him there only once in the 2005 cut of the film, initially dithering by the gate before entering the hacienda and hardly able to greet his wife. The scene comes just before we’ve seen him at Governor Wallace’s place, as he says he has to go. His black clothing and hat worn throughout the film seem less the attire of the baddie than one who has accepted within him a realisation that he is far from saintly. The clothing doesn’t reflect the external symbolic demands of the classic western, but the internal conflicts of the complex character. Here is a man who can hunt Billy down, but is wary of collecting the reward that comes out of it, and who thinks nothing of defending Billy’s honour at the same time that he knows he might have to kill him.

What we are suggesting is that the classic western was about the making of America, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, like The Wild BunchHeaven’s Gate and Little Big Man, like many a revisionist western, the difficulty of friendship. This wasn’t an irrelevant question in the older films, but it becomes a paradoxical and mournful one in the modern western. In Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, William Holden and Robert Ryan’s characters are old friends, part of the same gang. But now Ryan has to hound his old friend down. In Little Big Man, there is a moment when Dustin Hoffman gets caught in a horrible bind. Hoffman is a white man adopted by Indians who spends much of his life see-sawing between the two sides. In one scene he is fighting an Indian friend who doesn’t recognise him and a white man he doesn’t like saves his skin. “There’s no describing how I felt”, he says. “A man I hated had saved my life by the violent murder of one of my best friends.” In Heaven’s Gate the film shows the divisions created amongst Harvard graduates during the Johnson County Wars. The making of America is the undoing of friendship. If Derrida can say at one moment that “the supplementary proof of the ease with which the Greeks achieve reconciliation and pardon among themselves, the sign showing that stasis does not in any way originate in hatred but in misfortune…is us”, we can see that in these westerns they are more interested in amity over enmity, but they are above all fascinated by the collision of the two. The unequivocal villains in ShaneThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Stagecoach, for example, are not friends whom society has turned into enemies, and so no negative comment about the societal needs to be extracted from the material. The seventies westerns want to create a breach between the companionable and the societal, between friendship and the state, all the better to understand what sits inside friendship, and what demands are placed upon the individual by the nation.

There is a scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid where Garrett searches out an old member of the gang. This friend Baker (Slim Pickens) says that he would prefer to be outside the law than doing Chisum’s bidding: namely killing some of their old mates. Garrett says that there is a certain moment in a man’s life when you no longer want to figure out what you should do next. He says it taking a sip from his whisky flask; the language countered by the gesture. Here we see Garrett in the foreground on the right hand side of the frame in the shade; Baker on the left a few feet behind him in the light. In the next shot we hear off screen Baker saying it has reached the point where he won’t do anything for anyone unless there is some gold in it. The film doesn’t cut immediately to Baker talking; the camera moves in on Garrett as Garrett steps forward, a man who suddenly thinks he can buy another man’s soul as his own has been semi-compromised. Afterwards, inside his house after talking to his wife, Baker still agrees to help, but tosses the gold coin back at Garrett. In the following scene, after trying to capture some of Billy’s old gang, Baker gets shot, and Peckinpah offers the scene less as an action set piece than a melancholic acknowledgement of real feeling caught in a phoney event. There they are a group of friends shooting at each other so that America can become more civilized, and what happens is that Garrett loses a friend and Baker’s wife loses her husband. At the end of the scene we cut from the wife back to Baker, and then again to the wife. The film cuts to a long shot from behind the roof of the house, to Garrett looking at who knows what. Is he looking on at the couple, one dying, the other beginning to grieve, or looking out at nothing in particular while looking inward at his own ethically dying self? A few shots earlier, after Baker has been shot, the film shows his wife framed by the doorway, the interior dark. It is a shot made famous by The Searchers, and especially the moment at the end of Ford’s film with Wayne aware he has no place in the family home. Here it is a momentary image suggesting that Baker and his wife have been removed by circumstances from theirs.

O my friends there is no friend”, indeed, but we can insist on the refrain not as a cynical acceptance that friendship is suspect; more that certain circumstances make its possibility untenable, difficult, compromised. In The Politics of Friendship, Derrida quotes Nietzsche: “If we greatly transform ourselves, those friends of ours who have not been transformed become ghosts of our past; their voice comes across to us like the voice of a shade…as though we were hearing ourself, only younger, more severe, less mature.” Is this how Pat sees Billy? He might wish to do so, but while Billy may be named the Kid that doesn’t make him the more immature. It is one of the lies the comfortable will often tell themselves, about friends less inclined to swallow the compromises: that they won’t grow up. But what happens if getting on means selling out; if making money means losing friends? This is exactly Garrett’s bind in hyperbolic form, with Peckinpah utilising the western as a genre that can perfectly encapsulate the problem of societal change and the consequent compromised self. The film’s early sequence where Pat and Billy exchange a few words in the bar, when Pat says he is asking him to leave but in a few days time will be making him, sums up a friendship that is still in place, but that is getting prised apart by the societal shift. If the Native American Indian has little place in Peckinpah’s work next to his presence in for example Ford’s or Aldrich’s, it doesn’t only lie in the prevalence of Mexicans as the Indigenous other, it also rests in the problem of amity over enmity, or rather the enmity in amity.

Peckinpah isn’t interested in how the West was won, but in how friendships were lost. It is the problem of ambition meeting loyalty, of an America that sacrifices the loyal to the aspiring. It is as though Peckinpah took the problems of the time (the sixties and seventies disillusionment with America evident in the key assassinations of the sixties, the Vietnam war, Kent State and then Watergate) and his own difficult relationship with Hollywood (where the studios would take the films out of his hands and recut them), and found metaphors for them in the old West. In a Playboy Interview with William Murray in 1972, Peckinpah, talking of film producers, said: “the woods are full of killers, all sizes, all colors…a director has to deal with a whole world of mediocrities, jackals, hangers on, and just plain killers. The attrition is terrific. It can kill you.” Yet producers aren’t supposed to be one’s enemies; they are on the same team. It is another example of amity and enmity; the problem of conflict with one’s own side interests him far more than that between categorical opponents. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, this conflict extends to the country and how it is changing. The argument between friends is a dispute over where the country is heading. Indeed the dispute is so centrally about the direction in which the country is moving that the friendship would surely have remained steadfast in other circumstances. This is not like the betrayal evident in The Long Goodbye; this is more where the country betrays its people: forces them into making decisions against their well-being. Nietzsche’s remark about transformation rests on internal change, with one friend no longer in sync with the other one because of different levels of development. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid isn’t interested in the friendship dying because Billy becomes a ghost of Pat’s past: Billy is more likely the haunting of Pat’s compromised present.

Let us stretch a point and say this is especially evident in the form. Peckinpah constantly cuts between scenes of the two friends, in separate spaces but probably on each other’s minds: with Billy especially on Pat’s. Just after the sequence where Baker dies, we cut to Billy and his gang mucking around chasing a hen. The banjo music strikes up: the tone is as jovial as the music at the end of the previous sequence was mournful. Billy is a man free in the world, chasing chickens rather than destroying his own past. While Garrett tries to buy Baker’s soul and ends up getting his friend killed, Billy is shown to be an open spirit whose sense of fun is matched by his sense of honour. Just after mucking around with the hens, Billy is by the river and above the banks Chisum’s gang harasses and kills one of Billy’s mates. Billy starts taking out the gang. The tonal shift between the comic and the tragic is nevertheless consistent with Billy’s personality, someone who knows who he is and what he wants: to remain a free man. Whether chasing chickens or shooting ranchers, Billy is all of a piece. In the following sequence we are back with Pat, sitting round the fire with Poe, a figure whose company he would care little to share if circumstances hadn’t forced them together. As the light plays off their faces, this is no meeting of minds; it is the opposite of a firm friendship. It is yet another scene where Pat shows that he would rather be somewhere else. One reason he perhaps can’t remember Poe, when Poe says they met at Governor Wallace’s place, is because he wasn’t concerned with his immediate environment; more what was on his conscience. The film’s cross-cutting perspective points up Billy’s freedom and Pat’s constraint, and this is partly why the film’s opening sequence is so important.

Here the film cross-cuts from Pat Garrett in 1909 a bitter old man telling people what to do, to 1881 with Billy and his crew shooting at chickens. Peckinpah cross cuts between the hens having their heads blown off in shooting practice, and Pat getting blown away after someone says that he got good money for killing the Kid. Whatever our personal opinion about the animals that were surely harmed in the making of this picture, the film makes clear that Billy is a man having fun who will be dead by the end of the film; Pat a man incapable of it who dies at the film’s beginning, albeit twenty eight years later in time.

There is little doubt that the man we see in 1909 isn’t a figure we would be inclined to have much sympathy for; where Pat in 1881 is someone whose conflicts we comprehend: we feel he is making the wrong decision, but is doing it out of false consciousness rather than denial. In 1881 Garrett accepts that times are changing and feels he needs to go with the shift; he isn’t happy about it, but knows there is a choice and hopes he is making the right one. Though we only have a minute of Garrett in 1909, we get a clear sense of a man who isn’t likely to be confronting his demons any more; he is more inclined to take them out on those around him. We can sympathise with Garrett in 1881 as someone who feels that the times they are a changin’, and the Bob Dylan soundtrack contains an ironic underpinning in the film: Dylan, the sixties songwriter calling for societal change, here acknowledges on a seventies soundtrack the changes that took place almost a century earlier and for the worse. Garrett isn’t one of the villains determined to change society; he is one of the compromisers feeling he ought to stay ahead of the times. But throughout the film he remains a man of honour caught in a compromise; many years later, at the film’s beginning, he is a sour old man who seems incapable of facing himself. We don’t know for sure if he accepted the money offered to him for killing the Kid, but this is the legend that has built up around him; the myth that is perhaps believed because he himself acts as if that is exactly what happened. Does he deny his own false consciousness: his own belief that he needed to adjust to the times, and after the Kid’s death just accepted it as a cynical necessity? Of course we are not privy to such information as the film creates a twenty eight year aporia. The brief glimpse we have of Garrett as an old man, however, is of someone who suffers no fools because he can’t admit he may have been one himself: used by the authorities in return for a little piece of paradise that looks like it has left him living an internal hell.

Yet of course, as we have said, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is a great film of honour. We see Pat as a sold-out soul for only the briefest of moments before his death; for most of the film we have watched him as a man in conflict with himself, which of course is centrally a conflict with Billy. If Billy had changed with the times, as Pat has decided to do, then Pat would neither have to kill his friend nor have brawled internally with his conscience: the change from one way of living to another could have seemed quite natural – a social equivalent of a technological upgrade: we change our value systems as we change our laptops or mobile phones. Those who still insist on using a Compaq monitor, or an old Nokia, are eccentric, but such users don’t ask us to question our values, perhaps only slightly our priorities. But if someone were to show how blind we allow ourselves to be under constant surveillance through using a Cloud-based laptop or a Smart phone, we would have to confront ourselves on a more fundamental level. Our notion of moving with the times contains within it more than a kernel of captivity: we have lost certain freedoms as we have gained technological mastery. But the technology in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is closer to what Michel Foucault would call a technology of self (epimeleia heautou), closely affiliated with the Greek notion of techne: of know-how. Foucault extends this into a technology of being where one cares about oneself, knows oneself, looks after oneself. To change too quickly with the times we might be in danger of losing ourselves: to find oneself consistent with the times but not comfortable with our self. We have lost any sense of techne: of know-how, of knowing thyself.

This idea of knowing oneself in Peckinpah’s work is often manifest as self-loathing: Pat here, Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch, Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. They don’t much care for the assignment, but they are wise at least to the compromises involved. But in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, more than in any other Peckinpah film, this self-knowledge comes from knowledge of the other, from Pat knowing his friend, and knowing their values have parted company.

It might seem odd invoking a couple of post-war French philosophers to try and comprehend a little better a Sam Peckinpah western, but Derrida’s exploration of friendship coincides at certain moments with Foucault’s epimeleia heautou. Derrida says that in Aristotle we can find “three kinds of friendship, respectively founded, as we recall, on (1) virtue (this is primary friendship); (2) usefulness (for example, political friendship); and (3) pleasure.” (The Politics of Friendship) Foucault sees in the Epicureans the importance of parrhesia: “…opening the heart, the need for the two partners to conceal nothing of what they think from each other and to speak to each other frankly.” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject) What sort of friendship did Pat and Billy seem to have? It would of course have been criminal, but wouldn’t have been without virtue, evident when Pat warns Billy to leave the county: telling him in advance is surely the opposite of shooting someone in the back. It has been useful as they worked together for years, and also based on pleasure, offered when Billy talks of them having some times. They can also speak frankly to each other, and this frankness is reflected in Pat turning down the 500 dollars and getting irritable with Poe. The frank discussion they have early in the film might suggest they will have to become enemies, but the code must remain intact. Pat will give Billy the chance to leave; Billy will go if and when he pleases.

However, killing Billy is also a certain form of suicide: if one murders the person whose values are in many ways consistent with one’s own, are we destroying a fundamental aspect of one’s own personality? Peckinpah was never a director afraid of symbolism, and he practises it assertively near the film’s conclusion after Pat kills the Kid. Just after shooting Billy, Garrett sees his own reflection in the mirror, and shoots that too. The film cross-cuts between Billy lying dead and Pat looking at the bullet hole in the mirror and his now fractured face. Moments afterwards he starts hitting Poe. It is a complicated psychological manoeuvre, where he would obviously have preferred to murder Poe than Billy, and in hitting Poe seems almost to be beating himself up. He is in the process of turning into a legend (we hear in the background murmurs of getting this on historical record), but that figure he will become is the one we might recall from the beginning of the film: the grisly old fool telling other people what to do as if unable to control his own nervous system. If the imbibing as a settling of the nerves during the film is anything to go by, come his demise Pat would have been a hardened alcoholic: hard in mind, body and spirit.

One can claim Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Peckinpah’s greatest film (along with The Wild Bunch), because he saw in it an exploration of freedom and compromise, of what makes a self and what calls it into question. While Pauline Kael’s essay on the director is a little too free with biographical generalisation, the idea that Peckinpah wanted to melodramatise his own compromises isn’t without validity. Yet when she says “Peckinpah has been simplifying and falsifying his own terrors as an artist by putting them into melodramatic formulas” (When The Lights go Down), this seems an unfair appraisal of work like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Certainly the sense of melodrama, the sense of exaggeration, was in both his life and in his films: in the Playboy interview he says there “are people all over the place, dozens of them. I’d like to kill, quite literally kill.” The films, though, are not formulaic. Perhaps he would have wished to take out studio executives as Pat wishes to kill Poe; to take out the sort of person who takes for granted that compromises are made, friendship is functional and honour without much merit. But his films, like his life, show negotiated compromise, the difficulty of living and working with integrity. That scene early in the film at Wallace’s place doesn’t seem too far removed from what we can imagine a studio meeting looking like: head honchos and a few artists lower down the pecking order expected to do the bidding of the seniors. Many of them present might say with a too-easy smile “O my friends, there is no friend.” Peckinpah would offer it back with a grimace, and therein lies an enormous difference.

©Tony McKibbin